Can Hawaii Sue Big Oil for Climate Damages? The Supreme Court Wants to Know What the Biden Admin Thinks First

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes / EcoWatch
Can Hawaii Sue Big Oil for Climate Damages? The Supreme Court Wants to Know What the Biden Admin Thinks First Devastation in Lahaina, Hawaii from a wildfire that killed at least 111 people and displaced thousands, on Aug. 17, 2023. (photo: Getty)

The United States Supreme Court has asked the Biden administration to weigh in on oil companies’ efforts to avoid a lawsuit brought by Honolulu. The suit alleges the companies misled the public regarding the contribution of their fossil fuel emissions to climate change and could potentially cost them billions.

The request by the Supreme Court will delay the justices’ decision on whether to hear an appeal by the fossil fuel companies after Hawaii’s highest court ruled the litigation could go to trial.

“Big oil companies are fighting desperately to avoid trial in lawsuits like Honolulu’s, which would expose the evidence of the fossil fuel industry’s climate lies for the entire world to see,” said Richard Wiles, Center for Climate Integrity president, as reported by Reuters.

Documents revealed months ago confirmed that oil companies knew about the impacts of fossil fuels on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the environment as early as 1954.

Defendants in the lawsuit include Sunoco, BP, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Shell, Marathon Petroleum and BHP Group.

The legal position of the Biden administration will be filed by the Justice Department’s solicitor general.

The original lawsuit — filed four years ago by the county and city of Honolulu, along with the city’s water supply board — said the oil majors’ misleading statements regarding the impact of their products opened the door for infrastructure and property damage brought about by human-induced climate change.

The Supreme Court’s order comes after conservative supporters of the companies published a host of advertisements and op-eds, The Guardian reported.

“I have never, ever seen this kind of overt political campaign to influence the court like this,” professor Patrick Parenteau, Vermont Law School senior climate policy fellow, expressed last week to The Guardian.

Climate litigation advocates have said the solicitor general should reject the petition and affirm the earlier decision of Hawaii’s supreme court.

Honolulu is one of many cities and states to have brought legal action against oil companies for concealing the hazards of their products.

The fossil fuel companies insisted federal law should govern the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

“[T]he Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision flatly contradicts U.S. Supreme Court precedent and federal circuit court decisions, including the Second Circuit which held in dismissing New York City’s similar lawsuit, ‘such a sprawling case is simply beyond the limits of state law.’ These meritless state and local lawsuits violate the federal constitution and interfere with federal energy policy,” Chevron’s lawyer Ted Boutrous said in a statement, as reported by The Hill.

However, plaintiffs Honolulu and its water supply board said the suit is “not seeking to solve climate change or regulate emissions,” but trying to get big oil to “stop lying and pay their fair share of the damages they knowingly caused,” said Alyssa Johl, vice president and general counsel at the Center for Climate Integrity, as The Guardian reported.

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