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12/29/2017 05:02 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2017

3 Big Environmental Stories To Watch In 2018

Lawsuits focused on climate change and another Canada-U.S. pipeline will be in the news.

1. Climate Polluters In The Dock

Climate expert James Hansen appeared at a November conference in Germany on environmental issues with his granddaughter, Soph
Sean Gallup via Getty Images
Climate expert James Hansen appeared at a November conference in Germany on environmental issues with his granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, who is one of 21 young plaintiffs suing the U.S. government for failing to curb climate change.

It’s not every day a group of youths sues the U.S. government. But 21 young Americans ― including the granddaughter of former NASA scientist James Hansen ― are doing just that. The reason? Climate change.

The lawsuit, filed against the Obama administration in 2015, had been slated to go to trial in February. The Justice Department, however, won a temporary pause and now is seeking the case’s dismissal.

The plaintiffs, who ranged in age from 8 to 19 when the suit was filed, allege the government has violated their constitutional rights through policies that accelerate climate change, such as supporting the fossil fuel industry. The suit also seeks to have the government do more to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

By March 2017, almost three times as many climate change cases had been filed in the U.S. as in the rest of the world combined. Overall, the number of countries where such suits have been filed has more than doubled since 2014.

“Climate change lawsuits have ramped up recently in response to a number of events ― weather events, the Trump administration’s threatened rollback of greenhouse gas regulations and increased scientific research on the impact of climate change,” Garrett Gibson, an associate attorney who specializes in energy litigation at London-based law firm Eversheds Sutherland, told HuffPost.

Lawsuits against energy companies in particular are on the rise, Gibson said.

“The reason, in a word, is money. I think low-lying municipalities are concerned about a potential sea-level rise in the coming decades and are going after greenhouse gas contributors they know have deep pockets,” Gibson said.

A number of energy giants are in the climate litigation spotlight. In July, coastal communities in California launched legal action against 37 of the world’s biggest coal, oil and gas companies, seeking compensation for the costs of adapting to sea level rises linked to climate change.

The city of Santa Cruz, California, and Santa Cruz County took this a step further last week, filing suits to hold 29 oil, gas and coal companies accountable for changes to the Earth’s hydrologic cycle ― including more frequent and severe wildfires, drought and extreme precipitation events.

In the Philippines, one of the countries most at risk from natural hazards, a legal case has been launched to determine if fossil fuel companies’ emissions violate the rights of those most affected by climate change.

This coming year likely will be marked by more litigation that attempts to hold governments and companies to account for climate change.

2. Cities And States Aim For 100 Percent Renewable Energy

More than 50 U.S. cities have set the goal of getting 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.
Reuters
More than 50 U.S. cities have set the goal of getting 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

2017 may go down as the year some of the world’s most important environmental protections were loosened and jeopardized, especially by the Trump administration. It should also go down as the year the global transition to clean energy intensified, defiant in the face of those keen to hang on to the heavily polluting fossil fuel industry

In the U.S., almost 400 mayors representing 68 million people have committed to adopting the Paris Agreement on climate change in their cities, and the numbers are growing.

These commitments have come despite ― or as a result of ― President Donald Trump announcing his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate deal. More than 50 U.S. cities have adapted ambitious timetables for getting 100 percent of their power from renewable energy ― with a handful of the communities already achieving that mark.

Many state governors have likewise responded to Trump’s move to withdraw from the Paris accord by pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Climate Alliance is a coalition of states committed to reducing emissions in line with the objectives set by the Paris Agreement. The 14 states, along with Puerto Rico, say they are on track “to meet or exceed” their share of the goals through development of renewable energy sources, as well as initiatives such as investment in electric vehicles.

Jeff Shaw, deputy director of communications for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told HuffPost: “We expect the transition to an equitable, democratic, and decentralized 100 percent clean, renewable energy system in the U.S. to accelerate even faster in 2018, including more city commitments, more major clean energy projects, and ― with more than half of U.S. coal plants retiring or committed to retire ― more recognition that clean energy is both better for public health and more economically viable.”

3. The Battle Over The Next Pipeline 

People march to the White House in protest against the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipe Line in February 2013. 
Ken Cedeno via Getty Images
People march to the White House in protest against the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipe Line in February 2013. 

While environmentalists for years have been focused on fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, which cleared its final regulatory hurdle at the end of November, much less attention has been paid to a similar, major Canada-U.S. enterprise. If Line 3 goes ahead, the multibillion-dollar project will carry hundreds of thousand of barrels of tar sands oil ― considered one of the most polluting fossil fuels ― each day across more than 1,000 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Wisconsin.

“[Line 3] matters because it crosses one of the most significant water resources in the country ― the Mississippi River ― twice,” Andy Pearson, of the Minnesota-based affiliate of grassroots climate movement 350.org, told HuffPost.

“It matters because much of its Minnesota segment would be a brand-new corridor that does not currently have pipelines at all, and crosses through treaty-protected territory on which many tribes in Minnesota are guaranteed hunting, fishing and gathering rights,” Pearson said.

He added that opposition to the project has reached an intense level in Minnesota, with multiple observers suggesting parallels to the Standing Rock opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

A final vote by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Line 3 is scheduled for April, although it’s not clear when the new pipeline would start shipping oil. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) has urged the regulators to think about climate change and downstream pollution, as well as opposition from Native Americans, before voting on the final certificates needed to begin construction.

Given that crude oil prices have dropped by roughly half since the pipeline was first proposed, however, the project’s commercial viability is under scrutiny.

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