LAWYERS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE SUING UTAH OVER FOSSIL FUEL ENERGY POLICY URGE COURT TO GREENLIGHT CASE FOR TRIAL
UPDATE: On November 9, 2022 Judge Faust issued a decision in favor of the state to dismiss the case. According to Our Children's Trust, he cited issues such as redressability (the ability for the dispute to be adequately remedied), the political question doctrine, and substantive due process as grounds for dismissal. Lawyers for the youth plaintiffs say they will appeal the ruling.
A youth-led lawsuit alleging the State of Utah is affirmatively harming its young citizens and shortening their lifespans through energy policy favoring fossil fuels came before a state judge Friday in a hearing that will determine whether the case will proceed towards trial.
The Honorable Robert Faust heard oral arguments in Natalie R. v. State of Utah, a constitutional climate lawsuit brought by seven youth plaintiffs against their state government, and indicated he would rule on the procedural matter within days. The hearing on November 4 at the Third District Courthouse in Salt Lake City focused on the state’s motion to dismiss the case.
Natalie R. v. State of Utah is one of a handful of currently pending climate cases in which young people are suing their state governments for promoting and permitting fossil fuels and thereby contributing to climate harms, which disproportionately burden youths and future generations. The cases claim states are violating their constitutions and seek declaratory relief – a court order stating that the challenged government conduct is unconstitutional. Besides Utah, such cases are currently active in Montana, Hawaii, and Virginia.
The Utah case was filed on March 15, 2022 against the state over its systemic energy policy promoting fossil fuels despite being well aware of the climate dangers of continued use of coal, oil, and gas. According to the complaint, Utah is prioritizing fossil fuel development through official state policy (statutory law), which directly adds more greenhouse gas pollution and fouls the air with other pollutants. “Because of the development and combustion of fossil fuels, Utah has the worst average air quality of any state in the nation and is already experiencing profoundly dangerous climate changes,” the complaint states.
Plaintiffs are seven young people, ages 9 to 18, who all have been directly and adversely impacted by fossil fuel air pollution and climate change consequences like wildfires and droughts. Some have asthma or asthma-like symptoms and all suffer mental distress tied to the worsening air quality and climate crisis, which impairs their access to the outdoors including their enjoyment of outdoor recreational activities.
The poor air quality not only threatens their health, but also endangers their lives and gradually shaves years off their lifespans.
“Because of living in that dangerous air quality, youth in Utah have years taken off of their lifespans, that’s what the data shows,” Andrew Welle, Senior Staff Attorney at the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust and counsel for the youth plaintiffs, told Climate in the Courts. “The government knows this, but they are doubling down on fossil fuels.”
Plaintiffs say the state’s conduct violates their constitutional rights to life and liberty, endangering their health and safety.
Welle said that defendants don’t dispute that Utah’s youth are having their lives shortened and that state conduct contributes to that. But, as he explained, the state argues that courts cannot resolve the matter because energy policy is the domain of the political branches.
“Essentially what the state is arguing is the court can’t decide these constitutional claims,” Welle said. The state mentioned in its closing argument that the legislature would put together a working group to look into the issue.
“Deferring to the legislature to decide a constitutional question with working groups would turn Utah’s Constitution and constitutional law on its head,” Welle said in a statement. “The courthouse doors would be closed to any constitutional claim that the State decided had economic or job implications. That is not the way the law works. The State can’t strip the judiciary of its vital role in interpreting the Utah Constitution and deciding life-threatening constitutional questions.”
Welle told Climate in the Courts that the state is “mischaracterizing the plaintiffs’ claims in a number of ways” and said he feels optimistic that Judge Faust will rule in the youths’ favor. “Judge Faust was engaged, he was taking notes, and I think he was attentive to the arguments we were making,” he said.
“It was exciting to congregate today and watch as our attorney argued for our right to move on to trial,” Lola Moldonado, an 18-year-old plaintiff from Salt Lake City, said. “I hope to see Judge Faust rule in favor of our case so we can present evidence on how our lives have been harmed by the state’s support of the fossil fuel industry.”