In the early 1990s, a group of New Mexico scientists set up experimental plots at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque for in an effort to determine what might happen when water was reintroduced to the flood-starved woods flanking the river. Their description of what happened is a delight:
From time immemorial, this must have been a near-annual event, as the crickets and spiders scurried ahead of rising water each spring as the Rio Grande spread across the valley floor – bad for people trying to live here, great for the flora and fauna. From the same group of authors:
This changed in the early 1930s, dramatically, in an ecological instant as the newly formed Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District dug drainage ditches on either side of the Rio Grande and across the valley floor, throwing up the excavated dirt in spoil bank levees flanking the river’s then-main channel.
We understand what happened next thanks to a University of New Mexico biology student named Marjorie Van Cleave, who for her 1935 masters thesis documented the change. In that historic moment, plants and animals dependent on the wetlands spread across the valley floor disappeared.
Cattails – gone. Sedges, with deeper roots, hung on for a bit longer before fading into the ecological mists. Cocklebur, Russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, sunflowers, and pigweed colonized the old marshlands of the valley floor. We are forever in Van Cleave’s debt.
What we’re seeing this spring on the fringes of the Rio Grande bears so little resemblance to the valley-wide ecosystem that it seems cheap to even compare, but the careful work of Cliff Crawford, Manual Molles, and their colleagues three decades ago trying to address this question – What would happen if we reintroduced just a bit of flooding to the forests on the river’s edges? – nevertheless draws a critical connection between the Rio Grande and the community that surrounds it.
For our forthcoming book Ribbons of Green, Bob Berrens and I are interested in that critical moment in the 1930s when, with levees and drains, the valley floor around Albuquerque was disconnected from the river. The ecology was changed, suddenly, as was the connection between human communities and their river.
Much of our modern understanding of the bosque ecosystem is built on the work of Crawford and Molles, who started taking students down to the river in the 1980s. For much of the time between Van Cleave’s exhaustive work and the return of Crawford, Molles, and their students in the 1980s, little scientific attention seems to have been paid to the riverside ecosystem.
I can’t find the newspaper story I wrote based on a visit to the bosque with Cliff Crawford and his then-grad student and now my good friend Mary Harner. But I did find the obituary I wrote when Cliff died in 2010.
It’s a model in my mind for public-facing science, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as Bob and I wrestle with how to explain, in our book, Albuquerque’s modern relationship with the Rio Grande.
Mary has done an amazing job with her Witnessing Watersheds project of thinking about and documenting Albuquerque’s historic relationship with the river, and the time I have spent with her – mostly walking in the bosque, some to think of it – has been a huge influence on how I think about and approach this question.
Given flood control flow constraints, it’s hard to to get enough water through town to rise up out of the main channel and get back into the woods these days, to get it to “come alive with hopping crickets and running spiders,” but with 2023’s big snowpack, but there enough low spots providing delightful exceptions, and we’re already starting to see it rising up into those. Lissa and I were on a bosque trail near downtown Saturday when we were stopped by the water you see in the picture at the top of the blog.
There’s a sciency thing going on here – nutrient cycling, clearing out all the dry crud built up on the forest floor that in a more “natural” system would be wetted most years. (It was, in fact, Mary Harner who turned me on to the Molles et al paper I quoted above, with the hopping crickets and running spiders, when I asked for help running down the nutrient cycling piece. It turns out to be super nerdy and I probably won’t put it in the book.)
But it’s the cultural piece that I’m more interested in – the way we as a community have shifted from a desire in the 1930s to fence ourselves off from the river completely, to embracing overbanking with delight.
As often happens with these little mini-essays – sketches, really, for the book – this didn’t end up where I expected. I started with the intention of writing about nutrient cycling – printouts of research papers scattered across my desk, underlined bits, an excessive number of browser tabs.
But I realize that this is, in fact, a story about the relationship between a community and its river.
As the Colorado Legislature this session grapples with headlining issues such as land use, firearm violence reduction and reproductive health care access, a batch of bills is also trying to pump resources into wildfire mitigation and resilience.
