Judge moves it forward
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Proponents of a lawsuit accusing the Obama administration of violating the rights of American young people and future generations, by contributing to global warming through the promotion of fossil fuels, recently won a victory in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon when a judge ruled that the lawsuit has sufficient merit to continue through the federal court system.
And there on the steps of the Oregon courthouse was a student from Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Jaime Butler, 15, of Flagstaff, Arizona, who is one of 21 plaintiffs in the precedent-setting lawsuit.
The suit, filed last year with the help of an Oregon-based nonprofit organization named Our Children’s Trust, a group of attorneys, and climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, moves ahead after a March 10 decision from U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin in Eugene, Oregon.
“In this case, the government has allegedly taken action through subsidies, regulations, etc., that creates massive CO2 emissions, and has failed to limit such emissions despite a duty to do so,” states the judge’s decision, in part.
“This decision is one of the most significant in our nation’s history,” said attorney Phillip Gregory, with the law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy of Burlingame, Cal., on behalf of the plaintiffs. “The court upheld our claims that the federal government intensified the danger to our plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property … for present and future generations.”
The local link in the case, Butler, is a member of CRMS’ class of 2019. She is part of a group of youths whose ages range from eight to 19, and who hail from various parts of the country.
But the school’s Facebook page displays a photo of the 21 students, including Butler, at an Oregon courthouse in March where the judge’s ruling was hailed as a victory.
“Jaime Butler ’19 is one of the 21 students that took on the federal government this week,” the CRMS Facebook page exults.
Her photograph is posted on the Our Children’s Trust Web site, along with her statement: “I’m disappointed in my government. Things are continuing to get worse, with more and more people being impacted by climate change. When will the U.S. government pay attention and stand up for our lives?”
According to Butler’s mother, Tina Peshlaki, Jaime has been activist-oriented for several years already, although she is “a very private person” who is uncomfortable with the very idea of celebrity and public attention, which may explain why efforts by The Sopris Sun to reach Butler this week were not successful.
The suit was filed in August of 2015, and accuses the federal government of complicity in what the plaintiffs see as a failure to act despite mounting scientific evidence that climate change is getting worse and poses a hazard for future generations.
“Defendants have for decades ignored their own plans for stopping the dangerous destabilization of our nation’s climate system,” the plaintiffs said in their complaint, according to an August 2015 article in the Huffington Post online news outlet.
“Defendants have known of the unusually dangerous risk of harm to human life, liberty, and property that would be caused by continued fossil fuel use and increased [carbon dioxide] emissions,” the complaint continues.
Lead counsel Julia Olson, according to The Huffington Post, had been working with one of the plaintiffs since 2011, and it was that plaintiff, Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, 15, who last year asked Olsen to put together the case against the federal government.
Olson is termed “a public interest attorney” in the Huffington Post article, while Roske-Martinez, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, is identified as the Youth Director for the nonprofit Earth Guardians organization.
Roske-Martinez once testified before the United Nations General Assembly, demanding that world leaders do something about climate change, and has a surprisingly lengthy record of environmental activism in Boulder despite his youth, according to a profile in The Denver Post.
Roske-Martinez’ activities have even drawn heat from the energy industry, following his performance of a song he wrote, “What The Frack?” (a reference to fracking, the technique for getting at deeply buried gas deposits) at the Evergreen Middle School in 2014.
According to the Denver Post profile, industry activists “posted hostile comments on the Earth Guardians’ Facebook page and Roske-Martinez’ Web page, and called the Martinez home with threats.”
Other plaintiffs include eight-year-old Levi Draheim, the youngest of the group, who has said he can no longer swim in a river near his home in Indialantic, Florida, due to an increase in bacteria in the water and fish die-offs, according to the Huffington Post.
About half the plaintiffs are from Oregon and Washington, with the rest from Arizona, Colorado, New York, Hawaii, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, according to the Our Children’s Trust Web site.
Seeking court order
While acknowledging that the Obama administration has taken steps to combat climate change, the plaintiffs specifically are seeking a court order to force the federal government to implement a national plan to cut atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million — the level many scientists agree is the highest safe concentration — by the end of this century.
The concentration of CO2 in the world’s atmosphere has topped 400 parts per million already, and scientists have predicted the levels will continue to increase unless emissions of CO2 and methane are reduced.
At last month’s hearing, Judge Coffin reportedly questioned a U.S. Department of Justice attorney about whether the government, by encouraging natural gas drilling as a way of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, is “trading future harm for present-day benefits,” according to a summary on the EcoWatch Web site.
“Are you robbing Peter to pay Paul?” the judge reported asked of a Justice Department lawyer.
Attorney Nate Bellinger of Oregon, who works for Our Children’s Trust, said the next step in the court battle will be a review of Judge Coffin’s decision by another judge in the same court.
If the ruling is affirmed, Bellinger said, the case will then be headed to trial, as further appeals would be unlikely.
Bellinger explained that many of the plaintiffs know of each other, or have met through the Earth Guardians organization, which also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Aside from the federal lawsuit in Oregon, Bellinger noted that Our Children’s Trust is involved in other environmental lawsuits around the country, such as one in Denver that recently went against six young plaintiffs hoping to chip away at the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission’s inherent conflict of interest in its oversight of the state’s energy industry.
Filed by Roske-Martinez and five other youth activists, the suit attacks the COGCC’s dual purpose under state law, which is to both promote the development of oil and gas reserves in Colorado and to be a watchdog over the industry’s potential for polluting the air and water near drilling rigs and other facilities.
A little over a week ago, Denver District Court Judge Eric Elliff ruled against the young plaintiffs’ suit, which arose from an attempt to force the COGCC to “stop issuing permits that allow oil and gas drilling until it is proven that drilling can be conducted without adversely impacting human health and safety and without harming the environment and wildlife,” according to a summery on the Our Children’s Truste site.
The COGCC rejected the youths’ petition, and the plaintiffs turned to the courts.
“Without question, this decision (by the COGCC) places public health at a level that is only as important as corporate dollars,” said Julia Olson, a native Coloradan and director and chief legal counsel at Out Children’s Trust.
“The health, safety and welfare of all Coloradans are now subordinate to the interests of the fossil fuel industry’s development of oil and gas resources,” Olson continued. “While no one suggests that public health, safety and welfare should be the sole factors, they should certainly be the primary factors in everything the state does, including natural resource development.”
The case has been sent to the Colorado Court of Appeals, where the plaintiffs hope to obtain a different judicial result.