Boulder becomes first landlocked city to sue companies over climate change

Colorado cities and counties join together in a first-of-its-kind climate lawsuit.

Three cities and counties in Colorado -- which experienced a record-low snowfall during the 2017-2018 season -- are suing fossil fuel companies over climate change. (CREDIT: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Three cities and counties in Colorado -- which experienced a record-low snowfall during the 2017-2018 season -- are suing fossil fuel companies over climate change. (CREDIT: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the city of Boulder, Colorado — along with the counties of Boulder and San Miguel — filed a lawsuit against two of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world over their role in perpetuating climate change.

The lawsuit, which takes its inspiration from a slew of cases filed within the last year by coastal cities and counties in California and New York, is the first climate liability lawsuit to be filed by cities and counties located in the interior of the United States.

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Unlike the previous climate liability lawsuits, which cites consequences related to sea level rise as the primary damage, the Colorado lawsuit cites damages related to things like changes in precipitation, dwindling snow-pack, and more damaging fires.

The Colorado lawsuit is also much narrower in the companies it names. Unlike lawsuits filed by California cities like Richmond or Imperial Beach — which name upwards of 30 fossil fuel companies in their complaints — the Colorado lawsuit is only seeking damages from two companies: ExxonMobil and Suncor, two of the world’s largest oil companies that also each have a significant presence in the state.

We’re bringing this climate change lawsuit today in pursuit of climate accountability,” Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones said during a press conference on Tuesday. “We believe it’s unfair for our taxpayers and residents to foot the entire bill of climate change.”

Like the California and New York lawsuits, the Colorado complaint is based on the legal concept of nuisance, which holds that parties that knowingly create a nuisance are liable to be held responsible for the results.

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It’s a similar tactic to one taken against tobacco companies in the 1990s, but environmental groups and local politicians have previously tried to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change with little success. Perhaps most notably, a case between the Alaskan village of Kivalina and fossil fuel companies was dismissed by a federal court in 2009 after judges ruled that the plaintiffs lacked evidence tying the issue of sea level rise to the distinct actions of particular fossil fuel companies.

Past failure, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that this new wave of climate liability lawsuits is doomed to failure. For one, the scientific field of climate attribution — which connects climate change, and by extension, the action of various fossil fuel companies, to extreme weather events — has becoming increasingly sophisticated in recent years.

And a series of reports published in 2015 by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that Exxon reportedly knew about the risks of climate change and fossil fuels as early as the 1970s, and yet continued to fund a campaign of misinformation aimed at undermining the scientific consensus on climate change.

Recent reports have also revealed that companies like Mobil and Shell also had deep internal knowledge of the risks associated with their products, despite their forward-facing position of denial.

The law says if someone harms, you they owe you compensation,” Jones said. “These companies have acted recklessly. They knowingly produced harmful products, they failed to disclose that to the public, and we have been harmed by that.”

In Colorado, climate change is far from a distant threat. Colorado is one of the fastest -warming states in the country, which has contributed to hotter year-round temperatures.

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In the spring and summer, warm temperatures can lead to heatwaves and more dangerous wildfires. In the winter, warm temperatures mean less snow in a state that depends on reliable snowfall. This season, snow-pack throughout the state was just 72 percent of average, which means problems for everything from seasonal tourism to water runoff for agricultural communities.

According to a recently released report by Resilient Analytics, the cost for adapting to these climate consequences — which could mean anything from increased wildfire mitigation costs to increased road maintenance from more frequent downpours — could run between $96 million and $157 million for the region of Boulder County alone through 2050.

“Statewide, these local costs could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more,” Elise Jones, Boulder County Commissioner, said during Tuesday’s press conference. “Plain and simple, cities and counties just cannot afford to shoulder this burden alone, nor should we.”