A federal judge grilled challengers Wednesday about their demand for emails written under a pseudonym by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who they believe has guided government energy policy toward fossil fuels and away from renewable resources.
The 2015 federal lawsuit, filed by two dozen children in the District of Oregon, accuses the government of ignoring its own science since at least the 1960s by continuing to extract and burn the fossil fuels that destabilize the earth’s climate. It asserts that a livable environment is a constitutional right and claims the government has failed to safeguard that right for future generations.
The case survived the government’s attempts at dismissal, and the government produced an answer to the complaint that admitted the current status of climate change in terrifying detail.
But the kids say the government is dragging its feet on producing documents from President Donald Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency that would demonstrate the government’s knowledge of the problem.
Julia Olson, attorney for the lead plaintiffs, outlined her reasons for requesting climate change-related government documents dating back to the Johnson administration. And she told the court on Wednesday that her clients could not wait while the government continued to stall the case.
“What we have right now with the Trump administration is an ongoing violation of plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitution,” Olson told U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin. “However, what has caused climate change we are seeing is the historic actions of government that knew relying on fossil fuels would lead to catastrophe.
“The Trump administration is continuing to enhance and exacerbate the harm that prior administrations have created,” she added. “Telling that full story, laying factual basis for long-standing knowledge, will be crucial, especially as we move forward to the Ninth Circuit and eventually the Supreme Court.”
Judge Coffin questioned the necessity of the government producing such a large volume of documents. He said expert witnesses would likely weigh more heavily in trial evidence than historical documents.
“What’s the relevance of what Johnson knew, versus what the government knows now?” Coffin asked. “This case is going to deal not so much with who knew what when, which there is no dispute about. The questions are how dramatic will climate change be and what’s needed to stop it? And that’s where you need experts.”
Coffin also questioned the plaintiffs’ request for emails that Tillerson sent under the name “Wayne Tracker” when he was CEO of ExxonMobile.
“How is that relevant, especially given Tillerson was not, at the time, a government official?” Coffin asked.
Olson said she suspected the emails would show Tillerson talking the government into making policy decisions that contradicted climate science.
“With respect to those emails, we alleged that the government created climate change by supporting fossil fuel development, that they hid the true costs and emissions of fossil fuels, and that there’s a policy and practice of the federal government to allow and support exploitation of fossil fuels,” Olson said.
“And we believe that Secretary Rex Tillerson, when he was a leader at the American Petroleum Institute, when he was the head of Exxon, that he was one of the central people having those communications with the federal government and influencing the decisions of the federal government to support the fossil fuel industry over alternate forms of energy,” she added.
Department of Justice lawyer Sean Duffy took issue with that assertion.
“Plaintiffs have not alleged a conspiracy between the federal government and the fossil fuel industry,” Duffy said. “That’s a totally different case.”
Coffin reiterated his view that historical documents were not necessary. The plaintiffs have plenty of evidence, he said, between the government’s answer to the complaint and the projected effect of its current actions on the global climate.
“Given the admissions of the government in its answer, and its actions since then – we have the government taking certain actions regarding climate change such as pulling out of the Paris Agreement and opening up major coal mines. So what does the plaintiff need for trial other than what the government has admitted, what the government knows now and what it’s doing going forward?” Coffin pressed.
Coffin declined on Wednesday to set a firm trial date, but said he would push for the trial to begin in early 2018. He had his own questions that he wanted the parties to focus on.
“I’ve asked several times: is there human-induced climate change happening and if so, what’s going to be the reasonable probability of the habitability of the planet in a number of years and then, what changes need to be made to keep that from happening?” he asked.
Olson is executive director and chief legal counsel for the nonprofit organization Our Children’s Trust, based out of Eugene, Oregon.