Boulder, Colorado became the latest community to file a climate liability lawsuitThe city of Boulder is one of the Colorado communities filing climate lawsuits, demanding Exxon and Suncor pay for climate impacts. Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

Several Colorado communities have now joined the growing wave of municipalities taking legal action against fossil fuel companies and seeking compensation for the impacts of climate change.

The city and county of Boulder and the county of San Miguel on Tuesday announced a new lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor, two of the largest oil companies with active operations in Colorado. It’s the first climate liability lawsuit filed by an interior, non-coastal community in the U.S.

The Colorado communities—like coastal communities in California and New York City—are demanding that fossil fuel companies help pay for the costs associated with climate change impacts. They allege that these companies long knew about the danger of unrestrained fossil fuel burning and deliberately downplayed the risk to policymakers and the public. As a result, communities face severe climate impacts and rising costs.

“Climate change impacts are already happening and they are only going to get worse,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. “In fact, Colorado is one of the fastest warming states in the nation. Climate change is not just about sea level rise. It affects all of us in the middle of the country as well.”

“Our communities and our taxpayers should not shoulder the cost of climate change adaptation alone. These oil companies need to pay their fair share,” added Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones.

In Colorado, 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. Over the next few decades, Colorado communities are expected to spend more than $100 million to deal with those impacts.

A report presented to the Boulder County Board of County Commissioners last week outlined the likely climate impacts and associated costs. Key findings include an increase in wildfire risk and severe drought, rising public health costs due to extreme heat, increasing strain on urban drainage systems and roads due to flooding, and a greater need for cooling in government-owned buildings.

Boulder County faces an estimated $96 million to $157 million in mitigation costs through 2050, with the city of Boulder facing $16 million to $36 million in costs.  

“Cities and counties just cannot afford to shoulder this burden alone,” Commissioner Jones said.

The city of Boulder, Boulder County and San Miguel County filed the lawsuit in state district court with legal support from EarthRights International, the Niskanen Center, and Hannon Law Firm. The suit brings a public nuisance cause of action against Exxon and Suncor, following similar claims brought by eight California communities and New York City.

“This suit is the first of its kind in the mountain West and it demonstrates that climate change impacts are being felt around the country including here in Colorado,” said Marco Simons, general counsel of EarthRights International.

The Manufacturer’s Accountability Project, an initiative of the National Association of Manufacturers designed to push back against these climate lawsuits, was among the first to respond to the new lawsuit.

“Today in Colorado, we’re seeing another example of trial attorneys attempting to enrich themselves at the expense of manufacturers and manufacturing workers,” the group said in a statement. “These baseless lawsuits do nothing to improve the environment and are a waste of taxpayer resources. 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.”

According to Simons, EarthRights International has agreed to take on the case pro bono. He said it is the fossil fuel companies that have profited at the expense of local communities

“For over 50 years, Suncor and Exxon have known that fossil fuels would cause severe climate impacts,” Simons said. “To enhance their own profits, they concealed this knowledge and spread doubt about science they knew to be correct. Now, communities all over this country are left to foot the bill.”

“This lawsuit challenges the reckless behavior of all fossil fuel companies,” said Emma Bray of Earth Guardians and one of the youth plaintiffs in the case Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “How does the oil and gas industry justify business that will make the Earth uninhabitable?”