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Montana youths win climate case, but what does it mean for other states?

This is a wide-angled image of a coal-fired power plant with smokestacks billowing smoke into the air. At the forefront of the image is an electrical tower with a yellow "caution high voltage" sign.
WildEarth Guardians
The San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant located along the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico, is one of several fossil fuel developments across the state.

This week, a Montana judge sided with more than a dozen young activists who sued the state for violating their right to a clean environment by allowing fossil fuel development. The landmark case could have a ripple effect across the Mountain West and beyond.

The decision in Held v. Montana means Montana must consider climate change when deciding whether to approve or renew fossil fuel projects.

The ruling, which faces an appeal, centered around language in Montana’s constitution that guarantees a “right to a clean and healthful environment.” New York and Pennsylvania have similar guarantees.

Maya van Rossum works with partners in various states to introduce and enshrine what she calls “green amendments” in state constitutions. 

“Constitutional protection of environmental rights is essential if we are going to be successful in taking on the fossil fuel industry and their friends in government,” said van Rossum, founder of Green Amendment for the Generations.

She expects the Montana case to inspire support for similar protections in even more states. There are active campaigns to add them in at least a dozen other states, including two in the Mountain West.

In Nevada, a proposed amendment was rejected during the 2023 legislative session. The Nevada Independent reported that opponents of the proposal were concerned vague wording might “lead to unending lawsuits and roadblocks to new development and renewable energy projects.”

In New Mexico, a similar proposal stalled in the legislature this year after a fiscal impact reportwarned of “legal uncertainty” and the potential for “costly litigation that could impact the financial feasibility of certain energy projects.”

The ruling in Montana comes during a summer of record-setting heat, as July was the hottest month globally in recorded history, according to NASA. Moreover, carbon dioxide pollution, which is generated by burning fossil fuels, hit a new peak in May, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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