Experts agree that the wildfire season is longer and more intense in Colorado and the rest of the West due to the effects of climate change. The three largest wildfires in state history all occurred in 2020, and the most destructive fire — the 2021 Marshall Fire — leveled entire subdivisions in an urban area once thought relatively safe from wildfires.
It’s an issue drawing attention from statewide, regional and national leaders.
“We must continue strengthening our aerial capabilities, supporting our professional and volunteer firefighters, and preparing for a hotter, drier climate,” Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said in his State of the State address to the General Assembly in January. “Getting this right is critical for the health of our communities and the future of our state.”
While there are many more than just five bills this session concerned with wildfire prevention, mitigation and containment, the five detailed below are noteworthy in their scope. Additionally, there is legislation related to buying another firefighting helicopter, exempting some taxes for people rebuilding their home after a wildfire, and adding fire damage as a condition that makes a housing unit uninhabitable, among others.
There are just two more weeks of the legislative session.
HB-1288: Fair Access To Insurance Requirements Plan
Colorado home and business owners who cannot secure adequate property insurance because of wildfire risk could obtain an insurance plan of “last resort” under a bill from Democrats House Speaker Julie McCluskie of Dillon and Rep. Judy Amabile of Boulder.
“The overarching goal is that we don’t have another Marshall Fire experience where people wake up after the fire and realize that they’re dramatically underinsured,” Amabile told reporters last week.
Roughly two-thirds of the homes lost in the Marshall Fire may have been underinsured, according to data collected by Colorado’s Division of Insurance.
The bill would set up a board to run that quasi-state insurance plan for property owners who can prove they are unable to get insurance from a private company. As the threat of wildfires grows in Colorado, the bill sponsors said it has become more challenging for certain property owners to get coverage as private insurers become skittish.
“Even if that hasn’t happened yet, we can see that that is what is on the horizon. This bill helps us get out in front of a looming problem so that we will be ready when we need it,” Amabile said on the House floor last week.
The program would be a safety net, not intended for widespread use instead of private insurance.
The bill passed through the House 48-15 on third reading on April 21. Its Senate sponsor is Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat.
SB-166: Establishment Of A Wildfire Resiliency Code Board
Perhaps one of the most sweeping bills related to wildfires this session aims to create a new board to adopt a statewide building code for wildfire resiliency. The 21-member board would be tasked with defining high-risk areas in the wildland-urban interface — that transition area between wilderness and developed land — and creating a minimum building and landscaping code for local governments to adopt.
“There’s a lot of data that this is one of the very best ways we can prevent fires from devastating our state. A minimum code is hugely impactful,” bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Cutter, a Littleton Democrat, said on the Senate floor earlier this month. A similar effort was abandoned last year towards the end of session.
Bill sponsors point to data that shows $1 spent on hardening homes can prevent between $4 and $8 in damage.
The bill is also sponsored by Democrats Sen. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs, Rep. Meg Froelich of Englewood and Rep. Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs.
“This is about community resiliency. This is about community safety and making sure we are ready for the next event,” Velasco told reporters last week.
The bill, which has cleared the Senate, passed through the House Appropriations Committee on April 21.
SB-5: Forestry And Wildfire Mitigation Workforce
A bipartisan bill aims to bolster the state’s workforce as related to wildfire mitigation, specifically when it comes to timber and forest management. It would authorize the expansion and creation of forestry programs at higher education institutions, with some receiving financial support to train students quickly.
“In Colorado, we’re estimated to be 20 to 50 percent understaffed in peak wildfire season, so we must do everything we can to increase educational resources and the recruitment of our frontline firefighters,” bill sponsor Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Longmont Democrat, said on the Senate floor earlier this month.
The bill would also include high school outreach and set up internships with the timber industry in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service.
The bill is also sponsored by Cutter, House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, and Marc Snyder, a Manitou Springs Democrat.
It has already passed the Senate and passed on third reading in the House on Monday.
HB-1273: Creation Of Wildfire Resilient Homes Grant Program
Snyder was Manitou Springs mayor when the Waldo Canyon fire devastated the community in 2012, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate and destroying 346 homes. This year, Snyder is running two wildfire-related bills in the Legislature.
