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Communities File Lawsuit Against Oil Giants for Climate Change Costs

On April 17, 2018, the Colorado communities of Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the City of Boulder — with legal support from EarthRights International, the Hannon Law Firm, and Niskanen Center — filed a lawsuit against Suncor and ExxonMobil, two oil companies with significant responsibility for climate change.

The communities are demanding that the companies pay their fair share of the costs associated with climate change impacts so that the costs do not fall disproportionately on taxpayers. For FAQs see the bottom of this page or download a PDF version.

Logos for Boulder County, City of Boulder, San Miguel County, and EarthRights International

Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the City of Boulder sue Suncor and ExxonMobil for damages related to climate change.

Costs of climate change impacts estimated to top one hundred million dollars by 2050

Just like coastal communities, high-altitude mountains and plains communities are on the front lines of climate change. They are already experiencing trends in heat rise, drought, and more frequent wildfires. Colorado is one of the fastest warming states in the country.

Over the next few decades, climate change is going to create profound threats to these communities’ local economies, health, and safety. They need to take protective measures now. But those measures to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change are expensive and over the next three decades, the costs to local taxpayers will top one hundred million dollars.

Colorado communities have been leaders in trying to reduce their own contributions to climate change, funding efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. They’ve also made substantial investments to mitigate the harms of climate change – increasing wildfire defensive spaces around homes, helping residents deal with dead trees caused by pine beetle outbreaks, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to understand impacts to water supply, as just a few examples.

For years, these western communities have done everything in their power to address climate change and reduce their carbon footprints. But the costs to local taxpayers are mounting. It’s time for the oil companies profiting from the problem in Colorado to be part of the solution.

Companies like Suncor and ExxonMobil (“Exxon”) deceived the public and policymakers for decades about the truth so they could keep making billions of dollars. For the past year, local governments and legal advocates have gone to court to ask these companies to use their vast profits to pay their fair share of what it will cost a community to deal with the problem the companies created.

Suncor and Exxon are two of the world’s largest contributors to climate change and have worked closely together in Colorado to market and sell fossil fuels. Exxon is the largest investor-owned fossil fuel producer in history. Suncor’s U.S. operations are based in Denver and the company supplies about 35 percent of the state’s gasoline and diesel fuel demand. Their carbon footprint is already enormous; worse, both companies are investing heavily in the dirtiest forms of petroleum, expanding fossil fuel production from tar sands and other projects.

Suncor and Exxon now admit that climate change is real and that it’s caused by their products, but they’ve known about the risk for at least fifty years – long before they informed the public. Even now, their business plan is to produce even more products that will worsen the problem.

In Colorado communities suffering from the economic, health and safety consequences of climate change, it is unjust for these costs to fall entirely on taxpayers. It’s only fair that the companies that profited from their own reckless behavior to compensate communities for the harm they caused.

Frequently Asked Questions - FAQs

Rising temperatures threaten these communities’ safety and way of life. Since 1983, average temperatures in Colorado have risen more than 2o F and are continuing to warm.[1] Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the City of Boulder are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, including several alarming trends: more heat waves, more destructive wildfires, more severe droughts, and changing precipitation.[2] Local residents can expect these trends to continue and will likely experience more severe infestations of mountain pine beetles and other insects, reduced snowpack, earlier spring runoff from snow in the mountains, greater rainfall intensity, and worse ground-level ozone.[3]

Climate change will affect fragile mountain ecosystems and hit at the heart of the local economy, damaging roads, forests, homes, the agricultural sector, the ski industry, and open space. Adapting to such a wide range of impacts requires local governments to undertake unprecedented levels of planning and spending.[4]

Over the next few decades, these communities will need to spend more than one hundred million dollars to respond to climate change.[5] For years, all three communities have taken action to reduce their own carbon footprints. All three have adopted ambitious CO2 emission reduction targets, passed budgets for climate work, conducted greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories, and established incentive programs for residents.[6]

Despite these efforts, taxpayers already face the rising costs of adapting to a changing climate. Examples of recent costs include: (1) wildfire prevention and rehabilitation programs, (2) water efficiency improvements on irrigated agricultural land, (3 expert studies to assess climate vulnerabilities, and (4) repairs to damaged roads and infrastructure. Over the coming decades, the impacts of climate change will become increasingly severe and costly.[7]

Suncor and Exxon are two of the world’s largest contributors to climate change and have worked closely together in Colorado. Fossil fuel combustion accounted for nearly 80% of all GHG emissions between 1970 and 2010.[8] Exxon is the largest investor-owned fossil fuel producer in the world.[9] Suncor is one of the world’s largest independent energy companies. Both are active in Colorado. Suncor’s U.S. operations are based in Denver, Colorado; the company supplies about 35 percent of the state’s gasoline and diesel fuel demand.[10] Suncor and Exxon work closely together in Colorado to market and sell fossil fuels. They also jointly own the majority of Syncrude Canada Ltd., the largest developer of Canada’s tar sands. Canadian tar sand operations produce higher concentrations of GHG emissions than almost any other fossil fuel.[11]

Suncor and Exxon are responsible for more billions of tons of GHG emissions.[12] Their future carbon footprint is likely to be enormous, as well: both plan to expand fossil fuel production through tar sands, fracking, and other means.[13]

The communities are not suggesting that Suncor and Exxon are the only ones responsible for climate change. Given the seriousness of the climate crisis, the communities are using multiple approaches to address the threats that they face. For example, hydraulic fracturing—otherwise known as fracking—continues to raise a number of health and environmental issues in these communities and in Colorado more broadly. The lawsuit is an additional tool, not a substitute for local environmental protections against fracking.

