Sunday, December 10, 2023

California is suing the big oil company. Why not Colorado?

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

The lawsuit cites decades of deception by fossil fuel executives who knew from internal reports that their products would warm the planet but told the public a different story, and asks the court to hold the companies accountable for damages caused by climate change to arise.

The civil case is seen as groundbreaking, not least because it could inspire other states to follow its example. The core tenets of the lawsuit could be argued in Colorado with minimal modification, and in fact some of the California defendants have a significant presence in Colorado.

If the allegations there are true, then they are true here, and there is every reason why Colorado — where human-caused climate change has already taken an incalculable toll — should also hold big oil to account in court.


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

“Oil and gas executives have known for decades that reliance on fossil fuels would lead to these catastrophic consequences, but they suppressed this information from the public and policymakers by actively spreading disinformation on the topic. Their deception resulted in a delayed societal response to global warming,” the lawsuit says.

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California is not the first government plaintiff to take action against oil and gas companies. A number of local governments and even some states have filed similar liability lawsuits. Boulder and San Miguel counties, for example, are suing ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy to offset the costs of climate change. But California’s status as a leading oil producer and the world’s fifth-largest economy makes his argument worth mentioning.

The lawsuit says the California public has spent billions of dollars recovering from wildfires, droughts, superstorms, dwindling water supplies, extreme heat and other dangers of climate change, and seeks to “hold these companies accountable for the lies that they told, and to hold accountable for the damage they have caused.”

How is this different from the climate crisis in Colorado?

Some observers say California’s measure could spark a wave of climate lawsuits against big oil companies in states across the country. This should include Colorado.

The 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County was the most devastating wildfire in the state’s history. The three largest wildfires in Colorado history all occurred in 2020, and the state’s 20 largest wildfires on record all occurred in the last two decades. The southwestern United States, including Colorado, is experiencing drought, and the Colorado River Basin is experiencing a “megadrought,” the worst in 1,200 years.

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Climate change is a major factor in these disasters, which cost the state and its residents billions of dollars. Why shouldn’t lying fossil fuel giants pay for what they did?

Chevron, named in the California lawsuit, is the largest oil and gas company operating in Colorado, one of the five oil-producing states (Colorado produced more oil than even California in 2021). It operates a massive operation throughout the Denver-Julesburg Basin in Weld County.

According to the California lawsuit, this industrial giant conducted a “campaign of deception” about climate change that was “intended to obscure and mislead consumers and the public… about the serious negative consequences resulting from the continued use of Chevron products would result.”

Are Coloradans OK with this?

The American Petroleum Institute operates in Colorado. This is a trade association that for at least 35 years “has been involved in and led multiple coalitions, front groups and organizations that have spread disinformation to consumers about the climate impacts of fossil fuel products,” the lawsuit says.

Do Colorado residents simply allow such deceptions?

Some observers say California’s measure could spark a wave of climate lawsuits against big oil companies in states across the country. This should include Colorado.

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

“The oil and gas industry is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate crisis in Colorado and elsewhere. It is also the leading cause of our serious air quality problems in Colorado. But they don’t want to do anything about it,” Parkin told Newsline this week. “We want to encourage Governor (Jared) Polis to follow Newsom’s lead and hold the oil and gas and fossil fuel industries accountable for the harm they cause.”

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

But with climate change threatening to make large parts of the Earth uninhabitable, there is too much at stake to do things by halves.

The accountability dynamics in California provide the opportunity for a parallel move in Colorado. If public officials want to be on the right side of history, they shouldn’t miss this.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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