Fossil fuels v our future: young Montanans wage historic climate fight

When Grace Gibson-Snyder was 13, she launched an independent project in her home town of Missoula, Montana, to encourage restaurants not to use single-use plastic containers. She found that youth activism enabled her to press the adults in her life to take the climate crisis seriously. Even if she was too young to vote, she could still be heard.

Three years later Gibson-Snyder upped the ante by teaming up with 15 other young people on a novel approach to climate activism: to sue the state of Montana for failing to protect their generation from irreversible harm brought by the climate crisis.

Their case, Held v State of Montana, argues that state lawmakers have prioritized the business interests of the fossil fuel industry over their future. When their case is heard next February, it will be the first in a wave of youth-led climate lawsuits to successfully go to trial. Experts say a decision in favor of the 16 youth plaintiffs could have sweeping implications across the country, setting guard rails for how politicians are able to protect the interests of extractive corporations.

“The world is literally burning all around them, and nothing’s being done about it,” said Nate Bellinger, a senior staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, the non-profit law firm that is representing the youth plaintiffs. “Not only is the state not doing enough, but the state is continuing to affirmatively promote the fossil fuel industry and development.”

Die 16 jong mense, who were between the ages of two and 18 when they filed the lawsuit in March 2020, have already felt the impacts of climate change, from dangerous air quality brought by wildfires to the extreme drought that jeopardizes some of their family-owned cattle ranches. As these environmental consequences mount, young people have emerged as a leading force in the climate activism movement.

In Montana in particular, the young activists face a political system that is deeply entrenched with the fossil fuel industry. Policy experts say Montana officials have shaped state laws around the financial interests of the energy companies, even while the science on the worsening consequences of climate change has been available and widely circulated.

The most notable change occurred in 2011, when the legislature made it easier for fossil fuel companies to increase drilling and prevented agencies from considering how future extraction projects would contribute to climate change. The move essentially hamstrung future climate legislation by placing a gag rule on questions related to environmental impact. That same year Montana withdrew from the Western Climate Initiative, an agreement between western states and parts of Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Anne Hedges, the director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center, says that over the past 20 years the state legislature has undercut any progress that might have been made toward exploring renewable or non-extractive energy options.

'[Legislators] just don’t want anything to compete with coal," sy het gese. “The majority is committed to continuing down the path of burning coal.”

With six coalmines and four private coal plants, Montana is the sixth-largest coal producer in the US. It also has four petroleum refineries and is one of the largest consumers of oil and gas in the United States. Sedert 2003, Montana has received nearly $650m in disbursements from oil and gas extraction on mostly public lands, making it the eighth highest total in the country.

Hedges is adamant that the contributions from fossil fuel corporations don’t just pad the campaign coffers of elected officials – they keep them in power. Oor die verlede 20 jare, oil and gas campaign contributions have totaled nearly $450,000. But members of the legislature are not the only ones assisting fossil fuel corporations despite increasingly dire climate change impacts, such as drought, shorter winter seasons and increased air pollution.

For instance, in 2020 the Montana Public Service Commission, the agency tasked with supervising public utilities and pipelines, was gevind to have undermined smaller solar projects in the state by favoring NorthWestern energy, the state’s primary energy utility company. “I call them out of control,” Hedges says. “They are only interested in building new gas plants and holding on to the Colstrip plant [in south-east Montana] for ever.”

One of the largest recipients of fossil fuel contributions is Steve Fitzpatrick, a representative from Great Falls, who pushed through contracts to keep power plants open in previous legislative sessions. Another is Barry Usher, a Republican representative from Billings, who sponsored legislation to extend funding to the state coal board and lower the tax rate of coal companies over the objections of local governments, Hedges said.

Then there’s Duane Ankney, a Republican senator from Colstrip, 'n stad van 2,500 people located in south-east Montana, who helped construct the Rosebud coalmine in the 1980s. Ankney has passed dozens of bills that offer financial and regulatory benefits to the fossil fuel extraction industry, Hedges says, even attempting to eliminate the board of environmental review in a 2017 bill that was ultimately vetoed.

The legislature also approves the governor’s nominee to the state oil and gas board. “They’re there to rubber-stamp what the industry requests,” Hedges says. The voices of constituents who live near or recreate in an area slated for extraction are ignored, she adds. “It really has been limited to just people who have a financial interest in oil and gas who are allowed to be on that board.”

The oil and gas industry is particularly adept at recognizing who their allies will be in state legislatures, says Matthew Goldberg, an associate research scientist at the Yale program on climate change communication at Yale University. Goldberg has studied how oil and gas corporations motivate legislators to vote against the environment, and says that fossil fuel extraction companies do not necessarily look to persuade legislators with campaign contributions and lobbying funds, but to reinforce policy positions that harm the environment.

“If this is a recurring cycle, where they’re being, in 'n sekere sin, rewarded for their anti-environmental votes, then you can see how that can pile up where there’s this creation of an incentive to do so over and over across election cycles,” Goldberg said.

The young people hoping to break that cycle in Montana are part of a larger youth-led movement seeking to untangle the fossil fuel industry’s grip on local and state government. But so far, activists have seen uneven success. Ten minste 17 Republican attorneys general, including Montana’s, have attempted to block an earlier and ongoing youth climate lawsuit, Juliana v United States, saying that the economic implications of a finding in favor of the plaintiffs would jeopardize state economies. The Juliana Voortbou op die werk van Rowland Bowen en CLR James om "oor 'n grens" te kyk, which was filed in 2015, may head to trial next year if a federal judge finds that the young people have legal standing.

For Gibson-Snyder, who is now 18 and preparing to attend college in the fall, the case serves multiple goals – to increase government accountability, to make young people’s voices heard, and to protect the environment.

“We’re just hoping that the courts will help the government fulfil their duty to protect the constitutional rights of individuals, especially the youth, including myself and our other plaintiffs,” Gibson-Snyder said.

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