Maui Joins Growing Number of Counties and States Suing Big Oil

Maui         Photo: Dennis Dore, Flickr CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

As Maui, Hawaii begins its “managed retreat” from its coastline due to sea-level rise caused by climate change, the county filed a lawsuit this week against big oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips to pay the costs of the move. The suit alleges that the companies knew that their products produced damaging greenhouse gasses that accelerated rising global temperatures, and hid those risks from the county’s businesses and citizens in order to maximize their profits. The case joins a growing number of similar lawsuits from cities and governments across the country, including suits filed by Baltimore and New York City.

Why This Matters: Maui’s economy is highly reliant on tourism — and what makes it an attractive destination are things like scenic coastal roads and beach hotels. On the island of Maui, 3,100 acres of land, 760 structures, and 11.2 miles of major roads, totaling over $3.2 billion in assets, are at risk of being destroyed by rising sea levels by the year 2100. Fire is a big problem there too, and 2019 was the hottest year on record for Maui. The losses to the county and local businesses due to climate change are huge and there are documents that show that the oil companies knew of the impacts their products would cause.  That ought to make the oil companies nervous.

Climate Impacts Are Real and Costly Now For Cities And States

The losses claimed in this litigation are real and can be tied directly to climate change,  For example, in Hawaii, ports and airports that bring tourists and resources to and from the island are threatened.  The lawsuit explains, “since the county is almost entirely dependent upon imported food, fuel, and material, the vulnerability of ports and airports to extreme events, sea-level rise, and increasing wave heights is of serious concern. The lawsuit states that nothing will be safe from this catastrophic damage; cultural heritage sites, burial grounds, residences, and the habitats of native and endangered species all face destruction.  If the county wins, the oil companies will have to help the island build infrastructure to prevent damage from wildfires and rising sea levels and support residents and businesses negatively impacted in the future.

Hawaii is not alone.  Recently, the state of Connecticut filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil alleging that the company misled the public for decades about whether climate change was real, leaving the state’s 600 miles of coastline ill-prepared and ill-protected against rising sea levels and intensifying storms. “Because they’re able to convince large swaths of people in Connecticut and across the country, we didn’t adopt those renewable sources of energy, and we didn’t move to a carbon-free economy, as quickly as we should have,” the state’s Attorney General explained.

State or Federal Court?

But, but, but despite these strong claims, there is a question about whether these cases should be heard in state or federal courts.  Cities, states, and counties have filed most of their cases in state courts where local laws are more relevant to the unique dangers they face from climate change. Corporations argue that cases belong in federal courts, where they’ve successfully argued in previous cases that issues of climate are best left to Congress’ discretion. The issue of state versus federal courts will soon be settled by the Supreme Court. And President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, if confirmed, will likely tip the scales in favor of fossil fuel companies and make it even more difficult to win climate cases. Barrett has ties to big oil and her father spent most of his legal career working for Shell.

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