Wildfire burning in the Boulder foothills in 2010. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado state history at the time.
Photo: AP

Climate lawsuits have been piling up on the coasts. But a pioneering duo of Colorado counties and the city of Boulder have filed the first landlocked lawsuit against big oil earlier this week, suing Exxon and tar sands producer Suncor Energy.

It represents a new front in the legal war that’s pitting communities stuck paying for the costs of climate change against the companies that caused it. And it could spread to neighboring states in flyover country.

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“Yes, sea level rise will be important,” Elise Jones, a commissioner in Boulder County who is part of the new suit, told Earther. “Middle America is being hit by climate change, too. We thought it was important that we tell that story.”

The story is one of both big, present impacts visible in the wildfire-scarred hills and flood-scoured waterways, and small ones tucked away in the Excel spreadsheets about the costs of road paving, culverts, and air conditioners for schools.

“In our eyes, it’s a pretty simple issue of property rights,” David Bookbinder, a lawyer with the libertarian Niskanen Center who is consulting on the case, told Earther. “We have local communities faced with tremendously escalating costs of dealing with climate change. It’s not some future hypothetical. It’s been happening for years. It’s happening for today, and quite literally, local taxpayers are getting stuck with the bill.”

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Boulder County, for instance, is still recovering from a 1,000-year rainfall event in 2013 that sent murky torrents of water streaming down canyons, tearing out roads and bridges, and inundating the city of Boulder.

The county blew through its $65 million in reserve cash shortly after the disaster. To make up for the shortfall, it asked residents to approve a five-year sales tax hike. It also relied on federal funds and public tax money to help with cleanup and recovery. And Jones told Earther recovery still isn’t over.

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“I was a brand new commissioner when the flood hit and I remember somebody saying it was going to take at least five years to rebuild and I thought they were crazy,” she said. “But it’s going to take a full decade to recover from that one incident.”

Research has shown climate change increased the intensity of the rainfall event by about 30 percent. The rise in extreme precipitation events portends an even more challenging—and potentially costlier—future.

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A county-commissioned report shows that even without climate shocks like the 2013 flood or a 2010 wildfire that was Colorado’s most destructive at the time, the cost of adaptation will be steep. Peering into those Excel sheets and then overlaying the climate impacts of more heat, wildfires, and increased risk of drought between the deluges revealed the county could be stuck with a bill of up to $157 million in adaptation costs if we do nothing to curb carbon emissions.

Boulder is a comparatively wealthy county with a solid tax base of 319,000, but Jones said the burden of adaptation is too much to handle, which is why they’re suing oil companies.

“We can’t afford it and it’s not fair,” she said.

If that’s true for Boulder County, then it’s even more so for San Miguel County, which is also part of the suit. The county is located in southwest Colorado, and home to spectacular peaks straight off the Coors label (seriously) as well as sprawling farm land. Its tax base is smaller than Boulder’s but, as with so many counties in the West, the infrastructure needs are the same.

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“San Miguel County has a population of less than 8,000,” Bookbinder said. “They have as many roads as Boulder County and they’re 1/40th of the size. They’re in a box. They have to spend money and there’s no one handing out hundreds of millions [for upkeep].”

The lawsuit against Exxon and Suncor is one way to find funds. Oil companies have known for decades about the impacts of climate change, all while spending millions to sow doubt publicly. Exxon’s knowledge was exposed in groundbreaking reporting from by InsideClimate News in 2015 and since then, other dominoes have fallen.

Those reports have opened oil companies to a growing host of lawsuits by local governments seeking damages, and criminal investigations by attorneys general in Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere. Suncor was named in the Colorado lawsuit because it worked in the state and produces the dirtiest oil on the planet in the form of Albertan tar sands.

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“The idea that the fossil fuel industry would say, yep our products are causing this, we’re going make more of them, [including] products that are more carbon intensive seems absurd,” Bookbinder said. “Talk about giving the finger to local governments.”

It will likely take years for all these suits to wend their way through federal and state courts. Whether they result in payouts or settlements is still very much unknown, but Amy Markwell, a lawyer for San Miguel County, told Earther the defendants’ arguments aren’t that hard to follow.

“Climate change can be a fairly complicated issue but this lawsuit, we’re trying to keep it pretty simple,” she said. “Your neighbor does something that damages you or your property, you can go to your local courthouse and seek local damage payment.”

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This is, in essence, the same argument that coastal communities are making. The new Colorado case shows the damages landlocked counties face will be different but no less severe, and that big oil can expect more legal challengers from all corners to come looking for a just settlement.