County explores joining lawsuit against fossil fuel companies

Hawaii County might join the City and County of Honolulu in a lawsuit seeking financial reparations from more than a dozen fossil fuel companies for their role in causing climate change and rising sea levels.

During a meeting of the County Council’s Committee on Agriculture, Water, Energy and Environmental Management, committee members agreed to a resolution allowing the county corporation counsel to investigate whether to join “City &Council of Honolulu vs. Sunoco LP, et. al.,” a case filed in March in 1st Circuit Court.

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That case argues that major fossil fuel companies — including Sunoco LP, Aloha Petroleum Ltd., Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Shell Oil Co., Chevron Corp., and BHP Group Limited — encouraged the production and use of fossil fuel products despite being aware of the damage they cause to the environment. Because of this, the suit argues, the companies are liable for the economic damage climate change will inevitably cause in vulnerable places, particularly island communities such as Hawaii.

Hawaii County Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela said Tuesday that he investigated the possibility of joining such a case for the better part of two years, but is still unsure how Hawaii County will fit in with the greater case.

While some council members drew comparisons between the fossil fuel case and a multi-state lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies over opioid addiction and overdoses, which the county joined last year, Kamelamela said the cases are too different.

“The opioid litigation case was a clear thing, but for this one, it’s all uncertainty and speculation right now,” Kamelamela said.

Kamelamela said he was inclined to observe the progress of the case and “let Oahu make the mistakes, and then we’ll join when they have been worked out.” He also said the county would have to appoint a special counsel to handle the case if it joins.

Council members voted unanimously to pass the resolution, agreeing that climate change is one of the greatest threats to the island to date.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas — who co-introduced the resolution — said studies indicate that several places around the island such as Hawaiian Beaches and areas along the Hamakua Coast will be subject to increased flooding risks, shoreline erosion and “potential permanent inundation” during the next 30 years thanks to climate change.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung was pessimistic about the likelihood of the lawsuit bringing any results, but voted in favor of the resolution, saying he saw no harm in investigating further.

However, Chung added that he would not be in favor of hiring a special counsel unless the counsel agreed to work pro bono.

“I’m worried we’re blaming others for our own shortcomings,” Chung said. “Just speaking for myself, I had a hybrid vehicle once, but right now, I have two cars, and they both take gas.”

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“But if we can get some money from their deep pockets, then sure, why not,” Chung concluded.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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