Court Hears Expert Testimony About How Montana ‘Doubled Down on Fossil Fuels’ and Became ‘Outright Hostile’ to the Environment

Lambert here: This continues DeSmog’s coverage of Held vs. Montana, where Montana youth charge that the state’s strong preference for fossil fuel development has violated their right, guaranteed under Montana’s constitution, to a clean and healthful environment. I think the youth will lose, but good for them: They are in there punching!

By Dana Drugmand, an environmental journalist focusing on climate change and climate accountability reporting. She writes regularly for DeSmog covering topics such as fossil fuel industry opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and false climate solutions, and clean transportation. Originally published at DeSmog.

Montana “has recognized climate change as a growing concern for decades,” Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center, testified to a Montana court on Thursday. Despite this, the state has never denied a permit for any fossil fuel-related project, she said.

“Montana is not walking, it is running, in the wrong direction to address the climate crisis,” Hedges concluded.

Her testimony was part of a landmark youth-led constitutional climate trial currently underway in the state capital of Helena. The case, brought by 16 young Montanans against their state government, contends that Montana is exacerbating dangerous climate change through persistent promotion and permitting of fossil fuels, while simultaneously ignoring the climate impacts of these activities. This conduct runs afoul of Montana’s constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, plaintiffs say.

Montana’s constitution enshrines the right to a clean and healthful environment. Credit: Dana Drugmand.

This right has existed for more than 50 years. The state adopted a new constitution in 1972 that prioritized environmental protection for present and future generations and guaranteed a clean and healthful environment as an inalienable right. It also explicitly made it the duty of the legislature to enforce this right and to support the “protection of the environmental life support system from degradation.”

But while the climate crisis has deepened and climate scientists warn that governments must urgently move away from fossil fuels, the Montana legislature has been “outright hostile” to the clean energy transition, Hedges said.

In just the past few months, the state’s Republican supermajority swiftly passed a number of bills enabling more fossil fuel development, such as ones that prohibit local governments from taking actions that restrict fossil fuel use or production. The legislature also passed a bill explicitly banning state agencies from even considering climate change and greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews of development projects.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed that bill, HB 971, into law in May. It amends the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) to state that an environmental review “may not include an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state’s borders.” Under the previous version of the statute as amended in 2011, the state was barred from considering impacts beyond state borders in environmental reviews. This was implicitly understood to mean that climate change was not allowed to be factored into permitting decisions.

Hedges explained how the 2011 MEPA bill marked a turning point for the state’s treatment of climate impacts in the permitting process. Prior to 2011 the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) did evaluate and disclose the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from fossil fuel projects, though the agency did not deny any permits for these projects. But the disclosure offered the public transparent information and opportunity to comment on climate change concerns. Hedges said some projects ultimately were scrapped due in part to public opposition.

This triggered a backlash from the fossil fuel industry, she added, and in the 2011 legislature “the state doubled down on fossil fuels.” It passed the MEPA “climate change exception” bill, which she said the industry “lined up to support.”

Since then, the state continued permitting fossil fuel projects but refused to evaluate any of their climate change impacts. “I have never seen DEQ since 2011 do an analysis under MEPA that includes consideration of climate change,” Hedges testified.

The state has issued permits for a multitude of fossil fuel projects over the past 12 years, particularly for coal mine expansion. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel, and while many countries have pledged in recent years to move away from it because of its climate impact, Montana has done the opposite. In 2015, 2019, and 2020 the DEQ permitted projects expanding the Rosebud coal mine, which services the Colstrip coal plant. In 2016, the agency approved the Bull Mountain mine expansion for an additional 176 million tons of coal. DEQ also issued a permit renewal for the Bull Mountain mine just last month. And in 2020, DEQ permitted an expansion of the Spring Creek mine.

Montana has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the United States, accounting for about one-third of the total untapped coal in the country. The state still generates a considerable share of its electricity from coal — it accounted for 42 percent of in-state generation in 2022.

Montana has continued to permit coal projects despite coal’s substantial contribution to CO2 emissions. Credit: Dana Drugmand.

Most recently, Montana regulators approved a fossil gas power plant called the Yellowstone County Generating Station. Montana Environmental Information Center challenged that air permit approval and a judge ruled in April to invalidate the permit based on inadequate consideration of impacts, including climate pollution, under MEPA. That ruling prompted the Republican-controlled legislature to pass the new MEPA law, HB 971, banning climate considerations explicitly. It also passed a bill barring legal challenges based on climate impacts under MEPA from stopping or delaying any permit or authorization.

This clear pattern of defending and enabling fossil fuel activities despite the increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists is why the youth plaintiffs are putting their state government on trial. Their legal claim specifically challenges the state’s policy of prohibiting climate change considerations under MEPA, first established in 2011 and then further clarified with the passage of HB 971 last month.

State senator Mary Ann Dunwell, a Democrat from District 42, which covers eastern Helena, told DeSmog it is clear that a law banning climate change consideration is a violation of Montana’s constitutional guarantee of a clean and healthful environment.

