Landmark ruling: fossil fuel projects violate right to ‘healthful environment’
In a case that has sent shockwaves through both America's legal community as well as the global oil and gas sector, US District Court Judge Kathy Seeley has ruled that Montana's continued rollout of fossil fuel projects amounts to a violation of citizens' rights to a 'clean and healthful environment'.
Referring to a stipulation in the state's constitution, the court decided that, under current legislation, young people have a right to a healthful environment and the state has a duty to consider these elements when approving fossil fuel projects or renewing licenses.
The legal outcome is the result of the Held v Montana landmark case that was brought by a group of youngsters which had urged the court to force the state to take climate change considerations and related health concerns into account when assessing fossil fuel applications.
Julia Olson, founder of Our Children’s Trust, a legal non-profit organisation that brought the case on behalf of the young people, said after the verdict: "As fires rage in the West, fuelled by fossil fuel pollution, this ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos."
“This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate. More rulings like this will certainly come.”
The immediate effect of the verdict means that Montana should start considering climate concerns when processing applications for new or the renewal of fossil fuel projects.
Montana is a major gas and coal producer: it obtains roughly a third of its energy by burning coal.
Despite the landmark ruling, the case will go to the state's Supreme Court, as the Montana attorney general’s office confirmed shortly after the verdict the state would appeal.
Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, Austin Knudsen, called the decision "absurd."
She said: “This ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiffs’ attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial. Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate.”
Wave of climate litigation
The Montana ruling is the latest verdict in a wave of climate cases as there is a stark rise of not just government bodies but also corporates being called out for climate-washing, as reported by Net Zero Investor recently.
The US finds itself in the spotlight with 20 cases filed by cities and states across the country which are now likely to go to trial, and the region is facing a new trend – so-called ‘ESG backlash litigation’ – whereby those attempting to show green credentials are being targeted to prove why going green is good for finance and business.
Drawing primarily on the Climate Change Litigation databases maintained by the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, between May 2022 and May of this year, 2,341 cases have been captured in the Sabin Center’s climate change litigation databases, 190 of which were filed in the last 12 months.
The growth rate in cases appears to be slowing but diversity in cases is still expanding, and the number of jurisdictions that see such cases expanding.
Climate change litigation has now been additionally identified in Bulgaria, China, Finland, Romania, Russia, Thailand and Turkey.
Meanwhile, climate cases continue to have significant indirect impacts on climate change decision-making beyond the courtroom, too.
Most cases are being filed against corporate actors, with a more complex range of legal arguments. Around 20 cases filed by US cities and states against the carbon majors, are now likely to go to trial.
There has been growth in ‘climate-washing’ cases challenging the accuracy of green claims and commitments. Some cases seeking financial damages are also challenging disinformation, with many relying on consumer protection law.
Challenges to the climate policy response of governments and companies have grown significantly in number outside the US with more than 50% of climate cases having direct judicial outcomes that can be understood as favourable to climate action.