Colorado springs on climate change lawsuit bonanza
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The Colorado counties of Boulder and San Miguel have copied earlier lawsuits against a pair of big oil companies, alleging that Suncor Energy and ExxonMobil have “knowingly and substantially contributed to the climate crisis... while concealing and misrepresenting the dangers associated with their intended use.”
According to The New York Times, the previous lawsuits originated with coastal counties and cities in California and New York concerned largely with damage resulting from rise of sea levels or harsher storms. The plaintiffs in Colorado mainly seek to place responsibility for the reduction of the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains—vital not only to agriculture but also to the lucrative string of ski resorts. Historically, such suits have not met with much success. For instance, in 2009 a federal court dismissed the environmental case of the Alaskan village of Kivalina whose population faced inevitable relocation due to land erosion caused by melting arctic ice.
The companies in question intend to employ all legal methods of resistance. One such method questions the scale and effectiveness of county level reparations. Exxon Mobil spokesman Scott Silvestri noted that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. Lawsuits like this — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.” Related to this, a more practical defense revolves around shifting the cases from state to federal courts.
Cases within a state derive their legal basis from nuisance common laws—which impute responsibility based on disruption of property use. Nuisance reasoning has achieved much less success in federal courts. The accused companies have also banded together in certain California cases, pushing for dismissal. In the earlier cases, Exxon Mobil's defense remarked that although the lawsuit alleged “imminent sea level rise presented a substantial threat,” the endangered counties made no mention of this threat while selling bonds.
Michael Burger of Columbia University considers the cases unlikely to succeed but believes they may push the companies to alter their operations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association scoffs at the latest suit as a “political stunt.” The president of the trade group stated that environmental regulatory agencies already exist. He stated that “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.” The Coloradan lawsuit is the 10th such attempt filed this year.