Suncor Refinery in Commerce City.
Colorado communities on Tuesday launched a legal attack on oil companies that operate in the state, demanding that Suncor Energy and ExxonMobil help pay costs of dealing with climate change that scientists link to producing and consuming fossil fuels.
A lawsuit filed in state court by San Miguel County and the city and county of Boulder accuses Suncor, the Canadian company that runs an oil refinery just north of Denver, and ExxonMobil, of knowingly producing oil and gas that, when burned, emits billions of tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat.
Suncor’s U.S. operations are based in Denver and the refinery produces about a third of the gas and diesel fuel sold in Colorado. A spokeswoman on Tuesday said the company had not yet seen the lawsuit and would take time to review it before responding.
“Suncor and Exxon have known about the costly consequences of fossil fuel use for more than 50 years. Yet they continued to promote and sell their products while recklessly deceiving the public and policymakers about the dangers,” Boulder and San Miguel county leaders said in announcing their campaign.
Over the past year, California and New York cities have filed similar lawsuits seeking billions to cover the cost of responding and adapting to climate change.
President Donald Trump’s push to withdraw the United States from the international Paris agreement and roll back environmental regulations has spurred the legal efforts to address problems related to climate change. Earlier this year, New York City filed a lawsuit seeking billions from top oil companies, citing their contributions to global warming. And the Bay Area city of Richmond filed a lawsuit in a California court against Chevron and other oil companies for carbon dioxide emissions since 1965.
Boulder and San Miguel county communities have set carbon dioxide emission reduction goals and measure their emissions of heat-trapping gases, offering incentives for residents to pollute less. Yet city and county officials contend costs to taxpayers of adapting to climate change are rising.
“San Miguel County has been experiencing direct impacts from climate change that has cost our taxpayers money. The ski resort (Telluride) is one piece,” county attorney Amy Markwell said. “And we are seeing negative impacts to our roads. And, with droughts, there’s a direct impact on ranching.”
Colorado county officials “are going to going to have to figure out what the bottom line cost is for damages,” Markwell said. “That will be coming.”
The 109-page lawsuit argues that Suncor and Exxon “substantially contributed to, accelerated, and exacerbated human-caused climate change by promoting and selling huge amounts of fossil fuels.” It argues that the companies “concealed and misrepresented to the public what they knew about climate change and the dangers of continued and increasing fossil fuel use.”
The communities contend that, because Suncor and Exxon rank among the world’s largest contributors to climate change, they must help address the impact of using fossil fuels. Suncor and Exxon jointly own the bulk of Syncrude Canada, a developer of Canada’s tar sands to produce more fossil fuels.
“Their future carbon footprint is likely to be enormous,” the communities said in a prepared statement. “Both companies plan to expand fossil fuel production through tar sands, fracking, and other means.”
Colorado Oil and Gas Industry Association president Dan Haley denounced the lawsuit, calling it a “political stunt.”
“This is not a serious way to address climate concerns,” Haley said in a prepared statement conveyed by a COGA spokesman.
“Oil and natural gas operators should not be subject to liability for doing nothing more than engaging in the act of commerce while adhering to our already stringent state and federal laws,” Haley said.
U.S. carbon emissions are lower than they’ve been in 25 years due to increased use of natural gas — cleaner than coal — for generating electricity, industry officials contend.
The National Association of Manufacturers also weighed in. “These baseless lawsuits do nothing to improve the environment and are a waste of taxpayer resources,” the association’s accountability project director Lindsey de la Torre said. “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.”
Environment groups backed the communities.
“For too long, oil companies have knowingly profited by selling a product that is driving the climate crisis and expected communities not only to suffer the effects of climate change but to pick up the massive tab with their tax dollars,” Sierra Club attorney Joanne Spalding said.
“We applaud these governments for taking their responsibility to taxpayers seriously and holding oil companies accountable for the damage they’ve done to Colorado communities and the planet,” she said.