HB-1273 would create a grant program to help homeowners make their houses more resilient against wildfires. The grants could pay for best practices and materials for new builds, as well as retrofitting and structural improvements to existing houses.
“A lot of this is common sense — you mitigate 100 feet from your home any vegetation that’s flammable. But there’s a lot of other small changes that you can make,” Snyder told reporters earlier this month. Other improvements could include replacing roofing and siding material or closing open soffit vents to prevent embers from getting inside a house.
It would be housed within the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety.
The grant program would have $2 million to start, but Snyder thinks that getting it up and running will make it easier to effectively use incoming federal dollars.
The bill made it through the House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources committee on April 13. Democratic Rep. Junie Joseph of Boulder is also sponsoring the bill.
HB-1075: Wildfire Evacuation And Clearance Time Modeling
Another Snyder bill would direct the state’s emergency management office to study the feasibility of an evacuation and clearance time modeling system that would help residents understand various evacuation routes and the time it might take to evacuate during a wildfire.
Snyder said that a public-facing interface with that information could be a helpful pre-evacuation tool for residents in high-risk areas.
“When they ask everyone to leave at once, it can be a real nightmare. We saw what happened in Paradise, California, when a lot of people perished in their vehicles trying to flee,” he said, referring to a 2019 fire that killed 85 people.
The bill is also sponsored by Joseph and Democratic Sen. Tony Exum of Colorado Springs.
It made it through the House on April 11 on a 51-10 vote. It passed through its Senate committee on April 20 and was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Around 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution saw many human cultures end their nomadic lifestyles of hunting and gathering to settle and begin farming.
This onset of agriculture has seen humans reshape the Earth’s surface – cultivating crops to provide food for people and animals, grazing livestock on pastures and cutting wood to be used as construction material or fuel.
These interventions into natural ecosystems provide the foundation for modern society, but they also come with some unwanted side effects. One of the most dramatic is the tremendous amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released through the way that humans use the land.
As the global community tries to get a grip of its CO2 emissions, understanding where they are coming from is key to stopping them – and to increasing the amount of atmospheric CO2 taken up by the land.
In this article, we show how we can track the ups and downs of CO2 emissions and removals from land-use change in six very different parts of the world – Brazil, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Europe, Indonesia and the US.
Past, present and future of land-use emissions
Globally, the largest share of humanity’s CO2 emissions stems from burning fossil fuels, which made up about 87% of CO2 emissions over the past 20 years. Land-use emissions are responsible for the remaining 13%.
Historically, land use was even more important, with land-use emissions being larger than fossil emissions until the 1950s. Collectively, one-third of CO2 emissions since 1750 are due to land-use change.
Although the share of land-use emissions has gone down in recent decades, their importance might increase again in the future due to the potential reduction of fossil fuel emissions in line with global climate mitigation policies.
Likewise, reducing CO2 emissions from land use is a key factor for meeting climate targets – for example, the Glasgow Declaration on Forests, agreed at COP26, calls on countries “to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”.
These intended emission reductions can be complemented by taking up and storing additional carbon in biomass and soils – for instance, via forestation and forest management. Sustainable land use can, thus, itself become a key element for climate mitigation.
CO2 emissions to the atmosphere and carbon uptake by vegetation and soils are known as carbon fluxes. The balance between all of these fluxes determines whether the land is a net “source” of carbon or a net “sink”.
To reverse land use from being an overall global source of CO2 to being a sink, it is essential to understand the various drivers of these fluxes.
Furthermore, as mitigation policies are mainly implemented at the national level, estimating land-use CO2 fluxes for individual countries provides important insights into the effectiveness of mitigation efforts.
Estimating CO2 fluxes from land use
Global estimates of land-use CO2 fluxes are often based on computer models that provide a consistent method of quantifying fluxes for all countries.
Of particular importance are “bookkeeping” models. These track changes in the carbon contents of soil and vegetation that occur due to land-use changes (such as deforestation, where forest is converted to agricultural land) or land management (such as wood harvest, where forest remains forest) based on spatially explicit data.
