Can these Colorado governments win lawsuit again fossil fuel companies?

Extraction of bitumen in the oil sands near Fort McMurray, October 2011. Photo/Allen Best

Colorado governments press on in lawsuit against Suncor & ExxonMobil

This story was published in the  Dec. 21, 2018, issue of Mountain Town News.

 by Allen Best

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Earlier this year San Miguel County joined with Boulder County and the City of Boulder in filing a lawsuit against Suncor and ExxonMobil.

Similar to the letters sent by the British Columbia municipalities, the lawsuit demands the fossil fuel companies pay for costs associated with climate change impacts.

A press release issued in April said that Suncor—which operates an oil refinery in metropolitan Denver that partly uses bitumen from the tar/oil sands of Alberta—with knowing the consequences of fossil fuel use for more than a half century. “Yet they continued to promote and sell their products, while recklessly deceiving the public and policymaker about the dangers.”

“We are a small rural county dependent on tourism and farming and ranching. a natural disaster here could wipe out our reserves,” said Hilary Cooper, a San Miguel county commissioner. “Unabated fossil fuel production is already impacting our climate. These changes will grow more intense over time.”

What is the status of that lawsuit? Marco Simons, the Americas regional program director and general counsel for EarthRights International, which is providing legal support for the Colorado governments, reports that nothing material has been decided. The two companies are trying to get the case heard in federal court in Colorado, and the local governments argue for a hearing in a state court.

Simons insists that the lawsuit is just not an effort to draw attention and enlarge the conversation about greenhouse gas emissions. The oil companies need to come up with money to pay for localized climate change impacts. They have profited, and they continue to profit—and those profits must also be used to pay impacts.

“Do we hope that this also spurs discussion about climate policy? Sure. And do we have other evidence that it is happening? Yes. the fossil fuel industry is terrified of liability, and the reason we know this is because oil companies have started to sign onto carbon tax plans that would impose a carbon tax in exchange for indemnification of liability.”

He pointed specifically to a group called Americans for Carbon Dividends, headed by former U.S. Senators Trent Lott, a Republican, and John Breaux, a Democrat. The group is funded in part by ExxonMobil.

“It shows they (Exxon) are extremely concerned about the possibility that they would be held accountable for their acts,” says Simon.

Suncor satisfies about 35 percent of demand for gasoline and diesel fuel in Colorado, according to the April press release. Suncor and Exxon work closely to market and sell fossil fuels in Colorado. The two companies jointly own the majority of Syncrude Canada, one of the largest developers of the tar/oil sands.

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