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Montana and 16 other states are asking to intervene in the Youth Climate Change lawsuit, an attempt by 21 youth activists to address climate change by compelling the federal government to transition away from fossil fuels.

In a brief filed last week, the states argue they’ll be impacted by a settlement discussion between the plaintiffs and the federal government scheduled for later this month, and say they don’t trust President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice to represent states’ interests.

Juliana v. United States was first filed six years ago on behalf of young climate activists who petitioned the federal government to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

In January 2020, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the government on one of the lawsuit’s key claims, concluding that the remedy plaintiffs want requires complex policy decisions better handled by elected officials and voters than by the judicial branch. In response, the plaintiffs, now age 13 to 24, amended the complaint to focus on declaratory relief — recognition that their rights have been harmed without naming specific remedies for those harms.

The case is back before the U.S. District Court of Oregon in Eugene. Ann Aiken, the judge assigned to the case, recently directed the plaintiffs and the government to participate in a settlement conference, a first for the case. 

“I think the point is they see that this case is important and meaningful and powerful and they don’t like it, so they want to step in and try to fight these youth the way the federal government has for six years. They wouldn’t be [here] if they didn’t think the case was going somewhere.”

Julia Olson, attorney for the plaintiffs in the Youth Climate Change lawsuit

The states seeking to intervene argue that they have a stake in the country’s energy future, and that a settlement granting the plaintiffs’ demands would lead to higher energy prices for the states and their citizens. 

“Each of the States has a stake in this country’s energy policy, and accordingly, an interest in any potential settlement of Plaintiffs’ astonishingly broad claims. As far as the States can tell, because Plaintiffs seek ‘a fundamental transformation of this country’s energy system’… any or all pieces of that system might be on the bargaining table,” the petition reads.

They also say that the Biden administration’s climate agenda has already cost some of the states jobs in the energy sector, pointing to Biden’s revocation of the Keystone XL cross-border permit as an example.

“This behavior is itself deeply concerning, but coupled with the government’s recent appetite for collusive litigation maneuvers, the States reasonably fear they may be robbed of the right to voice their concerns and protect themselves and their citizens,” the petition argues.

Julia Olson, chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust, the public interest law firm representing the activists, said the attorneys general have that wrong. She said the federal government has consistently acted in opposition to the plaintiffs’ interests, and that the U.S. Department of Justice under the Biden administration has been no different.

“The procedural history of this case is highly unusual in that the government has taken really unusual steps to try to stop this case from going to trial,” Olson said “They’ve tried to stop the case at every turn. … It is just flatly untrue that the Biden administration has colluded with us in any way. In fact, they haven’t even talked to us.”

Olson said she sees the petition as a “political agenda item” pushed by the Republican Attorneys General Association. 

“I think the point is, they see that this case is important and meaningful and powerful and they don’t like it, so they want to step in and try to fight these youth the way the federal government has for six years. They wouldn’t be [here] if they didn’t think the case was going somewhere,” Olson said. 

A spokesperson for the Montana Attorney General’s office hinted at the state Department of Justice’s suspicion of the federal government’s aims in an email to Montana Free Press about the petition. 

“The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court with explicit instructions to dismiss. It noted the plaintiff’s demands would result in ‘no less than a fundamental transformation of this country’s energy system, if not that of the industrialized world.’ Despite the federal government having already won the case, the district court in Oregon ordered the Biden administration to have a settlement conference with the plaintiffs.

“The administration’s actions on the Keystone XL pipeline and the energy leasing moratorium show that President Biden has no regard for Montana communities and is hostile toward American energy development. Attorney General Knudsen is seeking to intervene and prevent the administration from making a backroom deal to radically alter our nation’s energy policy and further harm Montana communities.”

Olson said the 9th Circuit’s January 2020 ruling directing the district court to dismiss the case is not the end of the line for the Juliana lawsuit, and said it’s not unusual for a party to amend its complaint as the plaintiffs have done. 

“[The states are] trying to make it seem like this is so unusual and the district court isn’t following directions, and that’s ridiculous — this happens all the time in cases,” she said.

The 16 other states seeking to intervene in the case are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

They’ve asked Aiken to issue a ruling on their request by June 22, the day prior to the scheduled settlement conference.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.