Experts in Youth Climate Trial Say Montana’s Legislative and Executive Branches Favor Fossil Fuel Industry

The state is ‘running in the wrong direction to address the climate crisis,’ according to one witness for the plaintiffs

By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press
Anne Hedges, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs at MEIC provides testimony (Photo by Robin Loznak)

HELENA – Experts in energy policy and greenhouse gas measurement described a permissive regulatory framework in Montana that contributes more than 100 tons of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere annually in the fourth day of a climate trial brought by 16 young Montanans.

Montana Environmental Information Center co-director Anne Hedges said Montana’s legislative and executive branches are “running in the wrong direction to address the climate crisis” in the expert testimony she provided for the plaintiffs. Hedges said the only way the youth plaintiffs’ constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment ” will be upheld is if the judicial branch intervenes to implement it.

The Held v. Montana trial before Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley has been described as historic. Through this lawsuit, the plaintiffs seek to hold the Montana government accountable for its energy-permitting policies. The 16 plaintiffs, who are between 5 and 22 years old, are arguing that their right to a “clean and healthful environment” has been violated. They are seeking a transition to a less carbon-intensive energy permitting framework by state agencies such as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Hedges pulled from her 30-year tenure reviewing, commenting upon and suing over proposed and permitted fossil fuel projects to provide insight on the state’s energy priorities and how they’ve evolved over the years.

Citing a 1968 environmental conference where the issue of increasing carbon dioxide emissions “could spell disaster” by increasing CO2 levels 50% in a 32-year period, Hedges said the state has known about the risks presented by greenhouse gas emissions for decades. She said although there have been promising developments in the past quarter-century, including former Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s 2000 appeal to the DEQ to create a plan to combat climate change and the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment conducted under former Gov. Steve Bullock’s tenure, the state Legislature has demonstrated hostility toward the clean energy transition and a willingness to do the fossil fuel industry’s bidding.

Asked if the state has ever denied a permit for a fossil fuel permit, Hedges replied “not to my knowledge.” She also noted that MEIC has asked DEQ to consider climate impacts in its Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) analyses of power plants and coal mine expansions on multiple occasions. In several such cases, DEQ replied that it could not because such impacts were “regional, national or global in nature” — a reference to an amendment the Legislature made to MEPA in 2011 with greenhouse gas emissions in mind.

Hedges also discussed the 2023 Legislature’s repeal of the Montana Energy Policy, a 30-year old provision that was struck from statute this spring. The repeal of that policy resulted in the significant narrowing of the scope of the Held v. Montana trial per a May 23 order from Seeley. Hedges said she has not seen an appreciable shift in the state’s approach to energy permitting in the wake of the policy repeal.

During a short period of cross-examination, an attorney for the state asked if MEIC had ever asked the DEQ to initiate a rulemaking process for greenhouse gas emissions. Hedges replied that MEIC’s unsuccessful attempt to establish mercury pollution limits through such a process dissuaded them from lobbying a similar effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

Peter Erickson testifies during the Held v. Montana trial in Helena on June 15, 2023. | Amanda Eggert

Seeley also heard testimony from Peter Erickson, a mathematically trained researcher with the Stockholm Environment Institute. Erickson was asked to calculate the state’s annual carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the extraction, transportation and combustion of fossil fuels. 

The resulting figures are the sixth-highest, per capita, in the nation and exceed the emissions of more than 100 countries, Erickson said, adding that the state’s remaining supply of coal, oil and gas is substantial.

“Montana is only — quite literally — scratching the surface of the fossil fuels that … are still underground,” he said. Those reserves include the largest recoverable coal deposits in the United States, Erickson said, and 10 times more oil underground than what’s currently being pulled from the state’s approximately 4,000 oil wells.

According to Erickson, Montana’s 2019 emissions stemming from the extraction, transportation and combustion of fossil fuels comes out to 166 million tons. It’s roughly equivalent to the emissions of Argentina, which has 47 million people, and Pakistan with its population of 248 million people, Erickson said. Montana’s population is just north of 1.1 million.

“You can see, on a global scale, how emissions-intensive Montana’s economy is,” he said. 

Asked to respond to the state’s assertion that Montana’s emissions are globally “minuscule,” Erickson said such assertions are “troubling.”

“Everybody has a responsibility to reduce emissions,” he said. “[That characterization] misrepresents the importance of Montana’s substantial carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gas emissions, and the cooperative nature of the effort to limit global warming.”

Seeley also heard from two of the plaintiffs during the June 15 trial proceedings:17-year-old Kian Tanner, of Bigfork, and 20-year-old Claire Vlases, of Bozeman. 

Kian Tanner of Bigfork pictured on the shores of Flathead Lake at Wayfarers State Park on May 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Tanner described his connection to the Montana landscape through activities such as fly-fishing and skiing, and his love of his family’s 27-acre property near western Montana’s Swan Range. To a ripple of laughter, Tanner said fly-fishing is “along with arguing, my biggest connection to my dad” and “100% familial heritage.”

Tanner read from a piece he wrote for Hatch magazine when he was 13 years old titled, “Are there any adults in the room?” to inspire a greater sense of urgency among adults. He feels angry and disappointed by older generations’ lack of climate action, he said.

“It makes me feel sick, it makes me feel horrified that we aren’t doing what we can,” he said.

Vlases, a college student studying computer science and ethics, said between longer, smokier wildfire seasons and diminishing snowpacks, climate change has generated unwelcome physical, emotional and economic consequences.

Vlases has a history of engaging with environmental causes: when she was in seventh grade, she raised $125,000 to install solar panels on her middle school’s roof. Vlases said she’s dedicated to effecting change but feels that rather than supporting her in a transition to clean energy, her government is working against her.

Vlases’ parents were once told she would be lucky to walk, she said, but she’s become an avid runner who earns money in the winter by ski instructing at Big Sky Resort — an increasingly uncertain financial prospect, she said, as winter snowfall becomes less reliable. That’s one impact of climate change that was explored in the testimony earlier this week of renowned climate scientist Cathy Whitlock, who also described decreasing summer streamflows in her analyses of precipitation and temperature trends.

Vlases referenced the disability that she’s worked to heal through outdoor pursuits like skiing, biking, running and skiing in her testimony, choking up as she described the frustration she feels at the prospect of being unable to continue doing those activities as snowpacks shrink and increasing levels of wildfire smoke lead to unhealthy air quality.

Vlases said that while she doesn’t often resent the physical challenges she’s encountered, she does struggle to come to terms with the state’s promotion of policies that jeopardize the activities she does to maintain her physical strength. 

“[It’s] like a knife stuck in my gut and twisted,” she said. 

Plaintiff Clare Vlases testifies during the Held v. Montana trial in Helena on June 15, 2023. | Amanda Eggert.

Asked to contemplate what a ruling in favor of her and her 15 co-plaintiffs would mean, Vlases said it would be an affirmation that “the Constitution was applied to the facts and our legal system works the way it’s supposed to.”

Friday is the final day for the plaintiffs to lay out their case to Seeley before the state will have an opportunity to foreground its arguments in the lawsuit. Based on their opening arguments and briefs, Montana’s attorneys are expected to argue that the plaintiffs have no legal foundation to steer the state toward a different regulatory framework and that its emissions are negligible when considered on a global scale. 

Seeley is expected to hear testimony on Friday from Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist and expert on climate change’s physical and mental health on youth; Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University; and youth plaintiffs Lander Busse and Olivia Vesovich.