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Ninth Circuit denies oil giants’ appeal in climate change lawsuit

Lawsuits filed by a pair of Hawaii counties against oil and gas companies were sent back to state courts by a federal appeals court after an unsuccessful attempt by the companies to move the suits to the federal level.

(CN) — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday to deny an appeal by fossil fuel companies to transfer climate change lawsuits to federal court, forcing the fight to remain in state court.

The lawsuits, filed by the city and county of Honolulu and Maui County in 2020, accused the companies of exacerbating the effect of climate change on the islands to increase their own profits. The lawsuits, which name a bevy of energy giants including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell as defendants, aim to hold these companies liable for the damage done by production and distribution of fossil fuels on the islands. They further allege that oil and gas companies did so with the full knowledge the damage their product had on the ecosystem and health of the islands while working to actively deny this damage.

In the appeal, lawyers for the oil companies argued for the removal from Honolulu and Maui courts, contending that government oversight of production processes proves federal officer jurisdiction.

“Congress endorsed oil operations and considered making a national oil company, but that does not show that oil production was a basic governmental task,” Circuit Judge Ryan Nelson wrote in the opinion.

Judge Nelson, a Donald Trump appointee, affirmed the Hawaii District Court’s decision to keep the lawsuits in state court and emphasized that the lawsuits target the energy companies’ deception around the dangers of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases rather than possible federal jurisdiction in their operations.

“Chevron respectfully disagrees with today’s decision by the Ninth Circuit addressing whether the climate change litigation should be litigated in federal or state court. Chevron believes these cases belong in federal court due to their sweeping implications for national energy policy, national security, foreign policy, and other uniquely federal interests,” said Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, counsel for Chevron Corporation in an email. “Climate change is a global phenomenon requiring a coordinated federal policy response, not a patchwork of lawsuits brought in municipal and state courts. As the Court noted, today’s ruling was on a jurisdictional question; we look forward to prevailing on the overall merits of these cases.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The appeals court also cites previous rulings against gas and oil companies facing similar climate change complaints from other state entities. Hawaii joins California and Rhode Island as states who can now contend with these large energy companies in their own individual state courts.

The lawsuits assert that pollution from these companies contribute to the ongoing global climate crisis. The carbon dioxide released in the production and use of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas have demonstrated effects on global warming and rising sea levels, two particularly significant issues for island communities like Hawaii that are particularly vulnerable to the effect of climate change.

Rising sea levels encroach upon beaches and other locations of cultural and ecological significance. Warming and acidifying waters are proving to be detrimental to the state’s reefs and local wildlife. The increase in extreme weather point to a possible increase in hurricanes and tropical storms that could potentially devastate the entire state. It is not uncommon to hear stories of beachside residences collapsing into the ocean as the foundation erodes beneath. The lawsuit points to property damage and public health concerns caused by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

These lawsuits are indicative of larger effort to improve Hawaii’s self-sustainability and to move away from foreign energy dependence. The state has implemented policies and established offices for the express purpose of ‘malama aina’, a Hawaiian phrase describing the caring for and honoring of the land. Governor David Ige signed several environmental acts in July, focusing on mitigating climate effects on the island and improving sustainable, renewable energy.

Circuit Judges Michael Daly Hawkins, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Danielle Forrest, a Donald Trump appointee, rounded out the panel.

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