DENVER — Coastal municipalities like New York City and San Francisco suing oil companies over rising sea levels gained an unexpected ally Tuesday with Boulder County, which is about 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean.
Still, officials in the liberal Colorado enclave insisted they have their own reasons for seeking a nine-figure award from energy giants ExxonMobil and Suncor, blaming them for local “climate change impacts” such as drought, flooding, wildfires and bark beetles.
“We’re sending a really important message today that the interior west, the interior of the United States, is also on the front lines of climate change, and we need climate accountability as well,” said Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones at a Tuesday rally.
EarthRights International filed the lawsuit on behalf of the college town as well as Boulder County and San Miguel County, which join the Big Apple and eight California communities in seeking to fortify themselves against climate change with an enormous industry payout.
Marco Simons, EarthRights International general counsel, said the lawsuit “is the first of its kind in the Mountain West, and it demonstrates that climate change impacts are being felt throughout the country.”
EarthRights estimated that the costs of climate change to the three communities would exceed $100 million by 2050.
“Just like the tobacco companies, Suncor and Exxon sold a product that they knew would bring about harm and misled the public about its dangers,” said Mr. Simons. “This is one of many legal strategies to fight climate change.”
ExxonMobil spokesman Scott Silvestri fired back with a statement describing climate change as “a global issue.”
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions,” said Mr. Silvestri. “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.”
While EarthRights said it would provide pro bono legal representation, the group will be assisted by the Hannon Law Firm in Denver on a 20 percent contingency basis. The Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., will also assist on a pro bono basis.
Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, called the lawsuit a “political stunt” that seeks “to have judges, rather than the appropriate regulatory oversight agencies, decide how much carbon dioxide a company emits.”
“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,” Mr. Haley said in a statement.
He added that courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have rejected similar arguments, but the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Chris Horner said that the municipalities don’t need to prevail in court to score a win against the oil industry.
“This is the latest in a long-planned series of staggered actions, by different levels of governmental subdivision, designed not to win but to settle,” Mr. Horner told Western Wire.
The end game would be to secure “vows of silence in the climate debate” from oil companies, he said, along with pledges to sever ties to free-market advocacy groups and make “contributions to a massive settlement fund.”
The California lawsuits filed last year have already hit a few bumps. The communities were accused of fraud after Exxon pointed out that they failed to disclose or downplayed the risk of sea-level rise in their pre-lawsuit bond offerings.
At last month’s unprecedented climate “tutorial,” U.S. District Court William Alsup asked attorneys for Oakland and San Francisco what caused the pre-industrial ice ages and subsequent melting.
The judge also expressed skepticism about the lawsuit’s allegation that Exxon tried to suppress its climate-change research, saying the claim was based on an internal document summarizing the 1995 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was publicly available.
“I said, ‘OK, this is going to be a big thing. I want to see it,’” said Judge Alsup, according to the March 21 court transcript. “Well, it turned out it wasn’t quite that. What it was was a slide show that somebody had gone to the IPCC and was reporting on what the IPCC had reported, and that was it. Nothing more.”
William Perry Pendley, president of the free-market Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, warned that Boulder taxpayers could be on the hook for “hefty fines” instead of millions in oil-and-gas cash if the court deems the lawsuit frivolous.
“It is no surprise that tax and spend politicians in Boulder joined with their allies in California and New York City in search of deep pockets to pay for their costly radical leftwing boondoggles,” Mr. Pendley said. “But taxpayers who think at least they will not have to pay for this pricey misadventure and might even get some tax relief if it is successful, should think again.”
Those speaking Tuesday on behalf of the Boulder lawsuit included representatives the local chapters of 350.org, the Sierra Club and EarthGuardians.
Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado, cited the 2013 flood and recent devastating wildfires as evidence of climate change’s “serious impacts,” and warned that the fossil-fuel industry would attempt to “cast doubt on this lawsuit, just as they’ve tried to cast doubt on climate change for decades.”
“We need to shift the costs back to these companies that have profited off their demands for unabated pollution in the face of global climate destabilization,” she said.
Rebecca Dixon, chair of the Sierra Club Indian Peaks chapter called for making such litigation “our new normal.”
“Let’s make this our new norm, our new normal, our new happier normal, that is, we sue the industries that have caused this,” Ms. Dixon said.
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