Startling climate change conclusions of Colorado researcher

Suncor, which operates a refiner in Denver, is the defendant in a lawsuit filed by three Colorado jurisdictions that claims climate change impacts. Photo/Allen Best

Findings of a Colorado data miner could be pivotal in climate change lawsuits

by Allen Best

A startling fact has emerged from what the New York Times Magazine describes as a basement full of dusty reports in the mountains of Colorado.

There, climate data researcher Rich Heede has concluded that if you include all the carbon extracted and supplied, just 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of all the greenhouse gases emitted between 1751 and 2016.

“Even more startling,” the story goes on to say, “more than half those emissions have occurred since 1988, the year that the climate scientist James Hansen, then at NASA, appeared before Congress to urge that ‘it is time to stop waffling’ and recognize the clear link between the emission of greenhouse gases and the warming of the planet.”

Heede, who has a non-profit called Climate Accountability Institute, seems to work from a home overlooking Capitol Creek. This is a valley away from Snowmass, perhaps 25 minutes from Aspen. Nearby, in the early 1980s, Amory Lovins and his then-wife, Hunter Lovins, founded his now-famous Rocky Mountain Institute. Heede shows up at some of the same energy and climate conferences I attend. I’ve engaged him in conversation a time or two, even got him to buy a small advertisement in Mountain Town News.

The Times explains that Heede has spent much of the last 16 years searching through archives to find reports about how much fossil-fuel companies extracted during their sometimes long histories. He then “estimates how much fossil fuel was used for a company’s own operations, how much diverted for things like asphalt or petrochemical production, how much volatilized into the atmosphere.” It is, says the NY Times Magazine writer, Brooke Jarvis, tedious work.

But Heede’s work is also perhaps pivotal to a growing body of lawsuits being filed around the world against fossil fuel companies. They include a lawsuit filed last year by Colorado’s San Miguel County and two other local jurisdictions, the municipality of Boulder and Boulder County, linking the profits of Suncor and ExxonMobil with emerging impacts of increased wildfire, extreme weather, and so forth.

That lawsuit on the face of it looks almost frivolous. How can you connect these dots of specific causality when even now the impacts to climate of rising temperatures have barely emerged from the noisy range of natural variability?

The NY Times Magazine piece makes the same point: “The sheer vastness of the climate problem has been a boon to defendants.” One lawyer who has spent his career defending large companies in environmental litigation says he would broaden the case as much as possible. “I would basically create a historical tableau and put civilization on trial.”

Just last year, a federal judge dismissed the claims filed by Oakland and San Francisco against five oil companies. “The dangers raised in the complaints are very real,” Judge William Alsup wrote. “But those dangers are worldwide. Their causes are worldwide. The benefits of fossil fuels are worldwide. The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public-nuisance case.”

But for plaintiffs in the new wave of cases—including, presumably, those involving the Colorado jurisdictions—such defenses “represent a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the lawsuits are claiming but also of what the law is capable of handling.”

Jarvis starts her story in a Peruvian village threatened by disintegrating glaciers. The loss of ice threatens the village in several ways, including the possibility of a calving glacier plunging into a lake above the town, causing flooding. She’s apparently bilingual and it served her well when she was doing her reporting there, connecting well with a villager—a farmer and guide—who is the face for a lawsuit filed against a German fossil fuel company. The lawsuit was not dismissed easily, as in the Oakland and San Francisco cases, but has moved to the evidentiary phrase.

If the Colorado lawsuit gets that far, it will still face a long list of difficult questions, among them those posed by Jarvis in her story:

“Where on the chain of causality—from coal extraction to power generation, for example— does responsibility lie? How do we put a dollar amount on the degree of liability? How do we account for non-climate variables, such as whether a city magnified its exposure to damages from wildfire or rising seas by permitting development in risky places? How should other contributors to climate change, from deforestation to population growth, be considered?”

But at one time lawsuits against tobacco companies looked like long-shots, too. She reports that proponents of lawsuits against fossil-fuel companies have studied the earlier lawsuits carefully. “The tide began to turn against the tobacco industry once subpoenaed documents showed a longstanding conspiracy to cover up the harms of smoking,” she says.

In the case of fossil fuels, what might this look like? After all, we do have evidence of Exxon realizing the risks of fossil fuels decades ago. “Some observers imagine a future in which fossil-fuel companies support carbon regulation because it includes a provision shielding them from a morass of liability.” There are other ideas where all this may go.

If you’ve made it this far, you probably have enough interest in reading the entire story.

I also recommend the climate pricing story in the same issue:


Allen Best

6 thoughts on “Startling climate change conclusions of Colorado researcher”

  1. I presume Mr. Heede compiled the names of all the global sources of green house gases between 1751 and 2016. Those non US sources dwarf the CO2 output of the USA and are infinite compared to several tobacco companies.

    And there is a question of jurisdiction and standing. This seems to be a case of We vs. Us.

    I do not hold with settling a scientific or religious controversy in a court of law. It reduces the contest to dummies arguing against dummies, with a certified dummy as referee. Perhaps the court should enjoin Allah as being a false god, then work down. (My apologies to all who hold that he is great.)

