Utah youth allege state’s promotion of fossil energy is harming them and the planet

Suit seeks to declare Utah’s pro-extraction policies in violation of constitutional guarantees to life, safety and health.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inversion conditions deteriorate air quality near Farmington as the Frontrunner train and highway traffic move along the I-15 corridor on Friday Dec. 3, 2021.

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Utah’s climate is warming and drying out thanks to an unnatural buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Now a group of Utah children is taking state leaders and agencies to court over their promotion of fossil energy resources — coal, oil and gas — that are adding to that carbon load. Through a new lawsuit, their lawyers say these policies violate their constitutional right to life, health and safety and should be invalidated.

The state is actively causing and contributing to the climate crisis and Utah’s dangerous air quality by maximizing, promoting, and systematically authorizing the development of fossil fuels, according to the 94-page lawsuit filed Tuesday in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court.

“The past and continuing development of Utah’s fossil fuels presents an existential threat to Utah’s youth,” the suit alleges. “Because of the development and combustion of fossil fuels, Utah has the worst average air quality in the nation and is already experiencing profoundly dangerous climate changes, including increasing temperatures and deadly heat waves, increasingly frequent and severe wildfires and wildfire smoke, exceptional drought, exacerbation of medical conditions and health risks, and other harms.”

Dangerous air quality and climate change harm Utah’s youth, interfering with their healthy development and taking years off of their lives, the suit contends.

While state officials declined to comment as a matter of policy, they have long held that development of Utah’s abundant hydrocarbon resources supports rural communities and generates revenues for public education.

The suit names Gov. Spencer Cox and divisions of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, including the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, Thom Carter, director of the Office of Energy Development, and John Baza, director of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.

The seven plaintiffs range in ages from 9 to 18. The suit is one of several constitutional cases brought against states by the Oregon-based group Our Children’s Trust on behalf of the states’ young citizens. Other states facing similar suits include Montana, North Carolina, Washington, Alaska, Florida and Virginia.

The Utah suit claims the state’s fossil fuel development policies serve no legitimate government interest but promote extraction over the broader public good.

One Utah plaintiff who enjoys sports and the outdoors, identified as Dallin R., said he experiences the impacts of poor air quality, excessive heat, drought and “the fear of living in an unrecognizable world.” Smoke from wildfires, which are proliferating in the West, is exacerbating his respiratory symptoms and keeping him indoors.

For an entire month in 2020, he was immobilized, unable to walk more than a few feet without losing his breath. He is also harmed by the lengthening allergies seasons, also driven by climate change.

“Maintaining a livable planet is a fundamental necessity in guaranteeing the right to life which is promised in our constitution, but the climate crisis is putting that right in danger,” said Dallin, a 17-year-old from Riverton. “The role of Utah’s state government in the causation and perpetuation of this crisis is unacceptable, and young Utahns like me and my fellow youth plaintiffs will hold them accountable for their reckless endangerment of our state and our planet.”

Five of the other plaintiffs are from Salt Lake City and a sixth is from Park City.

“The state’s policy has placed these youth in an emergency and every day it remains on the books brings them into further danger,” said Andrew Welle, a staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust. “Only Utah’s courts can provide the relief these youth urgently need. Only the courts can decide whether the state’s policy violates their rights.”

The suit asks the court to find that Utah laws supporting coal mining and other forms of fossil energy violate the youths’ “right to life” and right to be “free from government conduct that substantially endangers their health and safety,” as guaranteed in the Utah Constitution. It specifically targets the Utah Energy Act, a policy enacted last year promoting the development of oil shale, tar sands, oil, gas and coal, as well as emission-free renewable energy sources.

But the state’s pro-extraction policies date back decades, resulting in steady production increases over the years, although coal has taken a hit over the past decade as the nation’s power-sector moves to natural gas and renewables for economic reasons.

Vast resources remain in place in Utah, including a billion barrels of oil in the Uinta Basin and the world’s largest deposits of oil shale and lesser amounts of tar sands.

Since 1960, Utah has produced 14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a billion tons of coal and 1.7 billion tons of oil, according to the suit. Burning these fuels released 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas getting most of the blame for climate change.