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More Than Two Dozen Major Lawsuits Are Putting a Price Tag on the Climate Damage Caused by Fossil Fuel Companies

Four years ago, Boulder, Colorado, sued ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy—owner of the only oil refinery in the state—for climate change-related damages and adaptation expenses. Boulder and its co-plaintiffs, Boulder County and San Miguel County, home to Telluride, estimated the damage caused by extreme weather events would cost them more than $100 million by 2050.

As it turns out, they overestimated the time span—and underestimated the price tag.

At the end of December, the Marshall Fire devastated Boulder County, laying waste to more than 6,000 acres and incinerating more than 1,000 homes and seven commercial buildings at a projected cost of $1 billion, making it Colorado’s most destructive fire in terms of property loss.

The Marshall Fire was hardly the only one—or even the largest—in Colorado since the three communities filed their lawsuit, which is still pending in a state court. In fact, four of the five biggest Colorado fires by acreage have occurred since then, ranging from 108,000 to nearly 209,000 acres.

Both ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy, an Alberta, Canada-based company, have a large carbon footprint in Colorado.

ExxonMobil has produced more than 1 million barrels of oil from Colorado deposits, according to the Colorado communities’ complaint,and its subsidiary XTO Energy currently produces 60 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from 492,000 acres in Rio Blanco County. There are also 95 Exxon and Mobil gas stations in the state. Altogether, the company’s production and transportation activities in Colorado were responsible for more than 420,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2011 and 2015, according to the complaint.

Meanwhile, Suncor’s U.S. headquarters is based in Denver, and its oil refinery, which produces 98,000 barrels of refined oil per day, is less than 5 miles from downtown. Suncor’s gas stations, which sell Shell, Exxon and Mobil brand products, supply about 35 percent of the gasoline and 55 percent of the diesel sold in the state, according to a 2016 Denver Business Journal article. According to the complaint, Suncor’s Colorado operations were responsible for some 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2016 alone, equivalent to the annual output of more than 217,000 typical passenger vehicles.

The Colorado communities contend that ExxonMobil and Suncor were aware that their products caused global warming as early as 1968, when a report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. oil and gas industry’s largest trade association, warned of the threat burning fossil fuels posed to the climate. Regardless, ExxonMobil and Suncor not only continued to produce and market fossil fuel products without disclosing the risks, the communities’ complaint charges, but they also engaged in a decades-long disinformation campaign to manufacture doubt about the reality and seriousness of climate change.

“Defendants’ actions have already caused or contributed to rising temperatures in Colorado,” the complaint states. “Colorado has seen average temperatures rise by 2.5 degrees [Fahrenheit] over the last 50 years, with over a 2 degree [Fahrenheit] rise since 1983.” Those higher temperatures have extended what used to be a four-month-long fire season in western states to six to eight months, if not all year round, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Wildfires are starting earlier, burning more intensely, and destroying larger areas of land than ever before.

The three plaintiffs want ExxonMobil and Suncor to pay “their share” of the damage caused by their “intentional, reckless and negligent conduct.” That share could amount to billions of dollars to help cover the cost of an increasing number of heat waves, wildfires, droughts, intense precipitation, and floods.

Boulder’s April 2018 lawsuit was not the first U.S. climate-related case against the fossil fuel industry. New York City and eight coastal California cities and counties, including San Francisco and Oakland, had already filed similar lawsuits against ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies, seeking compensation for damage to their communities. As of today, at least 27 states, counties and cities have sued major fossil fuel companies for climate-related fraud or damages, or both—and with good reason. The cost of climate change-related disasters is continuing to climb.

Indeed, the Marshall Fire was just one of the 20 climate and weather disasters in 2021 that resulted in at least $1 billion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just two shy of the record-breaking 22 in 2020 and significantly more than the average of 6.3 large-scale U.S. disasters per year between 2000 and 2009. All told, last year’s billion-dollar disasters resulted in $145 billion in damages—52 percent higher than in 2020—and 688 deaths. The common denominator in these escalating numbers? Climate change.

“The fingerprints of climate change were all over many of the billion-dollar events that hit the United States in 2021,” says Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re essentially watching longstanding climate projections of the past come true.”

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.