The Colorado General Assembly is back in session, and addressing the issue of climate change has once again been identified as a top legislative priority. With the tendency for groupthink that can come from the kind of unprecedented majorities Democrats in both chambers enjoy, legislators must be careful that any policies they advance in the name of environmental protection also allow for the sustainment of critical advances in our quality of life.
It’s a delicate equilibrium, particularly in a state like Colorado. That’s why it is crucial for leaders in state government to work in collaboration with the business community on responsible solutions to reduce emissions, protect families and businesses, and ensure access to affordable energy.
Energy is foundational to Coloradans. Our local economies, state financial health, and quality of life all depend on the responsible production and use of energy. From an economic perspective, the energy sector brings in the resources we need to balance our state’s budget. It also is a critically important employer in the state – supporting roughly 340,000 jobs and more than $34 billion in wage income to Coloradans and represents income for royalty owners and retirees.
The right approach means sustaining and advancing these critical interests while advancing policies that will help move us towards a cleaner energy future. Gov. Jared Polis has acknowledged the importance of this balanced approach, arguing that we can both continue to support oil and gas extraction in our state while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This has been proven with industry innovations and government regulations.
Unfortunately, some local officials in Colorado and across the country don’t see it this way. They would rather point fingers through meritless litigation than support efforts to promote new and cleaner energy production. Over the last several years, more than two dozen governments have filed litigation against energy producers for alleged climate change damages they contend are caused by burning fossil fuels. This includes a handful of governments in Colorado, like the City of Boulder, along with Boulder and San Miguel counties.
So far, federal courts have been rightfully skeptical of these local lawsuits. As they have explained, climate change is a global phenomenon that is not the legal fault of any one industry. So, Boulder and the other communities are pushing to have these cases heard in state courts instead. Our state judges are no dummies and I have every confidence that if these cases go forward in Colorado state court, our judges will be equally skeptical of this litigation.
But, before any of that happens, the U.S. Supreme Court may get involved. It has been asked to step in and resolve the question of whether state courts can even have jurisdiction over these claims. While I may have confidence that Colorado courts would dutifully handle Boulder’s case, I believe federal court is still the better venue. California, New York, and Rhode Island – where similar lawsuits have been filed – may not handle their cases as deliberatively as Colorado, so it’s important that the Supreme Court take this case.
Most recently, the Supreme Court asked the Biden administration for its opinion on whether it should review these cases. Interestingly, the past two administrations—one Democratic and one Republican – both filed briefs against these lawsuits. The Obama administration opposed climate litigation the last time it was before the Supreme Court, and the Trump administration filed briefs arguing for a uniform federal response to these lawsuits instead of state-by-state hometown rulings. Similar bipartisan opposition to these lawsuits can still be found today, with experts such as former Democratic Maine Attorney General Drew Ketterer and the Manufacturers’ Accountability Projects’ Phil Goldberg expressing their concerns with this current tack.
These lawsuits may make for good politics and press releases in some communities, but they demonstrate a misunderstanding of the global nature of greenhouse gas emissions as well as America’s legal system. Even if plaintiffs were successful in bankrupting every energy company in the U.S. through climate change lawsuits, the effort will not advance their goals. Many of these same companies have been making investments in greener energy technology and driving them to insolvency could halt the current progress we have already made in reducing emissions by 17% since 2005.
This reality bolsters the argument for a holistic approach to fight climate change through international cooperation between governments. Targeted payouts to a few local communities would have no impact on an international scale and would similarly do little to fund the broad climate resiliency efforts activists claim are needed.
Instead of time and money spent on misdirected lawsuits, local governments and the state legislature must work with all stakeholders to advance cleaner energy development in a manner that does not damage our economy, local communities, and our national security. Ultimately, long-term goals will be achieved through private sector innovation, and government cooperation both domestically and across international borders.
Elected officials, be they in Denver, Boulder, San Miguel or elsewhere in the Centennial State or across the country should focus on policies that can facilitate this change. Working together, the Colorado way, is the best approach to accomplishing these goals.
Ken Summers, of Canton, Ga., is a fellow in state policy at the Centennial Institute and the former chairman of the Health and Environment Committee in the Colorado House of Representatives.