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Facing Fires and Floods, Colorado Communities Launch Landmark Suit Against Fossil Fuel Companies

"Climate change is not just about sea level rise. It affects all of us in the middle of the country as well."

fire in Calif.

A fire burns in the Mount Saint Francois area of Colorado Springs, Colorado in 2012. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr/cc)

Taking a cue from coastal communities that are aiming to hold the fossil fuel industry legally accountable for significantly contributing to the climate crisis, three Colorado municipalities are suing ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy "for the substantial role they played and continue to play in causing, contributing to, and exacerbating climate change."

"These oil companies need to pay their fair share."
—Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones

San Miguel County, Boulder County, and the city of Boulder—which filed the lawsuit (pdf) in Colorado state court on Wednesday—are believed to be the first inland communities to seek compensation from oil and gas companies for climate-related damage to the health, safety, welfare, and property of their residents.

"Climate change is not just about sea level rise," noted Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. "It affects all of us in the middle of the country as well."

A large number of residents in these rural communities depend on tourism, farming, and ranching to get by—activities that are increasingly affected by intensifying heat waves, wildfires, droughts, and floods. Scientists—including those within the fossil fuel industry—have for years warned about extreme weather consequences of global warming, which is driven largely by greenhouse gas emissions from dirty energy.

"For over 50 years, Suncor and Exxon have known that fossil fuels would cause severe climate impacts. To enhance their own profits, they concealed this knowledge and spread doubt about science they knew to be correct," said Marco Simons, general counsel for EarthRights International, which is representing the Colorado communities alongside the Niskanen Center.

These oil companies need to pay their fair share," declared Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones.

The suit was celebrated by environmental groups and activists.

Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmell pointed out that "communities in Colorado and across the country are already doing what they can to curb their carbon emissions and are spending millions of dollars to adapt to a wide array of harms caused by global warming."

"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," said Micah Parkin of 350 Colorado.

Rebecca Dickson, chair of a local Sierra Club group, called for "a cultural shift."

"The fossil fuel industry has normalized oil and gas in our lives while concealing the dangers," Dickson said. "In the future, when we talk about 'energy,' we should be referring to renewable energy, not fossil fuels."

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