Honolulu Sues Petroleum Companies For Climate Change Damages to City

The city’s lawsuit cites the industry’s concealing of science that predicted catastrophic consequences for the continued burning of fossil fuels.

Mar 10, 2020
Honolulu is Already Feeling the Effects of Climate Change

At Mike Leary's Island Demo's equipment yard, more frequent tidal flooding from rising seas has inundated the property in recent years. Credit: Mike Leary

Honolulu city officials, lashing out at the fossil fuel industry in a climate change lawsuit filed Monday, accused oil producers of concealing the dangers that greenhouse gas emissions from petroleum products would create, while reaping billions in profits. 

The lawsuit, against eight oil companies, says climate change already is having damaging effects on the city's coastline, and lays out a litany of catastrophic public nuisances—including sea level rise, heat waves, flooding and drought caused by the burning of fossil fuels—that are costing the city billions, and putting its residents and property at risk.

"We are seeing in real time coastal erosion and the consequences," Josh Stanbro, chief resilience officer and executive director for the City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, told InsideClimate News. "It's an existential threat for what the future looks like for islanders."

The lawsuit puts it simply: The industry has known for decades that those impacts could be catastrophic, yet did nothing.

Fossil fuel companies have "promoted and profited from a massive increase in the extraction and consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas, which has in turn caused an enormous, foreseeable, and avoidable increase in global greenhouse gas pollution," the suit states.

"Defendants had actual knowledge that their products were defective and dangerous and were and are causing and contributing to the nuisance complained of, and acted with conscious disregard for the probable dangerous consequences of their conduct's and products' foreseeable impact upon the rights of others, including the City and its residents," according to the 119 page lawsuit filed in in the First Circuit Court of Hawaii.

Hawaii's Economic Costs as Sea Level Rises

The lawsuit seeks to hold fossil companies, including Exxon, Shell, Chevron and Phillips 66, accountable for the costs and damages caused by misleadingly promoting and selling products that their own scientists and experts warned could impose "severe" or even "catastrophic" consequences.

"This case is about accountability," Stanbro  said during a news conference announcing the lawsuit. 

"It's about making sure corporations play by the rules; disclose known problems with their products," he said. "And when they don't do that, they are held accountable to cover the cost the rest of society is having to bear."

Business owner Mike Leary sees holding the fossil fuel industry legally responsible as  long overdue,and a decisive step in dealing with the damages that have been affecting his business for years. At Leary's Island Demo's equipment yard on the edge of downtown Honolulu, rubber boots and waders have become standard gear for the workers. Desks in the small office sit on cinder blocks and the interior walls have been stripped to the studs because there's no use trying to keep sheetrock up: it only has to come down again after it's once more soaked by floodwater.  

Leary has watched as more frequent tidal flooding from rising seas has inundated the property in recent years, and he supports the city's plan to try to hold the fossil fuel industry legally accountable for climate-related damage.

"This constant flooding is a nightmare," Leary said. He estimates that he's had to buy 60 pairs of waders for his demolition company's crew in the last few years. "The flooding is happening so frequently now that these guys need the boots to walk around in the yard."

The lawsuit sketches a dire picture of Honolulu's fate in the face of climate change: 

  • The sea level is almost certain to rise substantially along the city's coastline, causing flooding, erosion and beach loss. Extreme weather, including hurricanes and tropical storms, "rain bomb" events, drought, heat waves and other phenomena, will become more frequent, longer-lasting and more severe.
  • Temperatures that are warming four times faster than anytime in the last 50 years will likely lead to heat waves that could  expand the range of pathogens and invasive species, and stress plants and animals.
  • Freshwater would become scarcer in the city because of a decrease in rainfall. Warming oceans and acidification could reduce fish catch and injure or kill coral reefs.

The city faces costs estimated at more than $19 billion, as sea level rise threatens critical infrastructure, including roads, freshwater supply pipelines, coastal structures and a wastewater treatment plant, according to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Honolulu by the San Francisco-based law firm of Sher Eding, an environmental law office handling 11 of the 14 climate cases filed in the last two-and-a-half years.

The growing list of lawsuits, filed by cities, counties and the state of Rhode Island, are determined to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for damages and mitigation costs attributable to climate change, costs that could bankrupt municipal budgets. 

In fighting them the industry has been trying to get the cases heard in federal rather than state courts, which it hopes will prevent them from being litigated at all. It argues that climate remedies and policy questions belong with Congress, not the courts—a position federal courts have embraced in similar cases. Most of the legal skirmishes so far have been over jurisdiction rather than the fossil fuel industry's role in climate change. 

The jurisdiction question, which Honolulu almost certainly will face, is hanging in legal limbo in federal appeals courts across the country. A Maryland appeals court ruled recently that a climate case filed by Baltimore should be heard in state court. Rulings in the remaining cases are expected later this year and could set at least one of the cases on course for a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court.  

The coast-to-coast litigation calls out the fossil fuel industry for its culpability in sea level rise, wildfires, drought and other climate related disasters—furious natural ravages exacerbated by climate change that have resulted in billions of dollars of damages, lost lives and uncertain futures, the lawsuits claim.  

