HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the state’s Republican governor to block a landmark climate ruling that said regulators must consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions when issuing permits for fossil fuel development.
The justices, in a 5-2 decision Tuesday, rejected a request by Gov. Greg Gianforte and three state agencies to block District Court Judge Kathy Seeley’s August ruling pending a state appeal to the high court. . Seeley ruled that a state law that prohibited agencies from considering the effect of emissions contradicts the state constitution’s requirement to “maintain and improve a clean and healthy environment.”
Seeley already rejected an earlier challenge from the state, saying he identified no flaws in his findings or any irreparable harm if the ruling were to take effect.
The majority justices said Seeley “did not act arbitrarily” in denying the state’s motion. Two judges said they would have granted the request to stay the ruling.
The state high court ruling means Montana officials must “immediately comply” with Seeley’s order pending the appeal, said Mark Bellinger, an attorney for Our Children’s Trust, which represented the 16 young plaintiffs who brought the case.
Director Chris Dorrington of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said in a statement Wednesday that he was disappointed by the court’s ruling, but declined to say whether the agency would look at the effects of greenhouse gas emissions when evaluating applications for permission. He argued that the agency should have been given more time to respond to Seeley’s ruling.
“We are committed to getting this right for Montana and avoiding additional costly litigation as we work to find a solution,” Dorrington said.
The agency is in the process of updating the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which has prohibited officials from analyzing greenhouse gas emissions since the law was reviewed by state lawmakers in 2023, in a move seen as beneficial. for a natural gas power plant being built by NorthWestern Energy. .
Seeley said in his ruling that it would be up to the Montana Legislature to determine how to bring the state’s policies into compliance, decreasing the chances of rapid changes in a pro-fossil fuel state where Republicans dominate the state House. However, the ruling sets a precedent for legal challenges.
The young plaintiffs in the climate case filed a brief in November in support of a case brought by two environmental groups that are challenging the utility’s plant along the banks of the Yellowstone River near Laurel. They argued that the plant’s air quality permit should be declared invalid or at least suspended until the state’s appeal of Seeley’s ruling is decided.
It’s unclear how long the appeal could take. The state’s initial brief is due by February 13, pending any extension that may be granted.
The young plaintiffs who challenged the state’s environmental policy testified that they were already feeling the consequences of climate change, with smoke from growing wildfires choking the air they breathe, along with declining snowpack and drought drying up the rivers they They support agriculture, fishing, wildlife and recreation.
Lawyers for the state argued that the volume of greenhouse gases released by Montana’s fossil fuel projects was insignificant compared to global emissions and that reducing them would have no effect on the climate.
Carbon dioxide, released when fossil fuels are burned, traps heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for warming the climate.
Earth broke a world record for heat in 2023, the European climate agency said earlier this month.
The Department of Environmental Quality has created a working group to discuss possible changes to how it uses the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which requires public participation in fossil fuel and mining development. Lawmakers’ amendment last year prohibits analyzes of greenhouse gas emissions unless the federal government decides to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The first meeting of the working group will be next Monday.