• Landmark US ruling tees up fresh wave of legal challenges to petroleum industry

Fuel for Thought

Landmark US ruling tees up fresh wave of legal challenges to petroleum industry

Aug 23 2023

In a historic decision that has sent shockwaves through the petrochemical industry, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favour of 16 young plaintiffs in the groundbreaking case Held v Montana. This monumental legal ruling signifies a clear stance against fossil fuel interests in Montana, with potential implications for the rest of the United States. 

Held v Montana began in March 2020, led by 16 young Montana residents who alleged that the state’s government’s pro-fossil fuel policies contributed to climate change. They argued that these policies violate provisions in the state constitution that guarantee a "clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." 

The lawsuit specifically targeted a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act that prevented the state from considering how its energy economy may contribute to climate change. This controversial aspect of the law, known as the "climate change exception," had become a significant flashpoint in environmental legislation. 

After weeks of testimony, Judge Seeley sided with the plaintiffs, declaring that the state had indeed violated its own constitution by failing to maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment. 

This ruling marks the first time that a judge has held a state accountable for environmental rights violations in the U.S., and it sets a precedent for similar lawsuits pending in other states. The national attention that the case received, coupled with the favourable verdict, indicates that it could act as a catalyst for more such litigation across the country. 

This ruling poses a direct threat to Big Oil and Coal, especially within Montana, where the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed a dominant position. The decision has the potential to reshape the way environmental reviews are conducted for new energy projects, making it more difficult for fossil fuel projects to proceed without taking into consideration the broader impact on climate change. 

Furthermore, the ruling will likely embolden environmental activists and set a legal precedent for future cases. The petrochemical industry could face increased scrutiny and legal challenges not only in Montana but also in other states where similar provisions exist. 

The potential for a wave of new litigation and the increased regulatory burden may lead to a decrease in investment in fossil fuel projects in the region. This may force the industry to reevaluate its strategies and possibly pivot towards more sustainable energy solutions. 

Environmental groups and youth climate activists have hailed the decision as a monumental victory. Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, stated, "The fossil fuel industry should be terrified because fights like this are going to pop up across the country as gen Z and a growing gen Alpha fight to protect their futures from climate disaster." 

The non-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust, which has brought similar cases in all 50 states, saw this as a pivotal win that could inspire other young people to take legal action against their states. 

The state of Montana, represented by assistant attorney general Michael Russell, had argued that climate change is a global issue, and that the state's emissions were not the sole contributors. The defence maintained that the plaintiffs should work to change policies through the legislature rather than the courts. 

Despite losing the case, the state could appeal the decision, drawing out the legal battle further. However, the ruling has already ignited a broader conversation about environmental rights and responsibilities, making it a subject that cannot be easily dismissed or ignored. 

The ruling in Held v Montana does not only impact the state but sets a precedent that could inspire similar lawsuits nationwide. It may also lead to a re-evaluation of environmental provisions and a push towards more stringent regulations that take climate change into account. 

The attention the case received, including support from climate scientists, ecologists, and environmental advocates, indicates a growing national awareness of climate issues. This could, in turn, lead to legislative changes and increased pressure on industries contributing to climate change. 

The decision in Held v Montana is more than just a legal victory for 16 young plaintiffs. It symbolizes a broader movement towards accountability and environmental stewardship. By ruling in favour of the plaintiffs, the court has sent a clear message to the petrochemical industry and other states that the right to a clean and healthy environment is not just rhetoric but a constitutional guarantee that must be upheld. 

This landmark ruling could become a turning point in the legal battle against climate change, motivating more young people to step up and hold their governments accountable. The implications for the petrochemical industry are profound, possibly heralding a new era of regulation and a shift away from fossil fuels. 

In the words of Nate Bellinger, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, this case demonstrates that "every ton matters" when it comes to planet-warming pollution. The Held v Montana trial may very well become a touchstone in the ongoing fight to protect the environment for present and future generations. 


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