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California is suing big oil. Why doesn’t Colorado?


California is suing big oil. Why doesn’t Colorado?

Sep 21, 2023 | 12:59 pm ET
By Quentin Young
California is suing big oil. Why doesn’t Colorado?
Aboard a Colorado National Guard helicopter, Gov. Jared Polis looks down on Boulder County neighborhoods destroyed by the Marshall Fire. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR, pool)

California last week filed a landmark lawsuit that seeks to hold the biggest oil and gas companies accountable for their role in causing the climate crisis.

The lawsuit cites decades of deceit by fossil fuel executives, who knew from internal reports that their products would warm the planet but told the public a different story, and it asks the court to make the companies pay for damage from climate change.

The civil case is seen as a game-changer, not least because it could spur other states to follow its lead. The thrust of the complaint could be argued with minimal alteration in Colorado, and in fact, a couple of the California defendants have a significant presence in Colorado.

If the allegations are true there, they’re true here, and there’s every reason Colorado — where human-caused climate change has already exacted an incalculable toll — should also hold big oil to account in the courts.

Championed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, the lawsuit was filed in San Francisco County Superior Court by Democratic California Attorney General Rob Bonta against fossil fuel companies ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, as well the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group. It says California has suffered disasters due to the widespread combustion of fossil fuels.

“Oil and gas company executives have known for decades that reliance on fossil fuels would cause these catastrophic results, but they suppressed that information from the public and policymakers by actively pushing out disinformation on the topic. Their deception caused a delayed societal response to global warming,” the suit says.

California is not the first government plaintiff to go after oil and gas companies. A raft of local governments and even some states have filed similar accountability lawsuits. Boulder and San Miguel counties, for example, are suing ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy to recoup climate change costs. But California’s status as a top oil producer and the world’s fifth-largest economy makes its case a bellwether.

The lawsuit says the California public has spent billions of dollars to recover from wildfires, drought, superstorms, dwindling water supplies, extreme heat and other climate change hazards, and it seeks “to hold those companies accountable for the lies they have told and the damage they have caused.”

How is this any different than the climate crisis in Colorado?

Some observers predict the California action could unleash a wave of climate lawsuits against big oil in states across the country. That should include Colorado.

The 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County was the most destructive wildfire in state history. The three largest wildfires in Colorado history all occurred in 2020, and the state’s 20 biggest fires on record all happened in the past two decades. The Southwest U.S., including Colorado, is undergoing aridification, and the Colorado River Basin is experiencing a “megadrought,” the worst in 1,200 years.

Climate change is a primary factor in these disasters, which are costing the state and its residents billions of dollars. Why shouldn’t lying fossil fuel behemoths pay for what they’ve done?

Chevron, named in the California lawsuit, is the largest oil and gas company operating in Colorado, a top-5 oil-producing state (Colorado as of 2021 produced more oil than even California). It runs a massive operation across the Denver-Julesburg Basin, in Weld County.

According to the California lawsuit, this industrial giant ran a “campaign of deception” about climate change that was “designed to conceal and mislead consumers and the public … about the serious adverse consequences that would result from continued use of Chevron’s products.”

Are Coloradans OK with that?

The American Petroleum Institute is active in Colorado. This is a trade association that for at least 35 years “participated in and led several coalitions, front groups, and organizations that have promoted disinformation about the climate impacts of fossil fuel products to consumers,” according to the lawsuit.

Do Coloradans just allow such deceit to go on?

Some observers predict the California action could unleash a wave of climate lawsuits against big oil in states across the country. That should include Colorado.

Micah Parkin, executive director and co-founder of 350 Colorado, a climate advocacy nonprofit, said she would welcome a Colorado version of the California lawsuit.

“The oil and gas industry is the No. 1 cause of greenhouse gas emissions causing the climate crisis in Colorado and elsewhere. It’s also the No. 1 cause of our severe air quality problems in Colorado. But they don’t want to do anything about it,” Parkin told Newsline this week. “We would encourage Gov. (Jared) Polis to follow Newsom’s lead and hold the oil and gas industry, the fossil fuel industry, accountable for the harms that they’re causing.”

Polis is no Newsom. His rhetoric on the climate often suggests he takes the crisis seriously, but he has consistently disappointed environmentalists in Colorado with his preference for market-driven and voluntary action when forming air pollution and climate policy. The state is falling behind on its own greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, and, incredibly, oil and gas production is projected to increase in the state through about 2030.

But, as climate change threatens to leave vast swaths of Earth uninhabitable, the stakes are too high for half measures.

The momentum of accountability in California creates an opportunity for a parallel move in Colorado. If state officials want to be on the right side of history, they should not pass it up.