A lawsuit filed by Honolulu and the Board of Water Supply against fossil fuel companies got the OK to proceed to trial after a ruling by Hawaii Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Crabtree on Monday.

The county government seeks to hold oil companies accountable for climate change impacts that threaten Oahu, including flooding, extreme weather and sea level rise. Specifically, the county accuses Chevron, Sunoco, ExxonMobil and other defendants of decades of deception for misrepresenting the damage their planet-warming products could cause.

Honolulu’s case breaks new ground in the area of climate change litigation, according to the city. It is one of over a dozen similar lawsuits filed nationwide but is the first to get the all-clear to proceed in state court to the discovery phase, in which the oil companies will have to hand over documents.

The Honolulu City Council unanimously approved the filing of the suit, which was filed in 2020.

“This is a big and important win,” City Council Chair Tommy Waters said in a statement. “Not only in the sense of legal justice, but also for our local residents. We are facing incredible costs to move critical infrastructure away from our coasts and out of flood zones, and the oil companies that deceived the public for decades should be the ones helping pick up the tab for those costs — not our taxpayers.”

Waters compared the case to the legal fight against Big Tobacco, which was found to have deceived the public for decades.

“The reason these companies are fighting so hard to block this case is they don’t want even more evidence to come out,” Waters said. “I will not stand for this and will continue to fight for the preservation of our communities.”

The Hawaii state government and the State Association of Counties submitted amicus briefs supporting Honolulu’s case. Meanwhile, the oil companies are appealing to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to have the case moved to federal court. 

The suit is working its way through the courts as Oahu grapples with the impacts of climate change. Just this week, a home on the North Shore collapsed into the ocean, which many people see as a sign of things to come as oceans rise and coastlines erode.

To address these impacts, the city council has approved a Climate Action Plan for Oahu, added provisions to the Oahu General Plan to increase climate resilience and has asked Mayor Rick Blangiardi to propose a bill increasing energy efficiency in buildings, the council said in a press release.

“With the Ukraine crisis boiling over, a third of Hawaii’s current oil supply that comes from Russia is now potentially at risk—providing even more incentive to transition to clean and secure renewable energy on Oahu,” the council said. 

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