19 january 2016

Federal judge in Eugene says energy companies may join U.S. government in fight against youths’ climate lawsuit

By Jack Moran, The Register-Guard, Jan. 19, 2016

A federal judge in Eugene will allow trade groups representing some of the world’s largest energy companies to join the U.S. government in trying to stamp out a lawsuit filed by a group of environmentally minded youths seeking a court order to force the government to drastically reduce emissions contributing to climate change.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Coffin last week granted defendant status in the case to the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. The groups represent scores of oil, coal and natural gas companies that rely on energy sources that emit carbon dioxide. They requested to intervene in the case in November.

The plaintiffs, meanwhile, gained allies of their own on Friday when two large Catholic organizations advised the court of their support for the youths’ cause.

A lawyer for the youth plaintiffs in the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene said Coffin “was wise to allow the fossil fuel industry into our constitutional case.”

The industry “would not want to be in court unless it understood the significance of our case,” attorney Philip Gregory of Burlingame, Calif., said in a prepared statement. He added that the lawsuit presents “a momentous threat” to conventional energy companies.

The trade groups, which represent corporations that include Exxon Mobil, BP and Chevron, argue in court filings that a ruling in the youths’ favor would cause them considerable harm. They also assert that they are already subject to many environmental regulations under the federal Clean Air Act and other laws.

Both the government and the trade groups have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. A hearing on those requests is scheduled for March 9.

Government attorneys say in court filings that the government has “substantial separation of powers concerns” surrounding the case, which they said has the potential to improperly “transform the District Court into a super-regulator setting national climate policy.”

A total of 21 youths between the ages of 8 and 19, eight of whom call Eugene home, filed suit in August. They allege that the government — which they say has known for decades that carbon dioxide pollution is causing climate change — has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by allowing fossil fuel exploitation.

The plaintiffs want a judge to order the government to create a plan that works to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions released in the burning of fossil fuels. Big changes are needed, they say, to protect the environment for today’s youth as well as future generations.

While major energy companies are now aligned with the government in the litigation, a pair of international Catholic groups on Friday jointly filed court papers in support of the youth plaintiffs.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Leadership Council of Women Religious assert in their filing that the federal government has a duty to “take immediate action to abate dangerous greenhouse gas pollution” that threatens the climate. They point out that Pope Francis made similar remarks during a speech at the White House in September.

The Catholic groups state in the filing that basic religious and ethical principles contributed to the development of a federal public trust doctrine — which the youths allege has been violated by the government — that directs the nation’s leaders to safeguard natural resources for current and future residents. They also say legal reform in the United States has long been influenced by religious and moral viewpoints such as the one they offer in the climate case.

“Given their global reach on behalf of one of the world’s largest faiths, the (two Catholic groups) are uniquely situated to offer this perspective,” the brief asserts.

Unlike the trade groups, the Catholic organizations are not seeking formal party status in the case.

The federal case is among a series of lawsuits filed by youth plaintiffs working with Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit environmental group based in Eugene. Also named as a plaintiff is James Hansen, a leading climate scientist who said in an expert declaration filed along with the lawsuit that the government must act to phase out fossil fuel use as rapidly as possible, in order to preserve a habitable climate.

The youth plaintiffs include Kelsey Juliana, 19, who is also one of two plaintiffs appealing a Lane County Circuit Court judge’s May decision in a separate lawsuit. The state judge had rejected assertions that the court should order Oregon state government to take more steps to combat climate change.

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