Texas Court Rules Air Deserves Same Protection As Water

A court ruling in Texas this week may have significant implications for groups seeking to use the courts to force individual states to act on climate change.

Texas District Court Judge Gisela Triana ruled that the atmosphere is part of the “public trust,” which means it “must be protected for public use” under common law principles, according to the Associated Press.

The Texas Environmental Law Center, along with the nonprofit organization Our Children’s Trust, brought the case against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Our Children’s Trust is an advocacy group that works to protect the environment for future generations, including by using young people as plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits designed to spur state action on global warming, according to the AP.

Judge Triana's decision may open new doors for compelling greenhouse gas regulation. 
Credit: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

In the case of the Texas lawsuit, the teenagers sued TCEQ for refusing to adopt a “proposed rule that would require reductions in statewide carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels,” according to a press release from Our Children’s Trust. The press release explained that the arguments centered around the “long established principle of the public trust doctrine, which requires all branches of government to protect and maintain certain shared resources fundamental for human health and survival.” Our Children’s Trust successfully argued that the air should fall under the public trust doctrine, while the TCEQ opposed this legal reasoning.

Water has for a long time been considered part of the public trust, thus requiring government protection. The TCEQ argued that water is the only natural resource in the public trust. According to the AP account, Judge Triana wrote, “The commission’s conclusion that the public trust doctrine is exclusively limited to the conservation of water is legally invalid.” Judge Triana wrote that “all natural resources are protected under the public trust doctrine” and deserve government protection, including the air and atmosphere.

The ruling was particularly noteworthy because it came out of Texas, a state that has fought the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas regulations, and whose governor publicly argues against the very existence of manmade global warming.

This is the first major victory for the Our Children’s Trust cases, and there are several other similar cases pending in other states. One of the parents of the young plaintiffs in the case reacted to the ruling, “This may well be one of those judicial actions like Brown v. Board of Education that future generations will look to as a turning point for our planet.”