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Utah youth in court to argue climate suit; state asks for dismissal

By Mark Shenefelt and Harrison Epstein - Standard-Examiner and Daily Herald | Nov 7, 2022
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Plaintiffs in Natalie R. v. State of Utah hold a sign advocating for climate justice during a demonstration in Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. Speaking, back right, is John Mackin, press director for Our Children's Trust.
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Dallin R., a plaintiff in Natalie R. v. State of Utah, speaks during a demonstration in Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
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A protestor holds a sign reading "Utah gov.t's climate change nexus" during a demonstration in Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
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Attorney Andrew Welle speaks during a demonstration in Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
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A protestor holds a sign reading "There is NO planet B" during a demonstration in Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

SALT LAKE CITY — On Friday, a handful of Utah teens and pre-teens took on their state in the court of law. In Natalie R. v. State of Utah, youth plaintiffs are suing the state by arguing that promotion of fossil fuels contributes to worsening air quality and violates their constitutional rights.

Attorney Jeffrey Teichert, representing the state Board of Oil, Gas and Mining and numerous other state government defendants, urged 3rd District Judge Robert Faust to dismiss the suit.

“The Utah Constitution does not guarantee a clean environment,” Teichert said in the Friday morning hearing. He said claims such as those lodged by the students “should be brought against polluters,” not the state.

Teichert drew a comparison to the old 55 mph interstate highway speed limit, which states moved away from years ago and increased highway speed limits.

“The 55 miles per hour speed limit saved lives, but that does not mean the courts have authority to change the speed limit to protect life,” Teichert said. “Where’s the limit to judicial power?”

Andrew Welle, an attorney for the Oregon-based nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust and one of several attorneys representing the students in the civil suit, told Faust that Teichert missed the point of the case

Welle said the suit rests on a “simple but profoundly important constitutional issue: Does the Utah Constitution allow the state to (allow fossil fuel developments) that it knows are taking years off the lives of these young plaintiffs?”

With Utah’s nationally worst air quality, “the state, in the face of those dangers, is actively throwing fuel on the fire,” Welle said. “The state is responsible for vast quantities of air pollution.” He said it is a “core judicial responsibility” to decide whether to make a declaratory ruling that the state’s policies and actions violate the students’ due process rights.

Teichert said the question before the court is not that narrow.

“I don’t think any of us here want to see anybody suffer from polluted air,” Teichert said. “But there are many, many other considerations as well.” He said it would be “strange” for Faust to rule in favor of the students and thereby intrude upon matters that are the Legislature’s responsibility.

Teichert said lawmakers have taken action in favor of alternative fuels and clean energy. It is the Legislature’s role, not the court’s, he argued, “to balance clean air against jobs and the right to pursue employment.”

Faust said he would rule on the dismissal motion within several days.

Just hours later in Salt Lake City’s Washington Square Park, across the street from the courthouse, the plaintiffs and their attorneys held a demonstration to increase public awareness of the cases and their concerns.

Natalie R., the 15-year-old lead plaintiff, spoke at the demonstration about the lawsuit, and why they believe it has merit to move forward.

“This is not a legislative issue. My constitutional rights to life, health and safety is not something that can be put to vote. And on top of that, many of us plaintiffs can not vote, so that is why we take to the court system,” she said. “We’re hoping that Judge Faust will let us move forward so that we may present evidence at trial.”

Natalie and other plaintiffs took aim at the state’s air quality — with one saying she moved to Park City because of her severe asthma — while expressing support for the case and the handful of supporters who attended the demonstration.

Dallin R., one of the plaintiffs old enough to vote, said the current goal is to have the the state not actively “contribute to the climate crisis,” but instead seek energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

Moving forward, he said he hopes people listen to their arguments and support a shift in the state’s energy policy to leave the planet in better shape in the future.

“Most people want their children or the next generation to have better lives than their own. Well, we’re in a position where we’ll likely be living worse lives than their own, and it’ll only be deteriorating from here,” he said.

As the suit’s hearing is held in Utah, leaders from around the globe are in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for COP27, the United Nations Climate Conference. It also comes as the UN warns the world is “nowhere near” hitting targets set in the 2017 Paris Climate Accords.

Still, Dallin and the other plaintiffs hold out hope for the future.

“As long as there’s time for something to be done, there’s reason to have hope. Because if we don’t have hope then nothing will ever be done. And that’s the bottom line there. So I just say it’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be really hard, but incredible things have happened in the past and incredible things can happen now if the people are behind them,” he said.


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