Maui sued Big Oil in 2020, citing fire risks and more (2023)



Supported by


Maui County's lawsuit against some of the world's largest oil and gas companies is still pending in state court.

  • 130

Maui sued Big Oil in 2020, citing fire risks and more (1)

PortaHiroko Tabuchi

The words were remarkably prescient: Due to climate change, lush, verdant Maui was facing wildfires of "increasing frequency, intensity and destructive power."

they appeared insidea 2020 processfiled by Maui County seeking damages from Exxon, Chevron and other giant oil and gas companies, accusing them of a "coordinated multi-pronged effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge" that burning fossil fuels is destroying the planet and would heat to dangerous extremes.

Now that wildfires caused by climate change-related conditions have devastated the Hawaiian island, the process is gaining momentum again.

The Maui fires "are clear, concrete evidence of something that might otherwise look and feel abstract" and that could "greatly bolster the case for Maui," said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history of science at Harvard, who has written about climate misinformation. to change.

But, she warned, “the fossil fuel industry has spent decades undermining scientific understanding of climate change and its harmful effects. One way they repeatedly do this is by questioning the link between climate change in general and specific adverse impacts.”

Ryan Meyers, senior vice president and general counsel of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry lobby group, called the Maui wildfires a tragedy but stressed that their immediate cause was still under investigation.

He called Maui's lawsuit part of a "coordinated campaign to file useless lawsuits against our industry" and "nothing more than a distraction from important issues and a huge waste of taxpayers' money."

Maui is one of more than 20 states and counties, including Honolulu, about 100 miles from Maui, that sue fossil fuel companies for climate damage.

This week a group of young people in Montanawon a historic lawsuitafter a judge ruled it unconstitutional for the state not to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects.

And while lawsuits such as Maui's have been delayed by procedural concerns, the fires could be an important part of the county's compensation claim if the case goes to trial, legal experts say. Maui's arguments are also likely to resonate with the local jury.

“Here in Hawaii, people are in disaster recovery mode, and the lengthy period of something like a lawsuit must necessarily take a back seat,” said Richard Wallsgrove, professor of law and consultant to the Environmental Law Program at the University of Hawaii. Hawaii in Manoa. . . "But it's also clear that what's at stake in these cases, and in all the climate disputes that are unfolding in Hawaii and elsewhere, is seen right there in the Maui wildfires."

Scientists are increasingly able to attribute specific catastrophes, such as extreme weather or wildfires, to global warming and evenlinking events to fossil fuel producers. And while this assignment may take some time,the scientists pointedDeclining average rainfall in Hawaii, as well as drought, hurricane-force winds and other conditions related to climate change, are all factors fueling the Maui wildfire.

At the same time, academic and congressional researchers, environmental groups, journalists and lawyers have chronicled how oil and gas companies, despite knowing for decades that burning fossil fuels would dangerously heat the planet, have tried to downplay or deny this knowledge.

The fossil fuel industry has been trying to take the Maui case and other climate cases to federal court, where it hopes for better results. But in May, the US Supreme Court refused to hear a group of petitions asking it to keep the cases out of court.

The industry also argued that the plaintiffs' claims relate to a global problem and amount to a demand for stricter regulation of fossil fuel emissions, both of which are outside the jurisdiction of a court. "Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not for the court system," said Meyers of the oil industry group.

In a state Supreme Court hearing on Thursday,the case filed by Honoluluoil companies repeated many of these arguments and urged judges to dismiss the claims.

The session opened with a moment of silence for those who died in the Maui fire.

“This case raises important questions,” said Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., an attorney representing the oil companies, “about whether the plaintiffs can rely on state law to bring tort actions to address injuries sustained, in their view, caused by for global problems”. emission of greenhouse gases." "We respectfully assert that the answer is no," he said. Indeed, the plaintiffs sought to "claim damages based on the actions of millions and billions of people around the world," he added.

Victor M. Sher, representing Maui, argued against the idea that multinational corporations were exempt from local laws.

Under US law, which gives states the primary authority to protect their citizens, “both foreign and even international actors who cause harm within individual states may be liable under that state’s tort laws.” , he said.

Karen Sokol, a professor at the Loyola University of New Orleans School of Law, said the oil companies are "trying to frame these cases as frivolous lawsuits that try to deal with climate change" using Hawaiian state law.