Generally, these cases embrace a range of state law violations that include public nuisance, trespass, product liability and consumer protection. 

The foundation of the lawsuits rests on the argument that the industry knew for decades that burning fossil fuels would accelerate climate change, but nevertheless campaigned to undermine climate science and mislead the public about the role of fossil fuels.

The mayor of neighboring Maui also has vowed legal action against the industry, saying last year that a lawsuit was necessary to offset taxpayer costs associated with mitigating climate change-related damages to the island. The Maui County Council recently gave approval to engaging Sher Edling to prepare litigation. 

Honolulu's Harbinger of the Climate Crisis 

 What's happening at Island Demo and along the Oahu shore is the "canary in the coal mine" for Honolulu, Stanbro, the city resilience officer who announced the lawsuit, told InsideClimate News.

As global temperatures rise, warming ocean water expands and land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and mountain glaciers melts into the sea. Higher seas lead to more erosion, tidal flooding and damage when storms strike, creating economic risks, endangering lives and threatening the way of life for islanders.

The lawsuit offers the hope of safeguarding lives and the economic livelihood of Honolulu, Stanbro said.

"We are a small island with a small population," Stanbro said. "How do you clean up from (billions) in damages?"

He said the lawsuit will make sure funds are available for adaptation and recovery, though no dollar amount was specified in the lawsuit. 

Studies have been warning of the damage ahead for Honolulu as sea level rises. Leary's equipment yard along Kilihau Street is one of about 15 businesses that already flood frequently when seawater surges into them from Mamala Bay, less than a half mile away. If sea level rises 3.2 feet, that could cause up to $150 million in economic losses in the 20 square blocks surrounding Leary's business, according to a study by the University of Hawaii Sea Grant program.

The image Leary paints of his ongoing—and losing—battle with sea level rise is as absurd as it is colorful. 

"If you had a fishing rod you could catch tilapia in the middle of the street," he said.

Two feet of seawater flowing down the street, filling his equipment yard and swamping Leary's office, has become almost a monthly occurrence with the tidal pull from each full moon; a nuisance to be reckoned with in rubber boots. It's worse when exceptionally high tides—-called king tides—are whipped into a fury by storms.

"It takes a tremendous toll," Leary said, describing the destruction four feet of water causes when it surges across his equipment yard. "There's no stopping it, and it's only going to get worse." 

Troubled Waters for Hawaii

The threat to the businesses along the shores of Oahu foreshadows the dark future for an island exposed to body blows from climate change-induced sea level rise.

Oahu and its string of sister islands sit vulnerably in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

A 2017 Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report, written for the state's Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission, provides a dire statewide assessment of Hawaii's exposure and vulnerability to sea level rise.

"Over the next 30 to 70 years, as sea level rises, homes and businesses located on or near the shoreline throughout the State will become exposed to chronic flooding," the report says. "Portions of coastal roads may become flooded, eroded, impassible and potentially irreparable, jeopardizing access to and from many communities.

"Plan for 3.2 feet of sea level rise now, and be ready to adjust that projection upward," the report says. "It is also important to recognize that global sea level rise will not stop at the year 2100, but will likely continue on for centuries."

The report estimates that more than 6,500 structures near the shoreline would be compromised or lost if sea level rose 3.2 feet. Some of these vulnerable structures include hotels, shopping malls and small businesses, like Island Demolition. 

The loss of residential structures — homes, apartments and condominiums — could leave more than 20,000 people without homes.  The value of flooded structures, combined with the land value of the 25,800 acres projected to be flooded, amounts to more than $19 billion across the state, according to the report.

Up to 15 percent of the state's highway system will be affected by sea level rise, and road protection or relocation around the state will cost at least $15 billion.

'That Should be on the Fossil Fuel Companies'

 Oahu, home to Honolulu, is the most developed and populous Hawaiian island, and consequently will take the biggest hit from rising seas. 

"The impact of sea level rise on Oahu is greater than all of the other islands combined due to the size of the population and extensive urbanization of vulnerable coastal areas," according to the report. "Even more troubling is the fact that impacts from chronic flooding with sea level rise on Oahu can reverberate and translate into economic and social impacts for the other islands."

On Oahu, 3.2 feet of sea level rise will have an impact on 3,880 structures and 13,300 residents, resulting in $12.9 billion dollars of loss and damage to private property, according to the report. 

Beyond sea level rise, Hawaii faces the added risk of coastal flooding from hurricanes and tropical cyclones and increasing rainfall fueled by global warming. 

Hawaii's abundant wildlife also finds itself in the crosshairs of seal level rise. 

Flooding and loss of beaches could threaten the endangered Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green turtle nesting areas, and the nesting habitats for 25 protected migratory birds.

"Rising seas, rain bombs, stronger hurricanes, and other consequences of climate change are already threatening Oahu and will impact our fiscal health," said Honolulu City Council Budget Chair Joey Manahan. "Taxpayers should not have to pay for all the steps we will need to take to protect our roads, beaches, homes, and businesses. That should be on the fossil fuel companies who knowingly caused the damage, and as budget chair I believe we should go to court to make them pay their share."

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