With one week remaining before a high-profile climate change trial kicks off in Helena, Attorney General Austin Knudsen is asking the Montana Supreme Court to step in and send the case back to the drawing board.
Knudsen, a Republican, filed the writ of supervisory control Monday morning, asking the high court to vacate the two-week trial, scheduled to begin June 12 in Lewis and Clark County District Court. Knudsen argues the lawsuit, filed in 2020 by 16 youth plaintiffs represented by Our Children’s Trust, challenges a state law that has since been rewritten enough to warrant a new case.
Two weeks ago, district court Judge Kathy Seeley tossed out one of the plaintiffs’ claims, which challenged the state’s energy policy. Because that statute was repealed by the Legislature in 2023, she concluded, there was no legal remedy available to that portion of the lawsuit.
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But Seeley is allowing the remaining portion of the case to move forward to trial. The lawsuit challenges the Montana Environmental Policy Act’s provision barring state agencies from considering the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change and its effects on Montana.
The Legislature also tinkered with that law during the session that wrapped up earlier this year. The Republican-dominated body didn’t repeal it, but instead rewrote portions of it to more explicitly forbid the state from evaluating “greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond its borders.” Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, signed those changes into law on May 10.
Knudsen, who is named alongside the state, governor and several agencies in the lawsuit, has maintained that’s enough to get the lawsuit tossed out.
“There is nothing left to try, and this court should step in to prevent a massive expenditure of wasted time and resources by all concerned,” the writ states.
In her May 23 order, Seeley wrote that if the plaintiffs succeed at trial, she could potentially find the language barring the state from considering the impacts of climate-disrupting emissions unconstitutional. But Knudsen wrote that the state would still have no authority to regulate those emissions. That authority exists elsewhere, he argues.
“If the district court’s intent is to force Montana to regulate (greenhouse gases), that would require amending the Clean Air Act or one of the other permitting statutes,” he wrote.
If it goes forward as scheduled next week, the trial will give the plaintiffs a chance to show whether the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of “the right to a clean and healthful environment” requires the state to consider the effects of climate change on its residents. They argue that the state government’s support for the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is at odds with that constitutional guarantee.