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Colorado communities notch a win at the Supreme Court in fight against big oil

A neighborhood in Louisville in Boulder County, Colorado, after the devastating Marshall Fire in 2021.
Adobe Stock
A neighborhood in Louisville in Boulder County, Colorado, after the devastating Marshall Fire in 2021.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to weigh in late last month on a slew of lawsuits against oil companies filed by local municipalities – including three local governments in Colorado. The decision is considered a victory for those communities, as it means state courts could potentially decide whether the fossil fuel industry should help pay for damages caused by climate change.

In Colorado, Boulder County, the City of Boulder and San Miguel County are arguing that their taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the full cost of climate-related disasters exacerbated by the fossil fuel industry. Exxon Mobil and Suncor Energy had sought to move the cases to federal court. The Colorado plaintiffs lauded the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the oil companies' petitions.

“Today, the court affirmed what we know to be true – our case deserves its day in local court, where our communities experience the impacts and costs of climate change," said Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett in a statement. "Oil companies are making record profits while our planet continues to warm. It’s only fair that the companies that profit from irresponsible actions compensate communities for the harm they cause.”

Lawyers representing the town and counties have said their case is similar to previous suits against tobacco companies. They argue oil and gas companies knew decades ago the harm they were causing and concealed it.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry had been stymying the lawsuits for years through appeals, arguing that these cases should be heard in federal court because the issue of climate change has global consequences. Trials are still likely years away, but any eventual settlements could cost oil and gas companies billions.

“This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless lawsuits against companies providing affordable, reliable and cleaner energy is nothing more than a distraction from these important issues and waste of taxpayer resources,” Ryan Meyers of the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement. “We’re disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision today to keep this litigation in state court. But ultimately, climate policy is an issue for Congress to debate, not the court system.”

Keeping the cases in state courts means they're likely to stay in the spotlight longer, according to University of Wyoming law professor Sam Kalen. He said it also means local communities are more likely to succeed, in part because state laws are more flexible.

“Whether those are consumer-protection type state statutes, their disclosure statutes, or whatever the types of claims that might be brought, the state courts have the ability to interpret those state statutes,” Kalen said. “They, too, could interpret them a little bit more flexibly to arguably include the types of allegations in these complaints.”

Local cases could also face more sympathetic juries who are more impacted by climate disasters like wildfires in their communities.

The Supreme Court will hear another request from oil and gas companies to move a lawsuit to federal court on May 11.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey