Young climate plaintiffs want a half to new federal fossil fuel leasesThe young people suing the U.S. government over climate change want a halt to new federal fossil fuel leases. Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

By Marco Poggio

Twenty-one young Americans suing the United States government for knowingly exacerbating climate change filed a motion to stop the federal government from leasing out federal land and offshore areas to fossil fuel companies for oil, gas and coal extraction. It also demanded a halt in federal approvals of new fossil fuel infrastructure.

The motion, filed late Thursday with the with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asked for a temporary injunction to freeze all fossil fuel infrastructure permits while an early appeal of their case, Juliana v. United States, is being considered.

“At a minimum, this injunction would apply to the approximately 100 new fossil fuel infrastructure projects poised for federal permits, including pipelines, export facilities, and coal and liquefied natural gas terminal,” the motion said.

The young plaintiffs asked the court to issue the injunction before March 20, when the government will offer about 78 million acres of unleased areas in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs, who range in age from 11 to 22, allege the U.S. government is depriving them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property with an energy policy that promotes fossil fuel development. The motion addresses the policy of leasing lands for oil and other fossil fuel extraction. Science has shown the burning of fossil fuels is the overwhelming driver of climate change, which leads to sea level rise, more extreme drought, wildfires and storms..

“I used to be able to swim at Kapa‘a Beach near my old house, but there is no beach left due to sea level rise,” said Journey Zephier, 19-year-old plaintiff from Hawaii, in a declaration attached to the motion. “Watching the beaches erode away and disappear brings me deep emotional pain.”

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the motion.

The case, originally filed in 2015, is awaiting a hearing in the Ninth Circuit, which made the unusual move of agreeing to an interlocutory appeal, a rare review of a case before trial. The court agreed in December to hear the Trump administration’s arguments that the case should not proceed and agreed to expedite the process. The Trump administration filed its opening brief on Friday, arguing the young plaintiffs have no Constitutional right to a safe climate. The Juliana plaintiffs have until Feb. 22 to respond.

A host of international experts, including economists, scientists and armed forces officials who worked on the case pro-bono, submitted declarations to the court supporting the new motion.

“An injunction on future leases and mining permits for extracting coal on federal public lands and on future leases for offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction activities, alongside enjoining new fossil fuel infrastructure requiring federal approval will prevent, not cause, economic harm,” said Joseph Stiglitz, an economist and Nobel Prize laureate.

“Defendants control and dictate the U.S. national energy policy in a myriad of ways. For example, they provide billions of dollars annually in direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. The economic impacts of these actions are deleterious to Youth Plaintiffs and the Nation as a whole.”

Lee Gunn, a retired vice-admiral and former Inspector General of the Navy, said climate change is a “threat multiplier” and a “catalyst for conflict” and called it “the most serious national security threat facing our Nation today.”

Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust and co-counsel for the young plaintiffs, called the government’s development of more fossil fuels “extremely reckless” and causes further harm.

“It is up to the courts to preserve plaintiffs’ rights, and minimize further irreparable harm to these young people, during the pendency of this interlocutory appeal,” Olson said.

The motion mentions 60 new oil and gas pipelines, 32 new liquefied natural gas and coal terminals, and one new deepwater port oil export facility awaiting federal approval among the projects the government is expected to approve. That infrastructure would lock in more use of fossil fuels, contributing to an increase in CO2 pollution, causing even more climate change

Describing his plight to the court, Nick Venner, a 17-year-old plaintiff from Colorado, said carbon emissions trigger frequent wildfires in the summer and poor air quality in the winter in his area. As a result of such unhealthy conditions, he suffers frequent asthma attacks and strong coughs that cause him to miss school.

“I have asthma. The wildfire smoke makes it impossible for me to exercise and sometimes I can’t even go outside at all on particularly poor air quality days,” he said. “I want to emphasize the urgent nature of what we face and what this case is about. It’s irreversible!”

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