The resulting CO2 fluxes between land and atmosphere are calculated as the changes in carbon contents of soil and vegetation.
Bookkeeping models account for various processes – ranging from the fast emission of CO2 due to fires, to the rather slow decomposition of long-lived wood products, to the gradual regrowth of forest. They are complemented by CO2 emissions from peat drainage and peat fires from existing estimates.
These models have been improved in recent years and now include more detailed data for specific countries. As a result, the most recent GCB of 2022 extended its assessment to include land-use CO2 flux estimates at the country-level.
Land-use CO2 fluxes in individual countries
In the chart below, we take a closer look at six countries and regions with distinct land-use flux dynamics. The chart shows annual land-use CO2 fluxes for each region. Lines above the zero line indicate a net source of CO2, while lines below indicate a net sink. In all countries, land-use CO2 fluxes show substantial year-to-year variability.
Brazil (blue), Indonesia (red), China (dark blue) and the DRC (yellow) have had the highest land-use CO2 emissions in the last 70 years – representing around 45% of all emissions from net-emitting countries.
Europe (purple) and the US (orange) have had the largest net CO2 removals – representing about 90% of all removals from countries with a net sink. China switched from net land-use emissions to net removals in the 2000s.
Drivers of land-use change
The models we use allow us to estimate the impact of specific drivers of CO2 fluxes for individual countries. The chart below illustrates the variations that this analysis reveals.
The bars for each region show average CO2 fluxes from deforestation (blue), forestation (dark blue), wood-harvest emissions (yellow) and removals due to regrowth (orange), peat fires and drainage (red) and other transitions (purple) for 1950-2020.
These other transitions include the transformation of shrubland to cropland or pasture or conversions between cropland and pasture. Bars above the zero line indicate sources of CO2, while bars below indicate sinks. The grey bars show the overall net fluxes from land use for each region.
In Brazil, land-use emissions were high, but relatively constant, between the 1960s and the 1980s. In the 1990s, emissions began to rise and reached a peak in the early 2000s, as deforestation rates accelerated. In the following years, deforestation and emissions decreased substantially under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), but they have started to increase again in the most recent years due to less-stringent forest protection policies under former president Jair Bolsonaro.
While deforestation clearly dominates CO2 emissions in Brazil, substantial emissions also stem from wood harvest and from other transitions.
For Indonesia, emissions are characterised by a quick increase in the 1980s, which was predominantly due to deforestation for the expansion of palm oil plantations and cropland. This was followed by several large emissions peaks starting in the late 1990s, caused by widespread peat fires used – on top of drainage – to convert peatlands into agricultural land.
In 1997, remarkably high emissions were apparent resulting from the interaction of land-use changes and an extremely dry El Niño year. Strikingly, Indonesia has the largest CO2 uptake due to forestation of all countries displayed. However, regrowth after harvest only partly offsets wood harvest emissions, pointing to unsustainable forestry practices.
The DRC has had low emissions throughout the 20th century, but emissions increased substantially in the late 2000s and remain high to this day.
Emissions from deforestation dominate land-use fluxes in the DRC, but they are largely counterbalanced by removals due to forestation. Farmers in the DRC often apply shifting cultivation, an agricultural practice in which forests are burned down to obtain arable land (causing CO2 emissions), which is in turn abandoned after a few years, allowing forests to regrow and take up CO2 again. This results in high CO2 fluxes from both deforestation and forestation, respectively. Other fluxes are mostly negligible in the DRC.
China saw a sharp increase in emissions due to deforestation in the 1980s. However, large uncertainties exist regarding the timing and extent of the deforestation activities, which is reflected in the large uncertainties of China’s emissions in that period. Economic reforms starting in 1978 led to decreasing deforestation rates and to forest expansion, causing a decline in CO2 emissions from the 1980s onwards.
In the last 20 years, land-use fluxes in China have remained close to net-zero, as emissions due to deforestation and wood harvest have been largely offset by CO2 uptake from forestation and regrowth after wood harvest.
In the US, emissions decreased in the 1950s, and land use has been a relatively small net carbon sink from the 1960s onwards, albeit with substantial uncertainties. Wood harvest causes the highest emissions, although these are counterbalanced by subsequent regrowth.
