A lawsuit filed in Colorado state court by the counties of Boulder and San Miguel and the city of Boulder seeks to force ExxonMobil and SunCor to be financially responsible for the costs they will bear in the future as the result of climate change. Others have sued fossil fuel companies in the past, but this is the first time a legal challenge has been mounted by communities not located in coastal areas.
Climate Change Costs Money
“The companies are two of the biggest contributors to climate change. They’re part of an industry that has lied to us about the impacts of fossil fuels for decades. They know the impacts. And they’ve thwarted our transition to a low-carbon future,” Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones tells the Denver Post. “We’re paying the costs as communities. But we cannot afford the impacts of climate change. We want them to pay their fair share.”
Suncor is a Canadian corporation whose US operations are based in Denver. Its refinery produces about a third of all the gas and diesel sold in Colorado. It processes up to 98,000 barrels of crude oil a day, including up to 16,000 barrels from Canada’s oil sands. Suncor and ExxonMobil jointly own a majority interest in Syncrude Canada, which plans to greatly expand oil production from Canadian tar sands.
Boulder and San Miguel county communities have been actively setting carbon dioxide reduction goals and tracking emissions of greenhouse gases. They also offer residents incentives to lower their individual carbon emissions. City and county officials say the costs taxpayers have to pay to adapt to climate change are rising. Boulder County officials estimated those costs may exceed $150 million by 2050. That’s on top of contending with climate-related natural disasters such as floods, drought, and catastrophic wildfires.
“San Miguel County has been experiencing direct impacts from climate change that has cost our taxpayers money. The ski resort (Telluride) is one piece,” county attorney Amy Markwell said. “And we’re seeing negative impacts to our roads. And, with droughts, there’s a direct impact on ranching.”
In a press release, Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said, “Exxon’s internal memos warned that rising temperatures would reduce snow pack in the Rockies, Cascades, and Sierras, requiring adaptation measures to avoid collateral impacts like drought. Communities like Boulder are now grappling with those impacts and how to pay for them.
“Climate damages don’t end with sea level rise. The entire country is facing enormous costs dealing with the damages caused by the fossil fuel industry. Climate lawsuits now stretch from California to the Rockies to New York City. Taxpayers are growing tired of footing the bill for damages knowingly caused by climate polluters.”
A joint press release by the two counties and the city of Boulder, together with EarthRights International, says, “Climate change affects fragile high altitude ecosystems and hits at the heart of these communities’ local economies, affecting roads and bridges, parks and forests, buildings, farming and agriculture, the ski industry, and public open space.”
“Adapting to such a wide range of impacts requires local governments to undertake unprecedented levels of planning and spending. Over the next three decades, these communities will face at least one hundred million dollars in costs to deal with the impacts of climate change caused by the use of fossil fuel products like those made and sold by Suncor and Exxon. Suncor and Exxon have known about the costly consequences of fossil fuel use for more than 50 years. Yet they continued to promote and sell their products, while recklessly deceiving the public and policymakers about the dangers.”
The Industry Pushes Back
Reaction from oil and gas interests has been swift. Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Industry Association, termed the lawsuit a “political stunt.” A spokesperson for the group amplified on Haley’s remarks. “This is not a serious way to address climate concerns. Oil and natural gas operators should not be subject to liability for doing nothing more than engaging in the act of commerce while adhering to our already stringent state and federal laws.”
The National Association of Manufacturers also weighed in. “These baseless lawsuits do nothing to improve the environment and are a waste of taxpayer resources,” said its accountability project director, Lindsey de la Torre. “While manufacturers are working toward meaningful solutions and are reducing emissions, cities are wasting time suing them for making products Americans rely on for their everyday lives.”
Officials for the county of Boulder compared the industry response to the tactics used by the tobacco industry when it sought to protect itself from claims that smoking cigarettes caused a number of health risks, including heart and lung disease and cancer. “The oil and gas industry is very concerned about climate liability, and they should be,” said Elise Jones, a Boulder County Commissioner.
Joanne Spalding, an attorney for the Sierra Club, had this comment on the lawsuit. “We applaud these governments for taking their responsibility to taxpayers seriously and holding oil companies accountable for the damage they’ve done to Colorado communities and the planet. For too long, oil companies have knowingly profited by selling a product that is driving the climate crisis and expected communities not only to suffer the effects of climate change but to pick up the massive tab with their tax dollars.”
Most of us here know that our hopes for climate change action depend largely on economics. Oil and gas companies get to take advantage of laws and policies that exempt them from paying the full costs associated with their business operations. Every year, they are able to avoid hundreds of billions of dollars worth of liability for their actions through what economists call “untaxed externalities.” Only ratcheting up the financial pressure on these companies will cause them to stop polluting the environment all living things depend on for survival. If it takes findings by courts to increase that pressure, so be it.
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