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Environmental Regulator Cautions Against Climate Litigation


The director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s air and water quality programs recommended “taking baby steps” on pushing climate action and cautioned that the City of Boulder’s potential climate lawsuit against oil and gas developers might not be the best approach in pushing an environmental agenda.

The CDPHE’s Martha Rudolph spoke with Western Wire following a panel on state climate action at the Climate Leadership Conference in Denver this week.

As director, Rudolph oversees the agency’s Air Pollution Control, Water Quality Control, and Environmental Health divisions. Rudolph has also served in the Colorado Attorney General’s office for 14 years.

Rudolph told Western Wire that a potential climate lawsuit represented a heavy-handed approach.

“Trying to get to the goal and figure out why you would want to go there” is important when considering any potential action as a government entity, including consideration of a lawsuit, according to Rudolph. She referred to her prepared remarks for the earlier panel on states that emphasized “very thoughtful” actions on climate. On Boulder filing a lawsuit, she said, “What would be beneficial to you to go there? And sort of figure that out and talk about it.”

The City of Boulder is considering a climate lawsuit fashioned in the manner of recent legal filings in states like California and New York. Several municipalities in those states, including San Francisco and Oakland, Cali. and New York City, have filed lawsuits against oil and gas companies under the “public nuisance” legal doctrine for climate change impacts.

Most recently, a Western Wire investigation and review of city council documents revealed that Boulder’s Mayor, Suzanne Jones, had asked the City Attorney’s Office for additional clarification on “potential costs and risk” of signing on to a similar lawsuit.

The documents were obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request.

Rudolph said CDPHE focused instead on building partnerships with regulated industries, businesses, local governments, and rural communities to move forward on environmental issues.

“At some point [you] maybe end up taking baby steps, but I think ultimately you’ll get there,” Rudolph said.

Rudolph cautioned that the impact of bringing a lawsuit could backfire in swaying public opinion, instead hardening minds.

“There’s a saying that I believe in which is, ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still,’” Rudolph said.

“So if you sue somebody and you win, they still don’t agree with what you’ve done. They just have to now do it,” Rudolph continued.

While the Boulder lawsuit’s targets in the oil and gas industry have not publicly been identified, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and Chevron were the subject of the lawsuit announced by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in January.

Western Wire also found discussions of broadening the number of plaintiff governments to include, at this time, the County of Boulder. Other municipalities may also be included, though details are not available now.

Rudolph said that a better approach for government is to try to persuade one’s opponents.

“So what you’re trying to do is get people to see why they want to do something because it’s good for them, it’s good for something they care about. So I think that’s more valuable,” Rudolph said.

Rudolph also said Hickenlooper’s tenure has been marked by a focus on collaboration. The lawsuit falls outside those goals, she said.

“It [lawsuit] does. There are always going to be people that will sue to try to force the issue or make it move faster,” she explained.

“There are times when we’ll sue,” Rudolph said, but viewed that venue as the last resort.

When asked about Rudolph’s comments, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) told Western Wire, “I’m glad she said it so that I don’t have to.”

Hickenlooper spoke to reporters Thursday, welcoming the new maps provided by the Department of Interior for its reorganization plan, and called the agency’s potential plan for relocating the Bureau of Land Management to a state in the West a “different approach” to federal practices. Hickenlooper has supported the relocation of the BLM’s headquarters.



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