The recent Marshall fire was a nightmare. We watched in horror as an unprecedented firestorm tore through our community in the middle of winter. Many of our friends and neighbors lost everything, and the federal government has already estimated that the bill for this destruction will be at least $1 billion.

From left: Boulder County Commissioners Matt Jones, Claire Levy and Marta Loachamin

This isn’t a bad dream — it’s a new reality in which wildfires can ignite at any time, in any place, with little warning. It’s time for Colorado to wake up and make the fossil-fuel industry pay its fair share of the costs that local governments face from the alteration of our climate.

Even before the fire, there was no denying that the consequences of climate alteration had already arrived in Colorado. Our towns are experiencing impacts connected to rising temperatures including droughts, reduced snowpack, poor air quality, and heatwaves.

And now we have urban firestorms to contend with. Every new calamity reverses our progress towards rebuilding from the last disaster. The costs are adding up, and taxpayers will shoulder much of the burden.

The oil companies had already made it clear that they would not voluntarily pay for climate harms to communities. That’s why, in 2018, Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the City of Boulder filed a lawsuit against Exxon and Suncor. We cannot afford to pay for their mess.

In February, the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that our cases should proceed in state court. This is a major victory for our communities.

The oil companies had tried to move the cases away from local courts to federal court, where they believed they’d achieve a more favorable outcome. This latest ruling brings closer the day when the companies will be forced to reckon with their role in fueling Colorado’s climate crisis before a jury drawn from communities that are already paying the price.

We are not alone. To date, nearly two dozen states, counties, and cities have filed lawsuits against the fossil-fuel industry for the harms caused by their products and their role in driving climate change. This latest ruling is expected to set a precedent for other cases, which now have significantly stronger chances of being heard in local courts.

While the immediate effects of the court ruling are that our lawsuits will proceed in Colorado courts, the federal judges also threw cold water on the oil companies’ effort to toss the cases out altogether. The companies complained that because federal law did not comprehensively address fossil fuels and their climate-altering emissions, Colorado law cannot, either.

Nonsense, said the court. That’s how our federal system works – not every issue is covered by federal regulation, so Colorado’s law can provide remedies where federal law does not. And as Congress remains paralyzed on major action to combat climate change, the role of Colorado and other states is increasingly critical.

If the current remediation efforts in Paradise, Calif., which was hit with fires in 2018, are any indication of what awaits Colorado, it will likely take years to clean up the damage inflicted by the Marshall fire. Meanwhile, we can only expect more fires as our climate further warms, which will also come with hefty price tags.

Dealing with climate emergencies takes resources away from other services. We’re tapped out; it’s time for the polluters to pay up.

We didn’t want to drag two of the most powerful corporations in the state to court, but they left us no choice. As the climate crisis escalates into a full-blown emergency, Colorado risks experiencing more disasters like the Marshall fire, and our communities will continue to pay the financial, physical, and existential costs.

Exxon and Suncor must acknowledge the damages their products have imposed on Colorado’s communities and need to be held accountable. Otherwise, communities and taxpayers will continue to pay to clean up the fossil fuel industry’s mess–a bill we cannot afford to foot. 

Matt Jones, of Louisville; Claire Levy, of Boulder; and Mara Loachamin, of Longmont, are members of the Boulder County Commission. Twitter: @MattJonesCO; @CommClaireLevy; @CommClaireLevy

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