Sixteen youth plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of two provisions of the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA):
- Mont. Code Ann. § 75-1-201(2)(a), which forbids the State and its agents from considering ‘greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state’s borders’ in environmental reviews.
- Mont. Code Ann. § 75-1-201(6)(a)(ii), which limits legal challenges to MEPA environmental reviews, stating that ‘a challenge to an agency’s decision that an environmental review is not required or a claim that the environmental review was inadequate based in whole or in part upon greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to the climate’ cannot affect permits unless the review is required by a federal agency or carbon dioxide becomes a regulated pollutant.
The plaintiffs also challenged the constitutionality of the State’s actions in implementing and perpetuating a fossil-fuel based energy system pursuant to the provision.
The plaintiffs claimed that the statutory provisions and State actions contravened several Articles of the Constitution of Montana, in particular:
- Article IX, Section 1, which states that ‘[t]he state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.’
- Article II, Section 3, which includes the right to a clean and healthful environment as an unalienable right.
- Article II, Section 15, which ensures that Montana’s youth have the same fundamental rights as adults.
Judgment was found in favor of the plaintiffs. The MEPA Limitation and its removal of equitable relief were declared unconstitutional and permanently enjoined. In addition, injunctive relief was granted, ‘prohibiting Defendants from acting in accordance with the statutes declared unconstitutional.’
Had the plaintiffs proved a cognizable injury?
Although the plaintiffs’ mental health issues resulting from state action were not on their own enough to establish cognizable injury, their mental health injuries ‘from the effects of climate change on Montana’s environment’ were cognizable injuries.
The plaintiffs had proven that, as youth, ‘they are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel production and climate impacts’; that they ‘have suffered injuries that are concrete particularized, and distinguishable from the public generally’; and that they ‘suffer and will continue to suffer injuries due to the State’s statutorily mandated disregard of climate change and the GHG emissions in the MEPA Limitation’.
Had the plaintiffs established a link between the effects of climate change and the statutes/State acts under consideration?
The Court held that ‘[t]here is a fairly traceable connection between the MEPA Limitation and the State’s allowance of resulting fossil fuel GHG emissions, which contribute to and exacerbate Plaintiffs’ injuries’. This was because there is ‘a fairly traceable connection between the State’s disregard of GHG emissions and climate change, pursuant to the MEPA Limitations’ on the one hand, and ‘GHG emissions over which the state has control, climate change impacts, and Plaintiffs’ proven injuries’ on the other.
Had the plaintiffs proved that their injuries could be redressed by the decision of the court?
The court held that ‘[a] reduction in Montana’s GHG emissions that results from a declaration that Montana’s MEPA Limitation is unconstitutional would provide partial redress of Plaintiffs’ injuries because the amount of additional GHG emissions emitted into the climate system today and in the coming decade will impact the long-term severity of the heating and the severity of Plaintiffs’ injuries.’
Were the Montana MEPA provisions unconstitutional?
The court held that ‘Montana’s constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment prohibits environmental degradation and unreasonable depletion that causes ill health or physical endangerment and unreasonable depletion or degradation of Montana’[sic] natural resources for this and future generations’. The right also ‘allows plaintiffs to obtain equitable relief before harm occurs.’ In this way, ‘[b]y prohibiting consideration of climate change, GHG emissions, and how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana Constitution, the MEPA Limitation violates Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is facially unconstitutional.’
The court also held that the MEPA Limitation does not pass strict scrutiny, to which it is subject as a statute implicating fundamental rights (here the right to a clean and healthful environment). A statute ‘can only survive scrutiny is the State establishes a compelling state interest and that the action is narrowly tailored to effectuate that interest.’ Here, the State ‘failed to show that the MEPA Limitation serves a compelling governmental interest’ as the Defendants were capable of evaluating emissions and climate impacts, and ‘[u]ndisputed testimony established that clean renewable energy is technically feasible and economically beneficial in Montana.’ Moreover, ‘[e]ven if the State had established a compelling interest for the statute, the MEPA Limitation is not narrowly tailored to serve any interest.’