“This is part of the industry's strategy,” she said. “They tell the court, ‘You can’t handle this. It's too big for you. ''

Another record summer

Maui sued Big Oil in 2020, citing fire risks and more (3)
Delger ErdenesanaaReporting a hot summer

Last month was the hottest July on Earth in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 174-year record.

Here's what the agency has to say in its monthly weather update →

Brett Deering para o New York Times

Globally, that was in July2 terrible Fahrenheit, or just over 1 degree Celsius above average.

It wasn't just the hottest July, but "more than likely" the hottest of any month, says Karin Gleason, a climatologist at NOAA.

John Locher/Associated Press

Most of the global ocean has been unusually warm this summer. Sea surface temperatures are “as high orhigher than they have ever been in satellite recordssaid Derek Manzello, coordinator of NOAA's coral reef observation program.

Alfonso Duran for the New York Times

Global sea ice coverage is the lowest on record in July.

Sea ice around Antarctica has reached a record level for the third consecutive montha piece of ice the size of Argentina is missing.

De New York Times

Florida's coastal waters are particularly hard hit, with temperatures reaching 101 degrees Fahrenheit, or just over 38 degrees Celsius, recorded in July. “Florida corals have thatnever exposed to this magnitude of heat stress"Dr. Zei Manzello.

Jason Gulley for the New York Times

Both the US coast and the states farther south were warmer than normal. Arizona, Florida, Maine and New Mexico set records for the hottest July on record. The north-central region of the country,it was colder than average last month.The rest of the year should follow the same pattern.

Matt York/Associated Press

Read more weather news:

  • What this year's 'incredible' ocean heat means for the planet
  • This resembles the hottest month on Earth. The hottest ones seem to be in stores.

1 van 7

In its 2020 complaint, Maui said the oil companies were seeking to "discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence and continually sow seeds of doubt" in the minds of the public. Businesses have "encouraged a massive increase" and profited from the production and use of coal, oil and natural gas, which are causing global warming, the report says.

In Exxon's case, the county highlighted the significant amounts of money the company has spent on radio, television and outdoor advertising in Hawaii over the past 25 years to market its oil and gas products.

"These ads do not contain any warnings" about the climate risks of burning fossil fuels, argues Maui. Those ads also contained false or misleading statements "that obscure the link between Exxon's fossil fuel products and climate change" and misrepresented Exxon and its products as environmentally friendly, the complaint states.

Exxon declined to comment.

In its complaint, Maui County asserts that it has suffered and will continue to suffer severe harm and loss, including direct public health impacts, reduced tourism tax revenues and increased costs of adapting to a warmer climate.

“Forest fires are becoming more frequent, more intense and more destructive in the province”, states the complaint. “The fire season in the province is now year-round, not just a few months of the year.”

While local governments in Hawaii demand compensation from oil and gas companies, the state of Hawaii itself is being blamed for its climate policy.

A group of young people sued the island nation's Transport Ministry last year, accusing it of breaching its duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and violating their constitutional rights to a clean environment.

By promoting and funding highway projects that lead to increased traffic, fuel consumption and global warming emissions, the department has undermined young people's ability to "live healthy lives in Hawaii, now and in the future," she said.

Maui officials had no immediate comment. The Hawaii Department of Transportation said it would not comment on pending lawsuits.

A correction has been made

August 18, 2023


An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the Supreme Court's action to return the Maui case and other climate lawsuits to state courts. The court did not consider petitions to that effect and did not issue a decision. The previous version also distorted the timing of the action. It was May of this year, not last year.

A correction has been made

August 19, 2023


An earlier version also misspelled the last name of a lawyer representing oil companies. He is Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., not Boutros.

How we handle corrections

Hiroko Tabuchiis an investigative journalist at the Climate Bureau and reports extensively on money, influence and misinformation in climate policy. Mais sobre Hiroko Tabuchi

A version of this article appears in print at, Section


, page


from the New York edition

with the title:

In 2020, Maui sued major oil companies over fire hazards. Now the costume has a new weight..Order reprints|today's newspaper|Subscribe


  • 130




Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Lidia Grady

Last Updated: 05/09/2023

Views: 6272

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (65 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Lidia Grady

Birthday: 1992-01-22

Address: Suite 493 356 Dale Fall, New Wanda, RI 52485

Phone: +29914464387516

Job: Customer Engineer

Hobby: Cryptography, Writing, Dowsing, Stand-up comedy, Calligraphy, Web surfing, Ghost hunting

Introduction: My name is Lidia Grady, I am a thankful, fine, glamorous, lucky, lively, pleasant, shiny person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.