The lawyer who is a big energy now wants to pay the price for harming the planet

Bill Hunter sat in his office in Portland, Oregon, on August 8, 2022, buoyed by a Caravaggio salute drawn by his daughter. The picture shows Christ placing Saint Thomas’ hand in the wound on his side. Hunter previously represented oil and coal companies and now has a market-driven plan that gets these companies footing the bill for climate reform. (CNS photo by Ed Langlois, The Catholic Guardian)

By Ed Langlois

Portland, Oregon – Bill Hunter was drafted into the US Army artillery during the Vietnam War, so his hearing is poor. But he is deeply aware of God’s call to care for creation.

Hunter, the 77-year-old member of The Madeleine Parish in Portland, hasn’t always argued this aspect of the environmental debate. As a lawyer, he once represented coal companies and fought for Shell, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute.

Now he says the world must urgently move away from fossil fuels. He believes oil and gas companies should pay a fine for conspiring to curb what they know about global warming and deceiving their customers and the public.

He has a detailed plan for such compensation that even a Vatican official likes.

Hunter wasn’t thunderstruck to a green conversion. The Hunter wasn’t stunned, turning green. He slowly learned what he believed now, all the while knowing with deep faith. Never fanatical from any side, he gravitates toward common sense and practical solutions.

After earning a law degree from George Washington University School of Law, Hunter landed a position at a leading antitrust law firm in the nation’s capital.

The young lawyer, then a Methodist, worked with politicians on both sides of the aisle. Hunter represented 23 senators in a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court proposed case from Texas that would have approved some prayers in schools. His brief showed his inclination to the moderate course, arguing that prayer after school hours or in the classroom—not sponsored by the school—is essential.

The court refused to hear the case. But the following year, all the same arguments were combined into a bill passed by Congress.

In 1987, Hunter took a job in Kentucky and began working with large insurance companies, tobacco and coal. Often times, help companies do the right thing and also avoid big responsibility.

He was a member of the team that ended a 1998 settlement that saw tobacco companies pay more than $235 billion to states for health and safety. Tobacco marketing targeting youth has been banned.

Hunter thinks a similar framework could work to tackle climate change. While representing oil companies, he began to see that CEOs were suppressing what they knew about world science and even devising a strategy to question powerful knowledge.

Hunter sees the lies as an antitrust plot, and says they have stymied companies that for decades have been trying to develop solar, wind and electric cars. For nearly a decade, he’s been building an antitrust case and preparing a settlement proposal that would foot the bill for fossil fuel companies to mitigate climate change.

Billions of dollars could be used immediately to reduce harmful emissions as well as build seawalls around Miami and New York City or conserve forests. If companies switch to solar and wind energy, their payments will fall. It is a solution backed by market forces.

“Almost everyone has been hurt by this,” Hunter said, referring to the list of potential plaintiffs. Winter sports enthusiasts all over the world cannot ski or snowboard. Manufacturers of windmills and solar panels have faltered for years. Different states and cities pay big bucks to keep people safe from the effects of climate change. Places like Santiam Canyon in Oregon have burned more dramatically due to weather changes.

“Our integral common home is under attack,” Hunter said, echoing a phrase from Pope Francis. “Maybe everyone on earth has a claim.”

Settling is better than experimenting, Hunter said because with climate change, time is of the essence. “If we continue the case, only lawyers will benefit from it,” he said. “Settlement is good for everyone, including the oil companies.”

Crude oil pipelines are seen at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Freeport, Texas, in this 2016 file photo. (CNS Photo by Richard Carson, Reuters)

Hunter sent his idea to Cardinal Peter Turkson, who was then governor of the Directorate for the Promotion of Integrated Human Development. Hunter said the cardinal liked the idea.

Hunter believes the Vatican would be a good place for settlement talks after Pope Francis’ 2019 meeting of oil and gas company CEOs and investors to encourage action on climate.

Along with Hunter’s move toward climate justice, he felt a growing attraction to Catholicism.

One Christmas, during a trip to New York, he and his wife Jenny went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Hunter was influenced by New York Cardinal John O’Connor’s sermon about Mary’s “yes” to God.

Listen to the conversations of Saint John Paul II. Then he read Pope Benedict XVI’s letter on love. “You stunned me,” he said.

Moving to Portland, anglers explored the area by bike passing Madeleine’s Church. Her beauty drew them inside and the parishioners gave a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, Hunter has downloaded “Laudato Si,” about nurturing our common home,” Pope Francis’ 2015 publication on nurturing creativity.

“Laudato Si” answered many of the questions I had about the church, Hunter said. “It was so much more than the climate. It was about the people’s relationship to the land and the interrelationship between the people.”

Fishermen became Catholic four years ago. They have marched for global climate reform and lead the Laudato Si group that prays, discusses and acts on climate change.

“Ginny and I never expected that we would become Catholics,” Hunter said. “But looking back, I think the Holy Spirit has drawn us in for years and years.”

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