Local Colorado Governments Face Pushback After Suing Oil Producers

Boulder has history of aggressive actions on environmental issues

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Three local governments in Colorado have launched a federal lawsuit similar to ones by cities like San Francisco and New York City alleging major oil producers knew as early as the 1980s that their products would cause environmental harm due to climate change and should create reparations funds.

The New York Times hailed the development as a new milestone in the debate with the headline, "Climate Lawsuits, Once Limited to the Coasts, Jump Inland."

However, the legal actions by the city and county of Boulder as well as San Miguel County, home to the ski resort town of Telluride, might be considered outliers of public opinion in the swing state.

Fewer than two days after a public announcement of those governments' intention to sue oil giants Exxon and Suncor, the Denver Post published an editorial dismissing the comparisons made by litigants that the behavior of oil companies resembles that of tobacco companies.

Without fossil fuels, transportation would stagger to a halt, agricultural productivity would plummet, millions would suffer from cold, heat and hunger, and untold legions would suffer premature death.

That's why any comparison between fossil fuel companies and the tobacco industry, whose product is a health disaster with no redeeming economic value, is so wide of the mark. And yet officials from the city of Boulder, Boulder County and San Miguel County who are seeking damages in a recently filed climate lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor had no trouble invoking this false equivalence in defending the litigation.

Former Colorado attorney general Gale Norton—who took part in the multistate suit against tobacco companies as Colorado AG and served as Interior Secretary in the George W. Bush administration—blasted the comparison as well. Additionally, Colorado's Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman joined in an amicus brief with other Republicans AGs against the similar lawsuit already underway by San Francisco and Oakland in federal court in California.

Boulder County spokeswoman Barb Halpin told the Washington Free Beacon by email that Coffman's actions with the amicus brief were no surprise.

"Coffman has consistently sided with big oil and used her office to hamper efforts by local governments in Colorado to protect our residents from the impacts of oil and gas development, including operations located near homes and schools," Halpin said. "In fact, a year ago, Coffman sued Boulder County over its oil and gas moratorium."

Halpin says the county commissioners also take issue with many of the points in the Post editorial, and have submitted a response back to the paper they hope will be published, of which Halpin shared this portion:

"We have brought this lawsuit because Exxon and Suncor are substantially responsible for the climate impacts we now face. We are not seeking to pin the entire cost of climate change on these companies. They will only be liable for their own contributions to the problem, and a jury will need to decide how much responsibility they bear. That is not 100% of the responsibility, but it is also not zero."

Halpin did not respond to a follow-up question asking if the county should have disclosed the future damages of climate change to past bond investors, or if the county should disclose those risks in future bond offerings.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute asked the Securities and Exchange Commission in February to investigate whether some cities had committed bond fraud by claiming risks of climate change in their lawsuits against energy companies, but downplayed those risks in bond offerings.

Both the city and the county of Boulder are known as liberal hotbeds in a purple state that elected a Democrat to the governor's seat in 2014, but also elected conservative Republican Cory Gardner to the U.S. Senate the same year. According to county statistics published online, almost 39,000 of the 241,707 registered voters in the county are Republican. About 105,000 are Democrats, and almost 94,000 more are unaffiliated.

And both the county and the city have a history of some of the most aggressive actions in the nation with regards to environmental causes.

For example, after then-President George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the Kyoto protocol, Boulder voters approved a range of taxes in 2006 to phase-in efforts at being compliant with the discarded environmental treaty, which called for carbon emissions to be seven percent lower than 1990 levels.

By April of 2008, the Boulder Daily Camera reported that with residential electric users paying $13 more a year in carbon taxes, the city was only about halfway to its Kyoto goals, and completing the remainder of the goal would come at an increasing rate of expense.

In 2014, the City of Boulder initiated condemnation proceedings against the main electric supplier, Xcel Energy, "filing a legal petition seeking to acquire through eminent domain portions of the company's electric distribution network to serve as the backbone of a future municipal utility," according to the Camera.

"Boulder officials argued that a city-run utility could produce greener power than Xcel at similar or lower rates and with similar or better reliability," the report noted.

Elements of that takeover of assets to create the municipal utility were still being negotiated as of early this year.