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Just days after the election of a president who has called climate change a hoax, an Oregon judge has refused to dismiss a suit brought by youths against the federal government over its actions to foster fossil-fuel development.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken came in a case that calls in part for a court to set aside a Department of Energy decision to allow natural gas exports from the proposed Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas plant in Oregon. Boosters of western Colorado natural gas production support that project as a potential outlet for local gas developers, but its future already is up in the air after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected it, an action the project is hoping FERC will reconsider.

Twenty-one youths, now ages 9 through 20, brought the novel suit against the government, saying their constitutional rights are being violated and their future jeopardized by federal actions locking in a fossil-fuel-based energy system. The suit cites government actions such as leasing of federal lands for oil, gas and coal production, providing tax breaks to encourage fossil-fuel development, permitting exports and imports of fossil fuels and incentivizing purchase of gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. 

A federal magistrate judge earlier this year rejected motions by the government and industry groups to dismiss the case, and Aiken’s decision this month to do the same means parties are now preparing for trial.

“Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it,” Aiken wrote in her decision not to dismiss the case.

Plaintiffs are hoping to negotiate a settlement with the Obama administration in the coming weeks, but barring that, Donald Trump will replace Barack Obama as a defendant in the case.

Trump favors rolling back regulations hampering fossil-fuel development, and has promised to do away with Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce power generation from coal. The plan is key to the United States’ commitment under an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions that cause global warming.

However, in an interview Tuesday with the New York Times, Trump declined to repeat his promise to abandon that accord, saying he had an open mind about it.

“I hope that Trump will reconsider the complexity of these issues,” Alex Loznak, 19, a plaintiff in the Oregon case, said in an interview Tuesday.

He said that while Trump “is the kind of guy who will reduce an issue to a tweet or a personal attack on someone,” climate change is a complex matter that requires recognizing that complexity and engaging in discussion with many stakeholders.

“I hope that he will engage in that discussion, but either way this case is moving forward and so we’re going to continue standing up for what we believe in,” he said.

The suit cites not just broad-based harms to plaintiffs from a changing climate, but individual threats some of them face from flooding, wildfire and other factors. The proposed pipeline in Oregon that would serve Jordan Cove would pass directly by the farm where one youth lives.

Loznak’s family farm is about 30 miles from the proposed pipeline route, and a family ancestor founded it in 1868. Loznak is concerned about impacts of drought and warming on the farm, especially its hazelnut orchard, and worries about things such as the forests that would have to be cleared along the pipeline route and the possibility of the pipeline leaking.

He called Aiken’s ruling “definitely a hopeful decision for the local community in southern Oregon,” where landowners face the threat of eminent domain being used to acquire their land for the pipeline route.

“I think people are definitely celebrating back in Oregon,” said Loznak, who is now studying sustainable development at Columbia University.

The Jordan Cove project isn’t a party to the suit, but a spokesman previously has said the project would have carbon-reduction benefits by delivering natural gas to Japan, reducing its need to burn coal and helping it meet its commitments to the international climate-change accord.

Some Jordan Cove opponents say the project, which would require construction of a power plant to serve it, would be the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the state.

The American Petroleum Institute, which has intervened in the lawsuit and argued for its dismissal, didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Coming from a rural area where logging long has been a main industry, Loznak said he’s not calling for shutting off fossil fuel development overnight. He sees a need to help rural areas gradually transition away from oil, gas and coal jobs and into industries such as renewable energy.

“I hope that as a society we’ll find other ways to employ people and to lift people out of poverty,” he said.

He’s also hoping Obama will be willing to sit down with plaintiffs in the lawsuit to talk about a settlement. Even if they can’t reach an agreement, there’s nothing for him to lose, Loznak said.

“This is about his legacy. This is about our future. It’s about the future of the world his daughters are going to live in,” he said.


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