Trial begins for historic constitutional climate change lawsuit in Montana

Posted at 6:07 PM, Jun 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-12 20:07:56-04

HELENA — Montana Judge Kathy Seeley heard opening statements Monday morning in a first-of-its-kind trial, Held v. State of Montana.

The case, filed against the state of Montana in 2020, alleges that the state has not upheld their constitutional obligation to a “clean and healthful environment” by investing in oil, gas, and coal development. The suit is backed by the environmental group, Our Children’s Trust, along with plaintiffs aged 5-22 years old.

“Restoring climate stability will take time, your honor, but every ton of CO2 we keep out of the air matters. Government decisions on fossil fuels informed by the harms caused by greenhouse gas emissions described and considered in the fossil fuel permit review process can result in constitutionally compliant decisions...” said an attorney for the plaintiffs in an opening statement.

In their opening statement, the state says that emissions from Montana are too small to make a difference and that the state is more of a spectator in the grand scheme of climate change than a contributor. The state has attempted repeatedly to have the case thrown out citing procedural issues.

Various witnesses brought forth included Mae Nan Ellingson, the youngest delegate at the 1972 Constitutional Convention; Rikki Held, the lead plaintiff of the case; and Steven Running, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist with extensive experience in climate science.

A recently passed revision to the Montana Environmental Policy Act, House Bill 971, bans state agencies from analyzing climate impacts, and could complicate the case.

Additionally, a 30-year-old energy policy was also recently repealed, causing Judge Seeley to dismiss parts of the case relating to said policy.

Judge Seeley has made it clear that if the plaintiffs do win the case, she will not order the state to make a change to any policy regarding climate. But a ruling in the plaintiff’s favor could have wider implications that could set legal precedent for future decisions to be challenged.