Collectively, Europe (specifically, the 27 countries that now make up the EU) had a constant carbon sink throughout the last 70 years, mainly due to forestation. Europe has a long history of deforestation, going back to Roman times and intensifying until it reached a peak at the onset of the industrial revolution. In the years that followed, forests in Europe started to regrow again, leading to large-scale CO2 removals. The balance of emissions and removals from wood harvest suggests that forestry in Europe is sustainable.
It is worth noting that the uncertainties around the land-use CO2 fluxes shown here are substantial for several countries – particularly in Brazil, China and the US. These large uncertainties are due to various reasons, but mostly stem from differences in land-use change data used by the different bookkeeping models and differences in process implementation – such as in the consideration of fire management in the US. There are also varying assumptions on how much carbon is stored in soils and different types of vegetation, and on how quickly vegetation and soils emit carbon (after deforestation) or take up carbon (after reforestation) following land-use changes.
Importance of national mitigation plans
Emissions from land-use change can be expected to decrease substantially in the coming years – as long as countries put the land-use commitments within their Paris Agreement climate pledges into action.
Detailed knowledge of the changes and drivers of land-use CO2 fluxes in individual countries provides a key element to monitor and assess the country-specific measures to cut emissions and increase removals.
Specifically, splitting up land-use fluxes into their components allows for a separate assessment of emissions and removals. Net CO2 sinks are only possible if CO2 removals from forestation exceed the sum of emissions from deforestation, peat emissions and other emission-causing land-use transitions.
The Bureau of Reclamation awarded funding for 15 projects under the Desalination and Water Purification Research program. The research projects are innovative solutions that seek to reduce water treatment costs and improve performance.
“Developing new technologies that can treat currently unusable water will help communities worldwide,” said Research and Development Program Manager Ken Nowak. “These technologies have the potential to increase water supply flexibility under the risks of climate change and drought.”
The Desalination and Water Purification Research Program provides financial assistance for advanced water treatment research and development, leading to improved technologies for developing water supply from non-traditional waters, including seawater, brackish groundwater, and municipal wastewater, among others.
In addition to the $4 million in federal funding provided for selected projects, recipients have committed an additional $3 million of non-federal cost share to further support these research efforts.
University of Alabama ($249,966 federal funding, $499,932 total project cost) : Engineering Sustainable Solvents for Brine Desalination. This project seeks to improve solvent performance in temperature swing solvent extraction for brine desalination through experimental and computational techniques.
Pacifica Water Solutions, LLC ($350,000 federal funding, $700,000 total project cost): Field Pilot Testing Electrically Conducting Nanofiltration and Reverse Osmosis Membranes. This project will field test innovative anti-scaling and antifouling electrically conducting desalination membranes against commercial membranes for reverse osmosis concentrate minimization and produced water applications.
University of California, Riverside ($250,000 federal funding, $390,754 total project cost): Development of a Novel Vacuum-ultraviolet Photochemical System for Treatment of Nitrate and Per Fluorinated Substances from Inland Desalination Brine. This project will test a novel laboratory-scale vacuum ultraviolet light-driven photochemical process for treatment of nitrate and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) from inland desalination brine.
University of Colorado ($592,703 federal funding, $756,246 total project cost): Concentrate Minimization: Pilot Testing of Improved Static Mixer Crystallizers. This project will perform pilot scale testing and evaluation of improved in-line, static mixer elements to accelerate the desupersaturation of reverse osmosis desalination brine.
University of Colorado ($250,000 federal funding, $396,501 total project cost): Robust Surface Patterned Membranes for Membrane Distillation of High Salinity Brine with High Efficiency. This project aims to develop and test scalable, robust, surface-patterned microporous membranes that are designed for a membrane distillation process treating highly concentrated brines.
Mickley & Associates LLC ($111,500 federal funding, $234,150 total project cost): Brine Mining. The project will gather, analyze, and synthesize information from the literature, websites, and interviews to bring clarity to many issues involving brine mining, such as potential benefits, feasibility, applicable technologies, recoverable compounds, and more.
