This story is reprinted with permission from Honolulu Civil Beat.

A City and County of Honolulu effort to hold oil companies accountable for climate change impacts that threaten Oahu overcame a major legal obstacle last month. 

Hawaii Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ruled in favor of the city amid an attempt by Chevron, Sunoco, ExxonMobil, and other defendants to dismiss the lawsuit. The move is a key step in allowing the case to proceed to trial. 

“This is an unprecedented case for any court, let alone a state court trial judge,” Crabtree wrote in his ruling. 

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The Honolulu Board of Water Supply filed the state court case in 2020 with the help of Sher Edling, a national firm that is pursuing similar cases across the country

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The plaintiffs argue that the fossil fuel industry engaged in a decades-long campaign of deception to discredit climate science and sow doubt in the mind of the public that fossil fuel production was harming the planet. And now, the lawsuit complaint says, the public is paying the price. 

Because of climate change, Oahu will experience rising sea levels, flooding, erosion, beach loss, and extreme weather, as well as decreasing fish populations, the death of coral reefs, habitat losses, and other dire impacts, the lawsuit states. 

The plaintiffs are using state tort law against the oil companies, arguing that the defendants had a duty to disclose information they knew and that they breached that duty. 

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The fossil fuel companies countered that the plaintiffs were trying to regulate global fossil fuel emissions and that the case is a federal legal matter, but Crabtree rejected that argument, among others.

“As this court understands it, Plaintiffs do not ask for damages for all effects of climate change; rather, they seek damages primarily for the effects of climate change allegedly caused by Defendants’ breach of long-recognized duties,” Crabtree wrote. 

This debate about state and federal jurisdiction is playing out in similar climate change cases across the country, but Crabtree is the first judge in the nation to have issued a ruling rejecting the fossil fuel companies’ argument, said Denise Antolini, a local attorney who specializes in environmental law. 

“He based his ruling on very traditional tort law theory and practice, and so as he says, while the claims may be unusual and unprecedented, the law they’re based on is not,” said Antolini, who has submitted legal filings in support of the city and county’s case. 

In a statement, Honolulu’s chief climate change officer Matthew Gonser said he appreciated Crabtree’s ruling. 

“The Court recognized that Honolulu’s case is grounded in well-established state law tort claims such as failures to disclose and deceptive promotions, and that it is important for cities such as Honolulu to be able to seek redress for their injuries,” said Gonser, who heads Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. 

“On behalf of Honolulu’s taxpayers, we look forward to the opportunity to present our evidence at trial. We are confident in the strength of our case.”

The oil companies are represented by some of Honolulu’s most prominent attorneys, including Paul Alston for Exxon Mobil, Joachim Paul Cox for Shell Oil, and former attorney general Margery Bronster for BHP GROUP. 

Those lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.

The County of Maui filed its own climate change case with Sher Edling, which has been consolidated with Honolulu’s case.

While the counties’ case proceeds in state court, they are simultaneously fighting the oil companies in federal court as well. 

U.S. District Court Judge Watson remanded the matter from federal court to state court last year, but the oil companies are appealing that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. While the parties await a ruling on that appeal, Watson ruled that the state cases can proceed. 

If the 9th Circuit determines it should be a federal case, the state rulings would be moot and the process would have to start over from the beginning at the federal level, Antolini said.