“We’re given legal review notes if our bills are constitutionally non-conforming. So they knew, the Republican majority knew, going into it that this was unconstitutional,” she said.

“Under the Montana constitution, legislators have a job to do, a responsibility. Article 9, Section 1 says we need to work towards a clean and healthful environment,” she added. “Some of my colleagues are breaking that oath that we take. At the beginning of session, we vow to uphold the Montana constitution, and they broke that vow. That’s not ok.”

The youth plaintiffs, who testified to their own lived experiences of climate impacts, like heavy smoke pollution from worsening wildfires, said they feel their government is betraying its constitutional obligation.

“I think the state is showing a blatant disregard for Montanans’ right to a clean and healthful environment,” 20-year-old Taleah Hernández told the court.

“It’s not only written in our constitution… it’s also just about being a decent person,” said fellow plaintiff Sariel Sandoval.

Kian Tanner, an 18-year-old plaintiff, described the physical sensation he feels knowing the state is ignoring climate change in environmental reviews of fossil fuel projects.

“It’s a feeling, a pain, that starts in my back by my shoulder blades and creeps down to the small of my back. It tightens in my core and it makes me feel sick, it makes me feel horrified.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. danf51

    When “green” groups can prove to me without a doubt that they understand that more energy = more prosperity, and that prosperity is an important goal, then I might be willing to take their alarmism more seriously.

    By all means lets find ways to produce energy more cleanly and with less impact on the environment. But what that really means to the green gnostics is less energy and higher prices for everyone and a part that is not said out loud: removal of 1/3 of the planets population.

    1. some guy

      Sometimes more energy = more prosperity and sometimes more energy just equals more wasted energy.

      What is “prosperity”? What defines it?

      Is there a just-right level of prosperity? Is always-more of it always better? If someone’s lovely suburban house in the woods burns down in a new-style global warming superfire, was someone really prosperous?

      Do you have any specific linkable-to evidence that the green gnostics want a third of the planets (sic) population removed? Or is that just some made-up shit on your part, in defiance of one of this site’s rules?

      1. some guy

        Superior Green Culture Americans who want to create a Superior Green Culture to protect themselves against the Inferior Coaly Roller Culture for now and eventually be able to carry the battle to the heart of the Coaly Roller Culture Enemy should really study just how the Italians are able to achieve that result on that energy expenditure. And then try to apply an American version of that within areas where the Superior Green Culture can achieve overwhelming power and control over its own jurisdictions.

        Hopefully without any hostility on the part of the members of the Superior Green Culture. ” This ain’t personal, its business.”

  2. Mikel

    I don’t doubt the people of Montana would be open to hearing all the plans that are being made for all the potentially displaced people who currently tie their survival to fossil fuel production.

    How much of these budgets is ever discussed going to that?

    1. some guy

      A National Green Survival Party would think about that and find out what the potentially displaced fossil fuel production workers of Montana would want in exchange if their fossil fuel production jobs were to be eliminated by policy.

      A serious party would work with them on that because they will not accept an economic death sentence quietly. And they won’t have to ( go quietly), what with all the explosives and stuff they have access to and know how to use.

        1. some guy

          Fossil fuel workers who want to save their survival today at the expense of the kids survival tomorrow are being hostile to the kids. The kids who want to save their survival tomorrow at the expense of the fossil fuel workers’ survival today are being hostile to the fossil fuel workers.

          Who will square this circle of hostility? And how?

          I hope the kids win their lawsuit. That will force the facing of that issue.

          The creative way out of the circle of hostility would be for future-survival-minded people to use government and its taxing-and-spending powers to offer the fossil fuel workers no-fossil jobs at fossil fuel wages and benefits and with fossil fuel level retirement funds. If the problem for the fossil fuel workers really is immediate survival concerns if their jobs are executed, then a job-for-job plan at equal pay would address that concern. If the problem for fossil fuel workers is really a self-image and identity problem ( “we produce fuel and that’s the only thing we will ever agree to do”) , then there is no non-hostile way of solving that.

          And if that is what the problem turns out to be, then the kids ( now and as they age_ will just have to be “hostile” against the fossil fuel workers’ survival today in order to win their own
          survival tomorrow. Nothing personal, just business.

          So I hope the fossil fuel workers would accept ” green jobs at coal wages and benefits” if such were truthfully offered and created. It would be the non-hostile way out, up and ahead.

    1. some guy

      There came a point in my life when I realized that if I was a piece of glass in some bad person’s shoe, that was just exactly the best place for me to be.

      I see that you use ” air quotes” around the word ” youths” in your comment. I assume that you mean to imply,while trying to get away with not being overtly quotable as overtly saying so, that the youths who are bringing the case are not really young? Because if that is what you are trying to get away with implying, and you don’t have actual factual courtroom quality proof that they are not actually young, then you are “making shit up”, which we have been told from time to time is against the house rules we all agree to obey when we come here.

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