Purdue University ($250,000 federal funding, $465,799 total project cost): Batch Counterflow Reverse Osmosis. This project will develop lab-scale demonstration of batch counterflow reverse osmosis to achieve high recovery and efficiency and develop a fundamental understanding of fouling kinetics for the process.
Tufts University ($249,994 federal funding, $407,733 total project cost): New Fouling-Resistant, Anti-Microbial Membranes for Pretreatment. This project aims to develop and demonstrate ultrafiltration pretreatment membranes that resist organic fouling and biofouling through dual mechanisms, manufactured through a novel scalable manufacturing process.
University of Minnesota ($249,853 federal funding, $249,853 total project cost): Crystallization Kinetics: Toward the Useful Separation of Salts in Enhanced Evaporation Systems. This project seeks to leverage the research team’s detailed understanding of the spatial and temporal temperature variation and brine evaporation behavior in enhanced evaporation systems to intentionally, and selectively, precipitate salt in distinct locations for collection and reuse.
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology ($249,896 federal funding, $499,792 total project cost): Advanced Hybrid Membrane Process for Simultaneous Recovery of Clean Water and Lithium from High Salinity Brines. This project seeks to develop an innovative hybrid membrane process for simultaneous recovery of clean water and lithium from high-salinity brines.
Temple University ($250,000 federal funding, $500,972 total project cost): Synergistic Integration of Electroactive Forward Osmosis and Microbial Desalination Cells for Energy-Neutral Desalination. The goal of this project is to develop an energy-neutral seawater desalination system by integrating electroactive forward osmosis and microbial desalination cells.
Vanderbilt University ($250,000 federal funding, $518,463 total project cost): Selective Removal and Degradation of PFAS via Cyclic Adsorption-electrooxidation on Conductive Functionalized Cu-MOF-aminated-GO. This project aims to develop a fundamentally new approach to selectively remove PFAS from water using a metal organic framework and degrade it to ensure complete removal.
William Marsh Rice University ($250,000 federal funding, $332,842 total project cost): Ion Exchange Membranes with Tunable Monovalent Ion Permselectivity to Maximize Water Recovery in Desalination. This project seeks to improve the performance of electrodialysis technologies by developing ion exchange membranes with tunable ion permeability and permselectivity for desalination applications.
Freese and Nichols, Inc. ($231,710 federal funding, $539,945 total project cost): Strategies for Gaining Pathogen Removal Credit for Reverse Osmosis in Potable Reuse in Texas (and Beyond). This project will facilitate the identification and evaluation of strategies for gaining pathogen removal credit for reverse osmosis in potable reuse applications in Texas and beyond.
George Mason University ($250,000 federal funding, $500,203 total project cost): Engineering Spatial Wood Carbon Scaffolds with Nanocellulose Fillers for Water Deionization. This project seeks to create an innovative and energy-efficient capacitive deionization process with the help of biomass-based advanced porous structures for water desalination and purification.
The board voted 3-2 to pass a resolution setting new water rates. Members Joe Mahaney and Nick Madero voted against the resolution. The raise in rates includes a 94-cent monthly fee for residential water users and a $3.17 monthly fee for residential sewer customers. The fees are described as “readiness to serve” fees, which represent the fixed costs the utilities providers experience getting the services to customers, said Jim Blasing, utilities director for the district. The rates will go into effect in May…New residential customers will see an increase in the residential water resource fee and tap fee, totaling a little more than $1,000. Those increases are designed to have new residents help pay for the growth of the system…
Board member Jami Baker Orr said the district has “among the lowest paid district employees” and has been trying to bring those wages up. She also said that the rates are “based on the advice of a water expert” and noted that the district’s facilities are getting older and will need to be upgraded in the near future.
Boulder County’s case to proceed in local court; stage set for similar cases across US
The United States Supreme Court delivered a critical victory to those suffering the harms of the climate crisis. The Court rejected ExxonMobil and Suncor’s petition for certiorari seeking to force three Colorado communities — who sued the companies for their role in the climate crisis and the local impacts the communities suffer — into federal court. The result of the Supreme Court’s denial is that the cases brought by Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the City of Boulder will proceed in Colorado state court.
