Texas Births Atmospheric Trust Law

By Julia Olson, Executive Director, Our Children's Trust

I was born in San Antonio, Texas on an Air Force Base. My strong-willed mother demanded that my father be allowed in the delivery room (which wasn’t allowed at the time), much to his dismay. And so my life journey began ever so briefly in the Lone Star State.

I can’t say I have a strong tie to Texas, but I have experienced its beauty and unique culture. I now have family in the Dallas area and learned from them recently how much Texas invests in its youth, perhaps not equitably across socio-economic lines, but nonetheless I was impressed.

According to U.S. News, “[t]here are more than 400 Texas schools in the U.S. News Best High Schools 2012 rankings, including 46 with gold medals, 123 with silver medals, and 233 with bronze medals. Two Texas schools are ranked within the top three in the nation.” Texas also gives preference to instate residents for admission to state-funded universities and guarantees admission to all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. Texas cares deeply about the education of its youth.

But what about their future? To be sure, education is critical, but so too is air and water.

It’s not just Texas’ schools that rank top of the nation. Texas also has the highest greenhouse gas emissions of any state. In January 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that Texas oil refineries, power plants, and other industrial facilities spewed out 294 million tons of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases in 2010 -- more than the next two top emitters, Pennsylvania and Florida, combined. Gas-guzzling vehicles and high energy consumption especially during the hot summer months contribute to the state’s status as our most polluting state. If Texas were its own country, it would be among the world’s top-10 greenhouse gas emitters. Adding insult to injury, Texas is battling the EPA tooth and nail in court to protect its greenhouse gas emissions from regulation by EPA. So far, Texas has been the only state refusing to adhere to EPA’s limited nationwide greenhouse gas emissions standards. None of this is surprising given that Texas Governor Rick Perry says global warming is a hoax.

The youth of Texas will inherit a state plagued by drought, fire, and rising sea-levels if Texas does not act soon to lead the shift away from the antiquated era of fossil fuel consumption.

While Texas’ executive branch may be beholden to the fossil fuel industry, its courts are not. In a landmark decision for the youth of Texas, Judge Gisela Triana, just issued her written decision that all natural resources, including the atmosphere, make up the state’s public trust, and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does have the power and duty to protect those resources from greenhouse gas emissions. The Texas court is the first in the nation to expressly recognize the atmosphere as a public trust resource. But it won’t be the last. Just on its heels, Judge Sarah Singleton of New Mexico issued her written decision denying the state’s motion to dismiss Akilah Sanders-Reed’s atmospheric trust lawsuit holding that she had stated a viable claim against the state for failing to protect the atmosphere as a public trust asset. That case is now moving forward on the merits to evaluate the State of New Mexico’s trust obligation. It too has growing greenhouse gas emissions and has just finished repealing all of its GHG regulations. In a summer where the southwest is getting hammered by heat, fire and drought, peppered with flooding, these legal victories come as a welcome beacon to courts around the world. Protect our youth!

Our nation’s youth need education, they need food and shelter and health care, they need love and nurturing, they need opportunities to make a living and they need their natural resources…the air, the water, the land, the wildlife, and the oceans. They need a stable climate, not threatened by rising temperatures. If we want to care for our youth, we need intergenerational justice and we need it now.

Cowboy hats off to Texas and New Mexico courts for enforcing the law our youth depend upon. Today, I am proud to say I was born in Texas. And I look forward to Round 2, when Texas youth hold the state to its public trust obligation.