Exxon and Suncor lose bid to escape Boulder’s climate change lawsuit

A Colorado judge rejects ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy’s attempts to dismiss a lawsuit holding them accountable for climate change-related damages.

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A Colorado judge has rejected ExxonMobil and subsidiaries of Suncor Energy’s attempts to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Boulder County, alleging the companies contributed to climate change by concealing the dangers of fossil fuel use. Boulder County District Court Judge Robert Gunning ruled against the companies’ claims that Colorado courts lacked jurisdiction and that federal law trumped the state-law claims.

Judge Gunning’s decision underscores the ongoing legal battles faced by energy companies accused of contributing to climate change. The ruling follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of the companies’ efforts to move the lawsuit to federal court last year. This case is one of many similar lawsuits brought by state and local governments across the nation.

Boulder’s lawsuit, filed in 2018, alleges that ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy knew for decades that burning fossil fuels would lead to climate change but failed to inform the public about the dangers of their products and carbon emissions. The lawsuit accuses the companies of violating Colorado’s consumer protection law and various state tort laws, creating a public nuisance that they should be held responsible for mitigating.

Judge Gunning disagreed with the energy companies’ arguments that federal law, including the Clean Air Act, preempted the state-law claims. He stated, “The energy companies are arguing against a case the local governments did not plead. Through this action, the local governments are not attempting to litigate a policy solution to global climate change, limit fossil fuel use or production, or control greenhouse gas emissions.” Instead, the local governments are seeking damages under Colorado tort law for harms and costs caused by the companies’ actions.

ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy argued that their connections to Colorado were too remote for the state’s courts to have jurisdiction over them. Exxon’s lawyers contended that the global oil company could not have anticipated being sued for alleged harms caused by its products in Colorado. However, Judge Gunning referenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2021 decision against Ford Motor’s bid to avoid product liability lawsuits in Montana and Minnesota, where the company marketed its products.

The judge did agree with Suncor’s lawyers that only some of its U.S. subsidiaries involved in refining petroleum in Colorado, and not the Canada-based parent company itself, could be sued in the state due to a lack of jurisdiction.

This ruling has significant implications for similar climate change lawsuits across the United States. By affirming that state courts have jurisdiction and that state-law claims are not preempted by federal law, the decision may encourage other local governments to pursue legal action against fossil fuel companies for climate change-related damages.

Boulder’s lawsuit highlights the tangible impacts of climate change on local communities. The city and county seek compensation for the damages and costs associated with the environmental hazards caused by the energy companies’ actions. These damages include increased wildfires, flooding, and other extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.

The legal and corporate responses to this ruling have been mixed. Representatives for ExxonMobil, Suncor Energy, and Boulder did not respond to requests for comment. However, the decision is likely to influence the legal strategies of both the plaintiffs and defendants in ongoing and future climate change litigation.

The next steps in the case involve potential appeals and further legal proceedings. The outcome of these proceedings will be closely watched, as it could set a precedent for how similar lawsuits are handled in the future. If successful, Boulder’s lawsuit could pave the way for other local governments to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in climate change.

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