In June 2022, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided that the case belonged in state court, the companies sought Supreme Court review on two questions – whether federal common law actually governed the municipalities’ state law tort claims and whether federal courts thus have jurisdiction over the case. With the Supreme Court rejecting their petition, Exxon and Suncor can no longer forestall Colorado state courts’ consideration of the case. The cases will now proceed in the Colorado court system.
The Supreme Court also rejected petitions in four similar climate cases where the fossil fuel companies pressed the same arguments for federal jurisdiction. More than two dozen similar cases were filed in state courts across the country. Other high-profile climate litigation cases include those in Rhode Island, Baltimore, Hawai’i, and several California municipalities.
EarthRights General Counsel Marco Simons issued the following statement:
“Since the Colorado communities filed this case in 2018, ExxonMobil and Suncor have consistently sought to delay the litigation—moving the case from court to court and losing each step along the way. Today’s development brings these communities one step closer to holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their misconduct and obtaining remedies for the serious climate harms Colorado residents face.
“Every court that has reviewed this case has come to the same conclusion–that it should be heard in a local court, by a local jury. The Supreme Court’s decision today confirms that. This case is not about changing national climate policy — it’s about accountability for the climate harms in Colorado that companies like Exxon and Suncor are responsible for.”
Boulder County Commissioner Ashley Stolzmann issued the following statement:
“Boulder County is thrilled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to take up this case. Our lawsuit against Exxon and Suncor should be determined in Colorado state court – where the actions of these companies are negatively impacting our residents. Communities like ours are exposed to destructive climate change impacts caused by the actions of fossil fuel companies while they reap record profits. These companies need to pay their fair share to deal with the climate chaos they’ve created and take responsibility for the climate impacts. Local governments cannot shoulder the price tag of climate change alone.”
The City of Boulder issued the following statements:
“Today, the court affirmed what we know to be true – our case deserves its day in local court, where our communities experience the impacts and costs of climate change,” said Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett. “Oil companies are making record profits while our planet continues to warm. It’s only fair that the companies that profit from irresponsible actions compensate communities for the harm they cause.”
“There’s no doubt that climate change is very costly for local government. Taxpayer dollars are stretched to support key services, and the costs to prepare for and recover from climate disasters are too much for communities alone to bear,” said Boulder City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde. “Today’s decision is a step toward justice. Colorado communities will have the chance to hold oil companies responsible for the hundreds in millions in damages their actions cause.”
San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper issued the following statement:
“This is excellent news for San Miguel County. It’s only fair that our lawsuit against Suncor and Exxon be heard not before the U.S. Supreme Court but in Colorado, closer to the communities where the impacts of climate change are most acutely felt. Enough with the delays. It’s time for fossil fuel companies to help local governments with the costs of addressing climate change in the name of protecting the health and well-being of our residents.”
In 2018, Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the City of Boulder—with legal support from EarthRights International, the Hannon Law Firm, and the Niskanen Center—filed a lawsuit against Exxon and Suncor for their decades of misinformation and other contributions to the climate crisis. The communities, which are already experiencing significant climate change impacts, demanded that these companies pay their fair share of the costs associated with these impacts so that the costs do not fall disproportionately on taxpayers.
Shortly after the communities filed their case in Colorado state court, defendant fossil fuel companies sought to remove the case to federal court. Both the federal district court and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the case should proceed, as filed, in state court. However, the Tenth Circuit needed to revisit this jurisdictional issue after the Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in BP v. Baltimore.
In February 2022, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the Colorado climate case should indeed proceed in state, not federal, court. Defendants ExxonMobil and Suncor then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to hear the case and answer two narrow questions related to federal removal jurisdiction. The Supreme Court’s initial reaction was to ask the U.S. Government for its views; in March 2023, the Solicitor General submitted a brief agreeing with the Colorado communities that the Supreme Court should not hear the case and that it should proceed in state court.
Representation of the Colorado communities at the Supreme Court has been led by Kevin Russell of Goldstein, Russell & Woofter LLC.