Colorado Municipalities File Climate-Change Lawsuit Against O&G Companies

Boulder County, the City of Boulder and San Miguel County have filed an environmental lawsuit against two multibillion-dollar oil and gas corporations over climate-change impacts in Colorado.

The local governments are asking a Boulder County district court for a jury trial against ExxonMobil and Canada-based Suncor Energy and its U.S. subsidiary, which operates a refinery in Commerce City, to force these companies to pay “their fair share of the costs associated with climate change impacts.”

While the lawsuit didn’t specify the monetary damages they’re seeking, the municipalities estimated that it could cost them more than $100 million by 2050 to handle the wide-ranging impacts of climate change caused by the use of fossil fuels. The long list of impacts listed in the lawsuit include climate-change mitigation; wildfire response and prevention; pest infestations; drought, health impacts by extreme heat; flood control and structural damages; and cost of reduced agricultural productivity.

“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," said Boulder and San Miguel counties and the City of Boulder in a joint statement. "Adapting to such a wide range of impacts requires local governments to undertake unprecedented levels of planning and spending. Suncor and Exxon have known about the costly consequences of fossil fuel use for more than fifty years. Yet they continued to promote and sell their products, while recklessly deceiving the public and policymakers about the dangers.”

Similar climate-change suits have been filed in California and New York in the past two years.

Supporters of the lawsuit held a rally in front of the Boulder County Courthouse after county commissioners approved a contract with EarthRights International to serve as legal counsel for the lawsuit.

“We are suing Suncor and Exxon because they are two of the world’s largest contributors to climate change," said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, the sister of Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones, at the rally last week. "This lawsuit is a complement to our ongoing efforts to try and protect our communities from the public health effects of fracking. We are taking on some of the world’s largest and most politically powerful corporations, but we have so much at stake. … it’s time for climate accountability."

“Future generations and those least responsible for causing climate change will bear the brunt of the impacts."

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ExxonMobil and Suncor did not return request for comment.

ExxonMobil was ranked the thirteenth-largest public company in the world, according to 2017's Forbes Global 2000, and Suncor was listed as No. 487 based on sales, profits, assets and market value across all industries.

The Colorado oil and gas industry issued a statement to the Boulder Daily Camera, calling the lawsuit a "political stunt" and saying that the industry shouldn't be liable for merely adhering to the state's "already stringent state and federal laws."

Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, Niskanen Center and 350 Colorado have also rallied in support of the lawsuit, pointing to a stark reality for Coloradans if carbon emissions continue to be released into the atmosphere at high rates.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization issued a report last year predicting that by the middle of this century, the state will have more extreme heat conditions. From 1967 to 1999, Denver experienced temperatures of at least 100 degrees for a third of a day each year. Since then, Denver has averaged nearly two days of 100-degree temperatures or higher. RMCO predicts that if high emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to be released into the atmosphere, by the end of the century, the average year will comprise 34 days of extreme heat conditions. Similarly, Boulder County could experience 74 days of extreme heat conditions on average, which the report pegged at greater than 95 degrees, in the latter part of this century.

“Future generations and those least responsible for causing climate change will bear the brunt of the impacts. We need to shift the costs back to these companies that have profited off their demands for unabated pollution in the face of global climate destabilization,” says Micah Parkin, executive director at 350 Colorado, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

Colorado has been getting a lot of attention over climate-change-related lawsuits. Last year, the Colorado Court of Appeals heard a case brought forward by Earth Guardians, a group of six teenagers led by Boulder-based indigenous hip-hop artist and globally renowned environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, charging that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was issuing drilling permits without public health and safety in mind. The court agreed with the youth plaintiffs, telling the COGCC that, according to state statute, public health and safety must be a pre-condition to issuing permits. The COGCC wasn’t satisfied with that answer and took its complaint to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it is currently being considered. For their part, the teens argue that the state regulatory agency should not issue drilling permits without scientific evidence that the activity "does not adversely impact human health and does not contribute to climate change.

Martinez is also party to a landmark case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a group of sixteen underaged plaintiffs, some as young as ten years old, are suing the federal government over the effects of global warming, which they say has infringed on their rights to life, liberty and property. They claimed in their lawsuit that the government, which has a "trustee" responsibility to maintain the environment, failed to transition away from fossil fuels and allowed for "excessive" fossil-fuel production despite having known the impacts of carbon emissions for at least fifty years.

Over the years, communities across the Front Range have been in turmoil over increased fracking developments. Broomfield residents are still fighting the development of 84 fracking wells from Extraction Oil and Gas, but other developers are trying to stake their claim in the community too. The city of Erie was sued by Crestone Peak Resources in November for its odor nuisance ordinance, which was approved last year after vocal residents lobbied city leaders over drilling-related odors resulting from the company's two hundred wells. The city of Thornton was sued in October by two industry groups after it passed local setback requirements over the summer that exceeded state regulations. Greeley residents are pushing back against a major frack site under development near a predominantly low-income middle school. Not to mention two major oil-and-gas-related explosions last year in Firestone and Windsor. And that just scratches the surface of fracking-related news coming out of 2017 alone.

With so many Coloradans upset over the COGCC's lax fracking regulations and the agency's insistence that local communities don't have the right to regulate the industry, residents are banding together to clamp down on almost all new oil and gas development in the state. Colorado Rising for Health and Safety is currently circulating a petition that would require at least 2,500-foot setbacks, about a quarter-mile, between all new oil and gas developments and occupied buildings or "vulnerable areas," like waterways or public open spaces. If the petition garners the required 98,492 valid signatures, it will make it onto the November ballot.
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi