New Mexico's Canyon de Chelly

Canyon del Muerto, part of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, New Mexico. (Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times)

A federal judge in New Mexico on Wednesday will hear opening arguments in a first-of-its-kind case: Whether the state has violated its public trust duty to protect the New Mexico’s atmosphere.

The lawsuit—the nation’s first Atmospheric Trust Litigation case to be heard on its merits -- questions if when New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board repealed greenhouse gas regulations, the action absolved the state of its duty as trustee of the atmosphere.

Nineteen-year-old Akilah Sanders-Reed and the Santa Fe-based conservation group WildEarth Guardians sued the governor and the state in 2011, relying on the public trust doctrine, “which requires all branches of government to protect and maintain certain shared resources fundamental for human health and survival,” according to the group.

Last summer a federal district court ordered the case to go forward, ruling, “Plaintiffs have made a substantive allegation that…the state is ignoring the atmosphere with respect to greenhouse gas emissions.”