Last week the City and County of Boulder and the County of San Miguel filed a lawsuit against Suncor and ExxonMobil, seeking to blame them for the impacts of climate change – a global phenomenon linked to energy use and other activities by some 7.6 billion people worldwide. But the lawsuit offers no citations for the claims it makes, and many of those claims border on the bizarre, which may explain why it was sharply condemned by the Denver Post editorial board and the former attorney general of Colorado, among others.
Like the handful of cities and counties in New York and California that have sued the energy industry over the past year, the three Colorado municipalities allege that they have been harmed by the impacts of climate change – impacts they have helped cause. But perhaps the strangest part of the lawsuit is that the municipalities claim most of the responsibility to pay for these impacts (it is always about the money, after all) should lie with just two companies: ExxonMobil and Suncor. From the complaint:
“Plaintiffs are not asking this Court to stop or regulate the production of fossil fuels in Colorado or elsewhere and they are not asking this Court to stop or regulate emissions in Colorado or elsewhere; they ask only that Defendants help remediate the nuisance caused by their intentional, reckless and negligent conduct, specifically by paying their share of the Plaintiffs’ abatement costs.”
What, exactly, is the nuisance? Boulder’s complaint continues:
“Changes to the climate were caused by, and continue to be exacerbated by, unabated fossil fuel use. Since the 1960s, unchecked fossil fuel combustion has caused an unprecedentedly rapid rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.” (emphasis added)
This is what kids today call a “self-own.” The plaintiffs are suing energy companies for global warming, but their complaint admits that fossil fuel use – that is, the activity that every resident of Boulder and San Miguel counties do every single day – is what’s actually causing the problem.
Put differently: A barrel of oil sitting in a warehouse doesn’t contribute to global warming; a member of the Boulder City Council flying 10,000 miles to hobnob with global elites does.
Moreover, global warming – as the term implies – is a global problem. Having identified fossil fuel combustion as the problem, the plaintiffs should not be suing energy companies but rather the roughly 7.6 billion people who use fossil fuels, including themselves.
The lawsuit also doesn’t make clear what exactly is the Defendants’ “share.” The lawsuit fails to provide any hard numbers or cite any studies to back up its assertions. The vast majority of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are created by electricity generation and transportation, not oil and gas companies, so Exxon’s and Suncor’s shares would be so exceedingly small that they would border on trivial. State-owned oil companies in OPEC produce significantly more than either of the defendants; why weren’t they identified?
To view the plaintiffs’ arguments from another perspective, consider that the County of Boulder will spend over $57 million on transportation projects this year, which includes building, maintaining and repairing roads, pedestrian walkways, and bicycle paths. Use of these roads and walkways leads to wear and tear, the repair of which has historically been paid for by the taxpayers who make use of these paths. But by the logic expressed in its lawsuit against energy companies, Boulder should sue Toyota, Tesla, and Schwinn to force them to pay “their share” of the costs.
The plaintiffs note in their filing that they “have taken substantial steps to reduce their own GHG emissions. They have taxed their residents to fund emission reduction efforts, limited their own fossil fuel use, and tried to prohibit or reduce the environmental impacts of fossil fuel production within their borders.” Is this supposed to impress us? By this logic, will the plaintiffs drop the case if the defendants explain how they have reduced their own environmental footprints?
Moreover, setting aside the wisdom of bragging about increasing taxes on their citizens, the municipalities fail to mention that it’s still completely legal and explicitly encouraged by the governments of Colorado, the United States, and every other country in the world to produce fossil fuels.
The complaint unfortunately continues:
“In spite of these efforts, and in light of the hazards that are here and worsening, Plaintiffs are spending, and must continue to spend, millions of dollars to protect their property and residents from the impacts of climate change…Despite receiving the warning that ‘fossil fuel use should not be encouraged,’ Defendants spent decades selling and promoting fossil fuels without disclosing the dangers that continued fossil fuel over-use posed.”
What is “over-use” exactly? What would constitute under-use? Naturally, the plaintiffs do not say, which only underscores how this lawsuit is a rhetorical weapon to get media attention, rather than a legitimate legal pursuit.
The plaintiffs also employ wild leaps of logic divorced from reality: “By hiding what they knew about, and affirmatively misrepresenting the dangers of unabated fossil fuel use, the Defendants protected fossil fuel demand, and obstructed the changes needed to prevent or at least minimize the impacts of climate change.” Even if that were true, which it isn’t, the world has known about climate change for decades and demand for fossil fuels has only increased.
Apparently, according to the plaintiffs, no one would have used fossil fuels if two companies had repeated publicly what the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found. (Even that’s not fair, because researchers from ExxonMobil have actually contributed to previous IPCC assessments that identify the causes and risks of climate change.)
From here the filings turn from dubious to bizarre, as they try to explain why they’re suing only Suncor and ExxonMobil:
“Based on the GHG emissions that can be traced solely to fossil fuels produced by Suncor and its subsidiaries between 1988 and 2015, the Suncor Defendants are responsible for the emission of approximately 2 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Based on the fossil fuels it has brought to market, Suncor is one of the largest sources of historic and present-day GHG emissions.”
The plaintiffs fail to cite any research or sources to back up their claims, and they provide no context about how Suncor’s and ExxonMobil’s emissions compare to worldwide historic emissions. In other words, the plaintiffs have not shown their work. The inclusion of Suncor is especially bizarre, as the company has not been targeted by any of the previous lawsuits, and even activist reports don’t place it anywhere near the top 50 emitters. It does operate a refinery north of Denver, though, so perhaps the plaintiffs – working backwards from a conclusion, clearly – needed to identify a local operation of some sort.
ExxonMobil, the complaint alleges, “is responsible for far more than 16 billion tons of CO2 because it sells far more than it produces.” Wait, what? How can a company sell more of a product than it produces? Perhaps through importing crude at some of its downstream operations, but the lawsuit doesn’t say that. It simply asserts something that appears to violate a basic law of physics.
And this statement further confuses the question of what exactly the complaint is targeting – are they focusing on fossil fuels produced, sold, or burned?
The complaint adds that ExxonMobil “emitted more than 420,000 metric tons of GHGs in Colorado between 2011 and 2015 alone.” Yet again the plaintiffs fail to cite their source, but at least they’re now using actual numbers instead of beliefs. The problem here is that the City of Boulder, by its own count, emitted 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2016 alone.
For those keeping track at home, this one city, which brags that it taxes its residents to reduce its emissions and has issued a lawsuit that targets ExxonMobil for its emissions, emits on average more than 19 times what ExxonMobil presumably emits in the entire state.
Boulder, Colorado – home of a nearly perfect climate – has three year old children suing Exxon over climate change. The last flood we had here was five years ago, last fire was six years ago, and snowfall has been increasing for over a century.https://t.co/RFsQVqD96h pic.twitter.com/TR5srccH7D
— Steve Goddard (@SteveSGoddard) April 18, 2018