Boulder, Colorado wants to lead a climate suit against oil and gas companiesBoulder aims to lead other Colorado communities in suing fossil fuel companies over climate change impacts. Photo credit: Let Ideas Compete via Flickr

By Karen Savage

Boulder, Colo. is poised to become the next municipality to file suit against the fossil fuel industry for damages caused by climate change.

City officials hope to persuade several other Colorado communities to join them in the suit. The defendants will be a yet-to-be-determined number of fossil fuel companies that operate in Colorado.

“While most city efforts are typically focused within municipal boundaries, the issues of climate change cannot be addressed within a vacuum,” said Kendra Tupper, Boulder’s chief sustainability officer.

“The basis is that local governments are expending real money to manage the harms and the consequences of certain companies’ actions,” said Jonathan Koehn, the city’s regional sustainability coordinator.

The city will partner with a pro bono law firm from Washington D.C., which will work with local attorneys on the case. Koehn declined to name the law firm until a retainer agreement is signed, which he anticipates will happen within the next 30 days.

The city will seek compensation for damages that have already occurred and to pay for projects needed to adapt to future climate impacts.

“It’s important to know that a changing climate is not only an issue for coastal communities, but certainly small, large, everything in between is going to be affected,” said Koehn. “We are experiencing real impacts on a daily basis—we only have to look outside our windows to see the health of our forests, forest fires on the horizon, floods on a regular basis—and that’s not just in the mountains, on the plains we’re seeing the impacts as well.”

Colorado is one of the fastest-warming states in the country, with temperatures rising 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 30 years. The impacts of extreme heat will hit Colorado’s urban populations hard, worsening air quality and threatening public health. In 2016, metropolitan Denver, an area that includes Boulder, ranked as the eighth worst urban area for ozone pollution.

The Rocky Mountains’ dwindling snowpack will also have far-reaching impacts on people and agriculture, leading to longer and more damaging droughts and wildfires, not to mention its ski industry.

“Unfortunately, the current federal administration has taken many actions to roll back legislation or rescind previous commitments related to climate change,” Tupper said. “While this has potentially devastating consequences in terms of reversing progress on a dire problem facing humanity, it has reinforced the crucial role that local governments must play in this energy transformation.”

Colorado has become a hub of the fracking industry, with the number of the controversial wells skyrocketing since 2000. Centered in Weld County, which is adjacent to Boulder County, the fracking industry has drawn significant opposition because of fears it pollutes air and drinking water. Four Colorado communities have attempted to ban fracking, with little success so far.

Koehn said litigating large-scale climate issues against major fossil fuel companies from the community level—particularly from a small community like Boulder—may seem inefficient, but it is necessary.

“As our literacy on this issue has evolved, really so has this notion that local jurisdictions like Boulder and every other city are on the front lines when it comes to a changing climate,” said Koehn.

“It’s our responsibility as a local government to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect the welfare of our community, this is, while daunting, the right thing and incredibly necessary.