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flooding in hawaii

A pedestrian walks across a flooded street in Honolulu on December 7, 2021, the morning after a powerful winter tropical storm known as a Kona Low hit the Hawaii islands with heavy rain and high winds, causing widespread flooding and power outages across the state. (Photo: Eugene Tanner/AFP via Getty Images)

'Historic First' as Hawaii Court OKs Lawsuit Against Big Oil

"This development should send a message to communities across the country that the legal case for making polluters pay for lying about fossil-fueled damages is strong and defensible."

Jessica Corbett

Climate campaigners and local officials this week are celebrating a major series of victories in Hawaii state court rejecting Big Oil's attempts to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the the City and County of Honolulu.

"As climate costs for communities continue to soar, Big Oil companies must be held accountable to pay their fair share."

"This is a big and important win," said Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters in a statement. "Not only in the sense of legal justice, but also for our local residents."

"We are facing incredible costs to move critical infrastructure away from our coasts and out of flood zones," he continued, "and the oil companies that deceived the public for decades should be the ones helping pick up the tab for those costs—not our taxpayers."

Waters declared that "the reason these companies are fighting so hard to block this case is they don't want even more evidence to come out. This is just like Big Tobacco, when they tried to take advantage of the public."

Honolulu's lawsuit—filed in 2020 against oil giants including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell—claims that despite knowing for decades that their products heat the planet, which "could be catastrophic," and there was limited time to act, the companies "engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort" to deny the threats, discredit the science, and deceive the public "about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution."

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI), said Thursday that "Honolulu's victory is a watershed moment for efforts to hold oil companies accountable and make them pay for the enormous costs that their lies and pollution have forced on taxpayers."

Noting the more than two dozen similar cases that have been filed since 2017, Wiles added that "oil and gas companies will keep trying to escape accountability, but the people of Honolulu are now one step closer to putting these polluters on trial for their climate deception."

As the Honolulu City Council's statement explained:

In a series of rulings filed in February and culminating in the final orders posted late Monday, Hawaii Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Crabtree denied multiple attempts by Chevron, Shell, Exxon, and other oil corporations to throw out the lawsuit. Judge Crabtree agreed with the City and County of Honolulu on multiple counts, ruling that the plaintiffs had shown enough evidence to allow the trial to proceed. Amidst the slate of victories for the City and County of Honolulu, Judge Crabtree did rule that BHP Group Ltd., an Australian mining company that had limited ties to fossil fuel sales in Hawaii through a small subsidiary, would be released from the suit moving forward. That ruling will not affect the trial, which will begin to answer questions about how much the large oil companies knew, when they knew it, and to what lengths they went to cover up how much climate damage was going to occur.

Crabtree's rejection of oil giants' dismissal motions followed U.S. Judge Derrick Watso's ruling last year that the Honolulu case and a similar one filed by Maui County could proceed in state rather than federal court—delivering a blow to one of Big Oil's key strategies.

CCI collectively described the recent rulings as a "historic first," noting that they "mark the first time that public nuisance and other tort claims to hold oil companies accountable for the costs of climate change have reached and survived motions to dismiss."

"This development should send a message to communities across the country that the legal case for making polluters pay for lying about fossil-fueled damages is strong and defensible," said Wiles. "As climate costs for communities continue to soar, Big Oil companies must be held accountable to pay their fair share."

The decisions come as Big Oil faces rising scrutiny from elected officials for its decades of deception and contributions to the climate emergency.

Honolulu Councilmember Radiant Cordero, who chairs the Committee on Transportation, Sustainability, and Health, said Wednesday that "large oil corporations have continued deceptive and reckless behavior despite knowing about the overwhelming threat to public health and climate change created by their fossil fuel products."

"Their behavior demonstrates how large corporations value their own profit over public health and safety," she added. "With these rulings, the City and County of Honolulu is uniquely situated to create a precedent of accountability and justice that these endangering actions will not go unnoticed. They will be held accountable."

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