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

FILE - Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, center, points to damage as he speaks with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell during a tour of wildfire damage, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. On Friday, Aug. 18, FEMA said it approved $2.3 million in assistance to roughly 1,300 households in Maui so far, as the federal government tries to help survivors of the devastating wildfires. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The words were strikingly prescient: Because of climate change, lush and verdant Maui was facing wildfires of “increased frequency, intensity and destructive force.”

They appeared in a 2020 lawsuit filed by Maui County seeking damages from Exxon, Chevron, and other giant oil and gas companies, accusing them of a “coordinated, multifront effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge” that the burning of fossil fuels would heat the planet to dangerous extremes.


Now, after wildfires driven by conditions linked to climate change have devastated the Hawaiian island, the lawsuit carries renewed heft.

The Maui fires “are clear and concrete evidence of something that otherwise might seem and feel abstract” that could “greatly strengthen” Maui’s case, said Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor of the history of science who has written about climate change disinformation.

But, she cautioned, “for decades, the fossil fuel industry has worked to undermine scientific understanding of climate change and its damaging effects. One way they have done this, repeatedly, is by questioning the link between climate change, in general, and specific damaging consequences.”

Ryan Meyers, senior vice president and general counsel at 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 the litigation brought by Maui part of a “coordinated campaign to wage meritless lawsuits against our industry” and “nothing more than a distraction from important issues and an enormous waste of taxpayer resources.”

Maui is among more than two dozen states and municipalities, including Honolulu, which is about 100 miles from Maui, that are suing fossil fuel companies for climate damages.

This week, a group of youths in Montana won a landmark lawsuit after a judge ruled that the state’s failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional.

And although lawsuits like the one filed by Maui have been delayed by procedural issues, the fires could be an important part of the county’s claim for damages should the case go to trial, legal experts said. Maui’s arguments are also likely to resonate with a local jury.

“Here in Hawaii, folks are in disaster recovery mode, and the longer arc of something like a lawsuit necessarily has to take a back seat,” said Richard Wallsgrove, law professor and adviser to the Environmental Law Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “But it’s also clear that what’s at stake in these cases, and all the climate litigation cases that are brewing in Hawaii and elsewhere, is seen right there in the Maui wildfires.”

Scientists are increasingly able to attribute specific disasters, such as extreme weather or wildfires, to global warming, and even tie events to fossil fuel producers. And although that attribution can take time, scientists have pointed to Hawaii’s declining average rainfall as well as drought, hurricane winds and other conditions linked to climate change as factors that fueled the Maui fire.

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