    This is an absurdity, but unfortunately, not starling.

  2. Being a former engineer for a large power company and having earned a Master of Science in Energy and the Environment, I had PV panels installed three years ago, with my estimated payback of 15-17 years, . . the right thing for an eco-freak to do.

    Before they could be installed, we acquired a VW e-Golf electric car. The savings in gasoline alone took the solar system payback down to 3 1/2 years. So, we added another electric car, and that took the payback down to less than three years, which means we now get free power for household and transportation.

    But that is not all: We do not need to go to gas stations, we fuel up at home at night with cheap baseload power. During the daytime, the PV system turns our meter backwards powering the neighborhood with clean local power, which we trade for the stuff used the night before. If we paid for transportation fuel, the VW would cost us 3 cents/mile to drive, and the Tesla Model S P 85 would cost 4 cents/mile at California power prices.

    No oil changes are a real treat along with no leaks. And since it has an electric motor, it needs NO ENGINE MAINTENANCE at all. We do not go “gas up”, or get tune-ups or emissions checks, have no transmission about which to worry, no complicated machined parts needing care.

    The future is already here.

    • Yes. Your electric cars do need a petroleum product to function. It’s called grease. Unless you are able to bend the laws of physics to eradicate friction of rotating shafts against a bearing, you still depend on petroleum. If you have sealed bearings, there is a tremendously reduced effectiveness of those bearings as the car ages. You will begin to lose mileage, and eventually they disintegrate without proper servicing(new bearings, or additional grease.) Secondly, all you did was push the carbon footprint of your cars to the coal fueled power plants. Lastly, you obviously don’t drive very much or in a colder climate. The efficiency of the batteries reduces to about 60% in colder weather. Your 50 miles a day on battery reduces to 30 below freezing. With a Masters degree, you know this. Your omission tells me everything I need to know about you. You are an advocate(read: propagandist), and not a scientist or engineer.

    • I own an EV and keep close track of the numbers. Please tell us how many miles you drive that e-Golf, and which vehicle you are comparing it to when calculating the savings.

      I had a house built two years ago and carefully studied the idea of solar panels. I decided against it, largely on cost grounds. Please tell me approximately where you live. Not the street address, but how about the town? What is your utility’s electricity rate? Are there time-of-use rates? A monthly customer charge? Any other add-ons?

      From your narrative, it sounds like you have the benefit of net metering. How much electricity do you send back to your utility each year? As you know, 50%-60% of electricity rates are not for the energy itself, but go to local grid maintenance and utility administration. I’d like to calculate the subsidy you’re getting.


      • To add: I am completely numbers-driven on this stuff. For example, your 2 cents to 3 cents a mile in an electric car matches what I have observed, at my rate of 9.5 cents per kWh.

        Now, where I live, there will soon be an extra $120 yearly fee on my EV to recapture lost gas taxes. This rate is far too high, given the fuel economy of my EV and the miles I drive — about 4,000 a year. It amounts to a penalty on EV use relative to the equivalent gas car, even if fuel economy is discarded.

        More and more states are implementing these fees, including states whose political leaders promote renewable energy schemes, including EVs. The hypocrisy is blatant, but that’s what politics is all about.

        Anyway, on the numbers front, I am very interested in your solar panel numbers: How much they cost, how much they produce, and how much power you are feeding back to the grid. I am skeptical of your claim that you’ve reduced the payback by as much as you have, but I am always persuaded by the actual numbers.

        When I investigated solar panels, the first challenge was to find accurate information. These things, both EVs and solar panels, tend to produce inflated claims. I have been able to clear away that dross, so I am hoping that you are secure enough to have a candid conversation.

        By the way, I am even more skeptical of Mark Browlee’s post, at least the part about bearings. If that’s evidence that petroleum is involved, all I can do is chuckle, because I don’t know of anyone — even the worst EVangelists — who claim that there’s no petroleum involved in EVs. But there’s a lot less.

        Similarly, his implication that EVs are fueled by coal plants is foolish. This varies a great deal depending on where someone lives; at the U.S. average (roughly 30% coal, 30% natural gas, 20% nuclear, 7% hydro, and 13% other stuff) EVs cannot be said to be “coal powered,” except in a couple of states.

        On the other hand, he’s correct about the seasonal variation in EV fuel economy. Translated into equivalent miles per gallon based on the energy content of gasoline, my EV bottoms out at about 95 mpg-e in winter and tops out at just over 140 mpg-e in August.

        Regardless of anyone’s advocacy, I insist on accuracy. This reflects my personal history, first as a professional journalist (when that actually meant anything) and then as a financial professional. In both of those careers as I practiced them, departure from facts didn’t last long.

        Finally, in addition to my EV that I use for short hops into town (I live in a rural area) for errands, I own a one-ton diesel pickup truck. I thus have one foot in each pond, and don’t become self-righteous about any of it. So, George Kamburoff, let’s have a factual dialogue. I know, it’s the Internet, where facts are often hard to come by, at least in comment sections. Hope springs eternal.

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