By NATHAN SOLIS
(CN) – A group of Alaska youth have sued the state and Gov. Bill Walker, after a state agency denied their petition to stop extracting oil and gas and start considering a pollution-free planet as a civil right.
Sixteen Alaskan youth say the state’s continued reliance on “revenue that fossil fuel extraction produces” infringes on their constitutional rights, according to the lawsuit filed in the Third Judicial District in Anchorage on Friday.
Lead plaintiff Esau Sinnok, 19, from the city of Shishmaref on Sarichef Island, said climate change threatens his home village where his ancestors have lived for 4,000 years.
His village is eroding into the sea, according to a statement from group’s attorneys.
“My children might not be able to see what life on Shishmaref once was,” Sinnok said in the statement. “It’s time Alaska stop promoting fossil fuels at the expense of young people and start protecting our rights to a stable climate system.”
Sinnok, a sophomore at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said a lawsuit is the logical next step from the petition, because the state of Alaska has a history of prioritizing the fossil fuel industry’s interests over the native residents.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Sinnok of the denial letter from the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Sinnok has experienced firsthand the effects of climate change, as his tribe has relocated due to “coastal erosion, freshwater degradation, increased wildfires, resource and species extinctions,” according to the complaint.
“It’s not just the environmental issue that’s at risk, like the way we live, hunt for our food. It’s also a psychological issue. It really affects how you think and view your place,” said Sinnok. “It gives the people trauma if your one and only home is gone because of climate change.”
Some of the 16 youths are members of Alaska Youth for Environmental Action and hail from all over the state. They are represented by Brad DeNoble in Eagle River, Alaska, and Oregon-based Andrew Welle with Our Children’s Trust.
Welle said in a phone interview the 95-page complaint is due to the state’s refuse to mitigate climate change in Alaska, by continuing to permit fossil fuel and oil extraction that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’ve seen this for decades – a recognition of the need to address climate change, but we haven’t seen any standards to mitigate climate change in Alaska,” Welle said. “Instead, we’re seeing a systematic policy to ramp up those actions.”
In their petition, the young people asked the state of Alaska to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses from both stationary and mobile sources and reduce emission levels to at least 85 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050, along with interim benchmarks, starting in 2018.
But in September, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig denied the petition – prompting the lawsuit.
In his letter, Hartig said the reduction plan laid out by the group’s petition would pose “significant consequences for employment, resource development, power generation, health, culture, and other economic and social interests within the state.”
Candice Barber, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the complaint would be served on Alaska’s attorney general, whose office would review the complaint. The Attorney General’s Office did not return a phone request for comment.
The young people want a judge to find Alaska’s ongoing pursuit of fossil fuel extraction violates their civil rights, and to order the state to develop a plan to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Other defendants named in the lawsuit include the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the Alaska Energy Authority and Regulatory Commission of Alaska.