The purpose of this lawsuit is to ensure that these companies pay their fair share of the climate impacts for which they are responsible. This is a question for the courts, not the federal government. The communities have not asked the court to stop or regulate the future production of fossil fuels in Colorado. The federal government also has a responsibility to prevent and mitigate climate change, of course, and these communities support efforts to ensure that the federal government appropriately uses its authority to address the climate crisis. For example, Boulder-based youth group Earth Guardians is a plaintiff in a different lawsuit against the federal government.[14] The new lawsuit complements, but does not replace, other efforts to address climate change.

For more than 50 years, these oil companies have known about the harm that their products would cause to communities, but have chosen to continue business as usual. In 1968, industry scientists warned these companies that “significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000” due to rising GHGs, and that “the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”[15] By the 1970s, Suncor and Exxon knew with high certainty that their products were dangerous and that inaction would cause dramatic, or even catastrophic, changes to the climate.[16] Exxon took measures to protect itself from climate change: for example, the company adapted its own facilities to protect from sea level rise.[17] Yet Suncor and Exxon chose to conceal this knowledge from the public, in order to continue promoting and selling fossil fuels. And worse, they both participated in efforts to spread doubt about climate change and discredit the scientific voices that they knew were telling the truth.[18] This helped to delay the shift to a low-carbon economy by decades.

This is a complex lawsuit and could take years to resolve. For this reason, the communities are not waiting to respond to climate change. The lawsuit is only one part of a larger strategy. But as the climate continues to change, local taxpayers are fronting the bill. The communities hope this lawsuit will shift some of the costs back onto Exxon and Suncor.

The local governments prioritize spending taxpayer dollars in a cost-conscious manner. There will only be nominal costs associated with the lawsuit. Most of the legal work will come from attorneys associated with nonprofit organizations like EarthRights International who are working on a pro bono basis. These attorneys will be assisted by private law firms who will need to put in a substantial amount of work in order to win the case. The private firms have agreed to be paid only if they win the case, in which case they would receive up to 20 percent of the award. The local communities have devoted salaried staff time to work on the lawsuit, but will not be paying for outside counsel.

Similar lawsuits are currently proceeding in California and New York, but this is the first such lawsuit in Colorado—or anywhere in the U.S. interior. In the past year, nine coastal communities in California and New York filed climate lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. These other lawsuits are currently making their way through the courts. Each lawsuit is unique and will need to be examined on its individual merits. However, past public interest lawsuits—such as those against the tobacco industry in the 1990s—have successfully held powerful companies to account for harm caused to people’s health and environment.[19]

This document was prepared in April 2018 using information from the plaintiffs’ legal complaint. To learn more about this lawsuit as it progresses, please visit the website of EarthRights International. To learn more about the ways that these communities are responding to climate change, please visit the websites of Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the City of Boulder.

FAQ References

[1] Western Water Assessment, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), University of Colorado Boulder, Climate Change in Colorado: A Synthesis to Support Water Resource Management and Adaptation, 2014, http://wwa.colorado.edu/climate/co2014report/Climate_Change_CO_Report_2014_FINAL.pdf
[2] Please see the Complaint, Section III.A. See also, Resilient Analytics, The Impacts of Climate Change: Projected Adaptation Costs for Boulder County, Colorado, Apr. 2018, https://assets.bouldercounty.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/resilient-analytics-report-impacts-of-climate-change-boulder-county-colorado.pdf
[3] Please see the Complaint, Section III.A. See also, Resilient Analytics, id.
[4] Complaint, Section III.A. See also, Resilient Analytics, id.
[5] Complaint, Section III.A. See also, Resilient Analytics, id.
[6] Complaint, Section III.B.
[7] Complaint, Section III.B.
[8] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr
[9] Lauren Gensler, Forbes, “The World’s Largest Oil And Gas Companies 2017: Exxon Reigns Supreme, While Chevron Slips,” May 24, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurengensler/2017/05/24/the-worlds-largest-oil-and-gas-companies-2017-exxon-mobil-reigns-supreme-chevron-slips/#3494f4cb4f87
[10] Suncor Energy, http://www.suncor.com > About Us > History.
[11] Complaint, Section II.
[12] Complaint, Section I.B.
[13] Complaint, Section I.B.
[14] Our Children’s Trust, “Juliana v. U.S. – Climate Lawsuit,” https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit
[15] Eugene Robinson & R.C. Robbins, Stanford Research Institute, Sources, Abundance, and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Pollutants, 1968.
[16] Complaint, Section III.C.
[17] Amy Lieberman & Susanne Rust, Los Angeles Times, “Big Oil Braced for global warming while it fought regulations,” Dec. 31, 2015, http://graphics.latimes.com/oil-operations
[18] Complaint, Section III.C.
[19] Kristi Keck, CNN.com, “Big Tobacco: a history of its decline,” June 19, 2009, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/06/19/tobacco.decline

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