Eight days after the Marshall Fire [in Colorado in 2021], U.S. President Joe Biden toured the wreckage and gave a speech to the community, saying, “We can’t ignore the reality that these fires are being supercharged. They’re being supercharged by a change in the weather.”
Three years before the Marshall Fire, Boulder and San Miguel counties had filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the oil companies Exxon and Suncor by claiming much the same thing. Changes in the climate — driven, at least in part, by the burning of Exxon and Suncor’s fossil fuels — have harmed their citizens and damaged their infrastructure, economies and natural environment, entitling them to compensation from the oil companies for those damages, the two counties claim.
Together, Boulder and San Miguel are part of a small but growing number of cities, states and counties seeking to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for damages allegedly caused by their emissions or for allegedly misleading consumers about their product’s impact on the environment. Some involve densely populated urban areas like New York City and San Francisco. Others are taking place in some of the smallest and most idyllic regions in the U.S., like Boulder and Maui in Hawaii, which was devastated by a historic and unprecedented wildfire in August.
For years, many of these suits have bounced between state and federal courts as fossil fuel companies seek more favorable rulings in the latter. But recent rulings from the Supreme Court and a handful of state courts have appeared to settle the question of jurisdiction, upholding the plaintiffs’ argument that their cases should be heard in state courts. And now, after members of the United Nations included language about transitioning the global energy system away from fossil fuels at the conclusion of COP28, these cases take on new stakes. If the plaintiffs are successful, environmental law experts say these cases may establish a legal precedent that could drastically alter an oil company’s cost of doing business, as a loss in just one case could cost a company billions. A victory could also serve as the basis for a nationwide settlement, or spark a wave of similar litigation across the U.S. Even one of those outcomes would be unprecedented, but given the similarities of the claims being made in each case, it may take only one favorable ruling to trigger an avalanche of similar litigation worldwide. [Continue reading…]