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8 young Alaskans reignite a court fight over climate change and fossil fuel development

Linnea Lentfer is one of eight plaintiffs represented by Our Children’s Trust in a lawsuit against the state over climate change and fossil fuel development.
Our Children’s Trust
Linnea Lentfer is one of eight plaintiffs represented by Our Children’s Trust in a lawsuit against the state over climate change and fossil fuel development.

Linnea Lentfer grew up in Gustavus, a town of 600 people tucked into the vast, scenic wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska.

Her father first set eyes on Gustavus on a high school biology trip, visiting from nearby Juneau.

“[He] fell in love with the place and then stayed for the community,” Lentfer said. “And that’s how we ended up in Gus[tavus].”

Lentfer was raised with a deep sense of connection to the environment around her. But she said climate change is making her hometown unrecognizable. Glaciers surrounding the town are rapidly retreating. Drought and warming oceans threaten the salmon her family fishes for each summer.

“There’s this really eerie, scary question of salmon,” Lentfer said. “Whether runs are going to come back.”

Lentfer is 20 and now a student at Carleton College in Minnesota. She said she’d like to return to Gustavus to raise a family one day, but worries that the things she loves best about the community are disappearing.

“There’s no way that I can imagine that being a realistic thing, that I would be able to raise children the same way I was raised with how fast things are changing,” Lentfer said.

Lentfer and seven other Alaskans between the ages of 11 and 22 are plaintiffs in a new climate lawsuit against the state. Their case, Sagoonick v. State II, argues that the Alaska constitution includes a right to a livable climate.

They’re asking the court to block the state-backed proposal for a massive natural gas pipeline, known as the Alaska Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) project. Alaska leaders have argued over the pipeline for four decades, and its $44 billion price tag has so far prevented it from moving forward. But Andrew Welle, an attorney representing the plaintiffs said the state shouldn’t even be pursuing it.

“This project would absolutely explode Alaska’s emissions at a time when scientists are telling us we need to be moving exactly in the opposite direction and reducing climate pollution as fast as possible,” Welle said.

Welle is a senior attorney for Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit representing the eight young Alaskans.

The Oregon-based nonprofit has filed dozens of lawsuits around the country on behalf of young people demanding more action on climate change.

The strategy has had mixed results. Our Children’s Trust won a similar lawsuit in Montana last summer. But just last month, federal judges dismissed its landmark case Juliana v. United States.

Alaska is experiencing climate change twice as fast as the rest of the country. At the same time, fossil fuel production has been the key driver of its economy for more than 50 years. The oil and gas industry supports thousands of jobs, and in recent years provided half of the state’s annual revenue.

Leila Kimbrell, head of the Alaska Resource Development Council, said the right to develop natural gas and other resources was written into the constitution when Alaska became a state.

“We have a lot of natural resources, and the agreement was that the state would rely on the development of its natural resources so as not to become wholly reliant on the federal government,” Kimbrell said.

In a statement, Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor called the lawsuit “misguided.” He argued that Alaska’s strict environmental standards make it a better, more responsible place to produce natural gas than elsewhere in the world.

A spokesperson for the state-owned Alaska Gasline Development Corporation (AGDC), a named defendant in the lawsuit, said the project carries “substantial environmental, economic, and energy security benefits” for Alaska and said AGDC would be reviewing the claims.

Our Children’s Trust has filed two similar lawsuits in Alaska in the last 15 years. Both were dismissed by the state supreme court.

Bruce Botelho, former state attorney general under Govs. Walter Hickel and Tony Knowles, said this case has a better chance of making it to trial because it targets a specific fossil fuel project.

“My sense is that it will survive a motion to dismiss,” Botelho said. “How much farther it will get is hard to say.”

The Alaska constitution directs the state to both develop and conserve natural resources for the maximum benefit of its people. It also protects the “natural right to life [and] liberty.”

Botelho said between those two protections he thinks there is a good argument to be made that the state constitution does provide the right to a livable climate. But even if the court recognizes that right, that doesn’t mean it would stop all of Alaska’s fossil fuel development.

“No right in the constitution is absolute,” Botelho said. “What is for the maximum benefit of the people is a determination that must be made, first and foremost, by the legislature and carried out by the executive.”

He said even if the court ruled to block the Alaska LNG project, it will be up to the legislature to balance future climate concerns and resource development.

Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said regardless of outcome, this case and others brought by Our Children’s Trust are pushing public opinion on climate policy forward.

“Just by virtue of bringing these cases, mobilizing public attention, putting the impacts and the issues of climate change front and center. I think that these cases have been very high impact, even where they have lost in court,” said Burger.

Sagoonick v. State II is awaiting action in state superior court. Our Children’s Trust is preparing for trial on another youth climate suit in Hawaii at the end of this month.

Kavitha George, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage