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DAVID BLACKMON: The Media Fawns Over Judge’s Climate Ruling — There’s Just One Problem


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David Blackmon David Blackmon is an energy writer and consultant based in Texas. He spent 40 years in the oil and gas business, where he specialized in public policy and communications.
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Media overreactions to court decisions don’t get much more ridiculous than the one we’ve seen this week about the Montana state court ruling in favor of a non-profit’s claim that fossil fuel permitting by the state’s government might violate a vague passage in its constitution directing the government to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment.” This is language that could mean almost anything, but the judge in the case decided it means that Montana law that does not require regulators to consider possible “climate change” impacts in permitting decisions is unconstitutional.

The national media immediately hailed the decision as a major development that could devastate Montana’s oil, gas, and coal industries. Both the New York Times and Washington Post filed major, detailed stories on it, something they rarely do on state decisions out in Flyover Country. NPR filed a report calling the case “a landmark climate change trial,” claiming the “ruling follow[ed] a first of its kind trial.”

But a spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austen Knudsen called the decision by state Judge Kathy Seeley “absurd,” noting that this case was in fact a repeat of cases that had been filed using the same rationale in several other states, none of which have been successful. Knudsen promised to appeal the decision to the state’s Supreme Court where he expects it will be overturned. (RELATED: DIANA FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: Biden Declares War On Your Appliances — And Your Wallet Is In The Crosshairs)

Indeed, other states like Utah, Hawaii and Virginia have similar constitutional provisions, and Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit managing the Montana case the plaintiff poster children, also has cases moving through the courts in those states. It is all a part of a broader, coordinated effort by what has become a de facto climate alarm industry to attack and hinder fossil fuel development via litigation in the U.S. and other western nations. It’s an effort that so far has seen its novel arguments finding little success – until, that is, they stumble across an amenable judge.

As a practical matter, Judge Seeley’s decision appears unlikely to have any truly significant negative impact on Montana’s energy industry. While the Judge ordered the state to implement a remediation plan, that plan will have to be authorized by a Republican-dominated legislature that has been reluctant to do damage to a coal industry that has long been a major economic driver in the state, and which currently provides more than 40% of Montana’s power generation. 

Little is likely to be done on this front anytime soon, assuming Attorney General Knudsen follows through on his vow to appeal. Should the case end up in the federal courts following a Montana Supreme Court ruling, this all could drag on for years to come. 

Then there is the question of what measures would be included in a remediation effort, especially when one considers the reality that any air quality issues Montana experiences are as likely to be caused by bad forest management practices in California, Oregon and Washington state as by any in-state sources. Typical potential sanctions at the disposal of state regulators would include measures like tighter emissions regulations, higher fines and slower and more complex permitting processes. Companies in the coal, oil and power industries have found ways to cope with such factors for many decades and continue getting their business done.

Here, it is important to remember the nature of that business, the bottom line of which is supplying energy to meet the demand of the public, which continues to rise. At the same time during which they’ve met this demand, these industries have invested billions of dollars in technologies and processes that have enabled the U.S. to dramatically lower its emissions and clean up its air and water over the last half-century. Plaintiffs as young as those in the Montana case lack the perspective to understand just how much cleaner the environment in which they’ve grown up really is than that experienced by preceding generations of Americans. (RELATED: DAVID BLACKMON: IRA Subsidies Are Driving Investment Decisions In A Dangerous Direction)

Thus, despite all the media celebratory hoopla, the main thing the plaintiffs in this case have accomplished thus far is to cost the state of Montana millions to defend itself, with the promise of costing it millions more in the appeals process. We likely won’t know for several more years if they will achieve anything real beyond that.

David Blackmon is an energy writer and consultant based in Texas. He spent 40 years in the oil and gas business, where he specialized in public policy and communications.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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