Maui is suing Big Oil
The county is seeking to recover the costs of climate-fueled disasters Big Oil knowingly caused — including increasingly destructive wildfires.
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The eyes of the world are on Maui, now the site of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. As of this writing, nearly 100 people have been killed in the fires — but officials fear that number will likely be much higher in the coming days.
For years, Maui officials have been sounding the alarm about the impact of climate change on their communities and fighting in court to hold polluters accountable for making such devastation all the more likely. When the county sued Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell and other fossil fuel companies in 2020 for a “coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge” of the dangers of burning fossil fuels, the increasing risk of destructive wildfires was cited in the lawsuit no less than eight times.
Maui spent years defeating the industry’s numerous attempts to move the case out of state court, where it was originally filed. The county is now awaiting a decision from a judge that could make it the third community — after Honolulu and Massachusetts — to enter the pretrial phase of a climate accountability lawsuit against Big Oil. That means the people of Maui would be one step closer to their rightful day in court to hold fossil fuel companies accountable.
Maui’s deadly wildfires are a harrowing reminder of why the county sued Big Oil for its decades of climate deception and delay.
The lawsuit emphasizes the “increased frequency, intensity, and destructive force of wildfires” in Maui due to climate change, pointing to changing wind patterns and wetter summers that have primed the landscape for fast-growing grasses that dry out and become tinder in prolonged periods of drought. “The County’s fire ‘season’ now runs year-round, rather than only a few months of the year,” reads the complaint, which also details the local impacts of rising seas, flooding, extreme heat, and other consequences of the fossil fuel industry’s deception and pollution.
Big Oil’s climate deception, the county argues, robbed society of precious time to address the climate crisis — leaving Maui residents to pay the ultimate price. Nearly a fifth of Maui was in severe drought in the lead-up to the recent fires, which scientists say were made “much more dangerous” by climate change.
“This lawsuit is about accountability,” said former Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino at a 2019 press conference announcing the county’s intent to sue. “Fossil fuel companies knew — their own experts warned them — about the potentially ‘severe’ or ‘catastrophic’ effects of doing business as usual, and the damage that could be caused by producing, marketing and selling their products.”
Maui’s lawsuit seeks to recover a share of the costs of climate adaptation, resilience, and recovery from Big Oil, and to force the companies to disgorge profits they made while lying to the public. Last week’s wildfires alone have already caused more than $5 billion in damages, federal officials say.
A recently published study found that more than a third of wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada were linked to carbon emissions from fossil fuel majors — including Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Shell, which are all defendants in Maui’s case.
Climate disasters like Maui’s wildfires are disproportionately harming Native Hawaiians.
Lahaina, once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was a hub of indigenous Hawaiian culture and colonial history. Now, many Native Hawaiians are navigating homelessness, loss of loved ones and sacred sites, and the toxic aftermath of the fire.
“Climate change is here,” Governor Josh Green said at a press conference Thursday. “It's going to take many years to rebuild Lahaina.”
Kaniela Ing, who is seventh-generation Kānaka Maoli and was born and raised on Maui, called Lahaina’s Front Street “a remarkable display of our history as it relates to capitalism.” Lahaina’s termination in fire, he said, was a symbolic end point of the trajectory of extraction-based economies that colonists forced on the island — from whaling and sugar to luxury tourism and the fossil fuel industry.
Ing is a former legislator and now national director of the Green New Deal Network. On Monday, his mother was still without power at her girlfriend’s apartment in Kula, Maui, where the fires struck before moving toward Lahaina. She was about to renew her lease on an apartment in Lahaina before it burned down. “This wasn’t supposed to happen here,” Ing said.
According to Maui’s complaint, “low-income communities, communities of color, and Native Hawaiian communities are and will continue to be the hardest hit by the physical and environmental consequences of Defendants’ actions, and will require the most resources, including from the County, to respond and adapt to the climate crisis.” That includes the loss of burial grounds, homes, and cultural resources to coastal erosion and flooding, and, said Ing, damage to subsistence fisheries, which many Native Hawaiians rely on today.
“People think of Native Hawaiians as something that’s in history books, these ancient ways of living,” said Ing. “No — people are still living this way. These are the keepers of traditional wisdom around sustainable development.”
Big Oil is still trying to escape accountability — but cases in Maui and Honolulu are moving toward trial.
Oil and gas companies spent years trying to move Maui’s case out of state court, are currently arguing to get it dismissed — and now industry backers are even attacking judges in the Hawai`i court system who could preside over the lawsuit. As Lesley Clark from E&E just reported, a group with ties to organizations that fight climate policy “has questioned the objectivity of a judge” in Honolulu’s lawsuit against Big Oil “because of his involvement with an organization that provides legal education on a range of topics, including climate science.” It’s unclear who funds the group, Energy Policy Advocates. According to Clark, “The group's tax-exempt status — which provides information about how it raises and spends money — was revoked in 2021 because it had failed to file paperwork for three years.”
On Thursday, the Hawai`i State Supreme Court will hear an appeal from fossil fuel companies attempting to dismiss Honolulu’s case, after a lower court ruled that it could proceed toward trial.
Despite persistent efforts by the companies to escape accountability, Maui’s and Honolulu’s cases could be some of the first climate liability lawsuits in the country to go to trial. Now, more than ever, they deserve their day in court.
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