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Boulder sued Big Oil. The Marshall Fire reminds us why.
Nearly four years after local governments filed suit, thousands in suburban Colorado rang in the new year as climate refugees, navigating the fallout of their lives in a disaster zone.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
When Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones got the call that two fires were spreading north and south of the city of Boulder, he hopped in his car and drove to an overlook to scope the scene. Gazing at a flat plume of brown smoke, he could tell the blaze was moving fast; Jones fought wildfires for 17 years of his career, but this was beyond what he could’ve imagined. On his way home, his wife called with the news that they would need to evacuate.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think Louisville, Colorado, would have an evacuation order from a wildfire,” Jones said. “That happens in the mountains, you know. We didn’t prepare for an evacuation — the people in the mountains do.”
The Marshall Fire, a record-breaking firestorm propelled by hurricane-force winds, enveloped the Boulder suburbs of Superior and Louisville last Thursday, burning entire neighborhoods to the ground. Nearly a thousand homes and several local businesses were incinerated, 35,000 residents were forced to flee their houses, and thousands more went days without power.
When Jones left with his wife and 21-year-old cat in tow, he didn’t know if he’d see his home again. Pulling over to collect himself at the nearby supermarket, he was nearly knocked over by gusts of wind, which were later reported by the National Weather Service to have reached 105 mile-per-hour. “I felt abject terror,” Jones said. He spent the next two and half days wondering if his home had been destroyed.
Jones was able to return to an intact home, but nearly a thousand others weren’t as lucky. “I just went by a neighborhood where friends lived that burned to the ground,” he told me Wednesday night.
Just two days after the fire, temperatures dropped into the single digits and nearly a foot of snow covered those same once-towns, slowing the search for missing people. Thousands had no heat as natural gas outages dragged on.
The Marshall Fire was the most damaging wildfire in Colorado’s history. Fueled by warming temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and drought, the fire spread through the tinder box of dry grass surrounding people’s homes. In the days following the disaster, top scientists in the state were united in attributing the fire’s severity to worsening climate change.
That worsening climate change is the consequence of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long work to deceive the public about the dangers of their products, protect their profits, and block action to avert catastrophe.
The communities devastated by the Marshall Fire aren’t just victims of Big Oil’s actions: they’re on the front lines of efforts to fight back. The city and county of Boulder and neighboring San Miguel County are among the growing number of communities across the country fighting to hold oil and gas companies accountable for the damage they caused. In 2018, the three municipalities filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor, the oil giants with the largest presence in the state of Colorado, for “producing, promoting and selling a substantial portion of the fossil fuels that are causing and exacerbating climate change, while concealing and misrepresenting the dangers associated with their intended use.”
“More than 50 years ago, the oil companies had studies done that predicted significant shifts in precipitation patterns, and significant warming,” said Marco Simons, legal counsel at EarthRights International, who represents the Colorado municipalities in their case. “But they withheld information and misled the public and these communities about the dangers of climate change, all the while profiting from it. All evidence suggests that the oil companies are not going to willingly accept the responsibility that they so clearly bear for the impacts of climate change.”
The lawsuit argues that these companies should pay their fair share of the climate damages taxpayers in Colorado are currently shouldering on their own. The myriad costs incurred to prepare for and respond to wildfires, listed in the lawsuit, are just one of many financial burdens associated with the state’s changing climate.
“Both Boulder County and the City of Boulder have already suffered substantial and additional costs related to the increasing wildfire risk associated with current trends, including general suppression costs, prevention costs, and rehabilitation costs (of roads, forests, watersheds),” the complaint reads. “These costs are significant, and Plaintiffs face the risk of continuing and increasing costs in the future as wildfires are likely to increase.”
Yet nearly four years after the communities filed suit, and with yet another massive fire adding to the damage, the people of Boulder and San Miguel counties are still waiting for their day in court. In 2020, a federal appeals court rejected Exxon and Suncor’s attempts to remove the lawsuit from state court, where it was filed, and have it argued instead in federal court, where the companies hope it will be easier to escape accountability. But following a highly technical U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, Exxon and Suncor are once again making the case for federal jurisdiction before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While these communities await a decision, taxpayers are shouldering the mounting costs of responding and preparing for fires, heatwaves, and floods. Boulder County estimates its taxpayers will spend $100 million over the next three decades on reducing wildfire risk and adapting transportation and drainage systems. The total damages from Marshall are still uncertain, but according to Commissioner Jones, the county is estimating that just clearing the rubble will cost $50 million. Many residents have no idea whether they can afford to rebuild their homes after Marshall.
“We’re all paying the price for them,” Jones said of the oil companies still getting off scot-free while his community bears an unimaginable burden.
Scientists say disasters like the Marshall Fire will only become more common — making Boulder’s quest to hold fossil fuel companies accountable, and recover a share of the costs they’ll spend to adapt, all the more pressing.
“I would hope that events like this would underscore the urgency of moving these cases forward,” Simons said. “Because we really can’t wait years and years – the impacts and costs are happening now, and these communities will have to live with these trends for decades to come.”
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