By Karen Savage
Hawaii’s Maui County, which covers four islands and has nearly 300 miles of coastline, on Monday became the latest in a wave of municipalities that have sued fossil fuel companies to hold them accountable for their role in climate change.
In the suit, filed Monday in state court, Maui County alleges that Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and more than a dozen other companies have known for decades that their products pose a grave risk to the climate. The suit says that instead of warning the public, the companies engaged in a coordinated campaign to “conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution.”
The companies’ actions have “contributed substantially to the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere that drives global warming and its physical, environmental, and socioeconomic consequences, including those affecting the County,” Moana M. Lutey, corporation counsel for Maui County wrote in the complaint.
The suit joins another already filed in Hawaii by the city and county of Honolulu and dozens more already filed across the country, which make similar claims against a similar group of companies. Most are locked in a battle over whether they will be heard in state or federal courts. The suits have overwhelmingly been filed in state courts but the industry has fought to move them to federal court, where they believe they have a better chance of getting them dismissed. The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to weigh in on a jurisdictional-related technicality in a suit filed by Baltimore.
Maui County joined the trend because it is already experiencing climate impacts, including chronic drought, more intense heat waves, high tide flooding, wildfires and worsening coastal erosion, according to County Mayor Michael Victorino, who announced last year that he intended to file the suit.
Last year was the county’s warmest on record and Kahului broke or tied 61 daily temperature records. Wildfires burned nearly 26,000 acres, more than six times the amount burned in 2018. By 2100, more than $3.2 billion of county assets could be inundated by sea level rise, which would devastate the tourism industry.
Native Hawaiian communities, people of color, and low-income residents are disproportionately affected, according to Lutey.
“Native Hawaiian and other communities living on Moloka‘i are especially vulnerable to sea level rise, as increased flooding, erosion, and destruction of coastal roads, homes, businesses, and beaches is predicted over the coming decades,” Lutey wrote.
“Coastal and beach erosion also jeopardize Native Hawaiian cultural and historical sites, including burial grounds, home sites, and fish ponds, as well as fishing and cultural practices. On Moloka‘I alone there are 26 cultural sites within the Sea Level Rise Exposure Area. This includes cultural sights on Lā‘au Point that may be flooded as a result of sea level rise.”
Victorino said the county needs to address climate impacts immediately.
“Maui County taxpayers should not be left to bear the staggering costs of climate change impacts,” Victorino said. “We are seeking relief in state court to hold Big Oil companies accountable for their decades-long disinformation campaign to keep the public in the dark over the climate crisis.”
The suit includes claims of public and private nuisance, strict liability for failure to warn, negligent failure to warn and trespass. The county is seeing compensatory and punitive damages, equitable relief, disgorgement of profits, costs and fees, and other relief as deemed proper by the court.
Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey said litigation stands in the way of efforts to solve climate change by diverting attention and resources away from real solutions.
“Special-interest lawsuits asking courts to punish companies that deliver affordable, reliable energy do nothing to solve the problem–they only undermine the progress we are making,” Comey said.
The other companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Victorino said like Big Tobacco, which was ultimately held liable for deceiving the public about the devastating health effects of their products, fossil fuel companies will also be held accountable.
“Big Oil companies sold products that they knew would harm the environment, with devastating effects on public resources and infrastructure, leaving local governments and taxpayers to bear the costs,” Victorino said.
“With all the demands our citizens face in these times of economic, social and healthcare emergencies, it’s unjust to let the oil companies scoop up profits and avoid paying for any of the damage they’ve inflicted.”