Hawai‘i High Court Affirms Citizens’ Right to Protect Environmental Interests Before State Public Utilities Commission
Today, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled that the state constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment gives citizens the right to be heard and protect their environmental interests in cases before the state Public Utilities Commission. The appeal, brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club, challenged the Commission’s denial of Sierra Club’s request to intervene in a case involving a proposed agreement by Maui Electric Company (MECO) to buy power from the former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) plantation’s coal-fired power plant.
The ruling resolves long-running inconsistencies among Commission decisions on environmental groups’ requests to take part in Commission proceedings, which are increasing in frequency and complexity in light of Hawaiʻi’s statutory mandate to achieve an energy grid powered by 100% renewable energy by 2045.
“It is vital that citizens have a seat at the table as Hawaiʻi advances toward 100% clean energy,” said Earthjustice attorney Kylie Wager Cruz. “The Court provided much-needed confirmation that the Commission can’t simply rubberstamp utility deals without considering and protecting the public’s constitutionally protected environmental rights.”
The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court held that Sierra Club had a due process right to be heard to protect its environmental interests under Article XI, section 9 of the Hawaiʻi Constitution, which declares that “[e]ach person has the right to a clean and healthful environment.” The Court further held that state law required the Commission to consider the “hidden and long-term costs of energy produced at the [HC&S] Plant, including the potential for increased air pollution as a result of greenhouse gas emissions” in determining whether the agreement was prudent and in the public interest.
“The Commission can no longer ignore us. We will continue to oppose dirty fossil fuels and push for a just transition to clean, renewable energy in our state,” said Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi Director Marti Townsend. The HC&S plant was burning up to 25% coal over the course of a year to meet its power production obligations to MECO. In 2014, the state Department of Health assessed a $1.3 million fine against HC&S for more than 400 clean air violations at the plant. Although HC&S closed in January 2017, the Court decided this case because it involved an important public issue and to provide guidance to government agencies.