Bill Hunter pauses during a cool-weather ride around Crater Lake. (Courtesy Bill Hunter)
Bill Hunter pauses during a cool-weather ride around Crater Lake. (Courtesy Bill Hunter)
Bill Hunter was drafted into the U.S. Army artillery during the Vietnam war, so his hearing is sketchy. But these days, he keenly perceives God’s call to care for creation.

Hunter, a 77-year-old member of The Madeline Parish, didn’t always argue this side of the environmental debate. An attorney, he once represented coal companies and fought for Shell, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute.

Now he says the world must move urgently from fossil fuels. And he thinks oil and gas companies should pay a penalty for conspiring to hold back what they knew about global warming and for deceiving their customers and the public. He has a detailed plan for that compensation that even a Vatican official likes.

Hunter wasn’t thunderstruck into a green conversion. He learned slowly what he now believes, all the time informed by a deep faith. Never a zealot on any side, he gravitates toward common sense and practical solutions.

Faith springs to life

Born in Illinois, young Bill moved with his family to Louisiana when he was 5. His father, who led a new ship to the Pacific even after his first ship was sunk by Germans in the Mediterranean, became a florist. The mother was an artist. As a child, Hunter attended Methodist services with his family.

He went to college at Northwestern University in Chicago in the mid-1960s, majoring in economics while cultivating a passion for theology. He studied great Catholic thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. During one finals week, he invited Jesus into his life.

“God was pursuing me,” he says.

He joined the Campus Crusade for Christ, a Protestant youth movement, and taught Scripture and faith classes to fellow students at a large church in Evanston. One Sunday, the guest preacher was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The great civil rights leader told listeners that one needs God in order to love others in truth.

After college, Hunter traveled to Europe. He visited Ravenna and great cathedrals and fell in love with the beauty of Catholicism. A seed was planted that had not yet sprung.

Schooled in antitrust law

Meanwhile, the Army drafted Hunter and sent him to Korea rather than Vietnam. During officer candidate school, he met future wife Jenny on the steps of a Methodist church. He proposed from long distance while back on duty. The pair wed in 1970.

Hunter pondered Methodist seminary as well as a career in law or business. Jenny, a nurse, worked at George Washington University Hospital, and so was able to get her husband a tuition break at the George Washington University Law School. They paid $90 per month for a simple Washington D.C. apartment. He studied and she worked.

“She got me through law school,” Hunter said.

After obtaining his law degree, Hunter landed a post in a leading antitrust law firm in the nation’s capital.

In the late 1970s, he began work on a bill on behalf of the Mead Corporation, a packaging company facing a class action lawsuit alleging it conspired to raise the prices of corrugated containers for more than a decade. The legislation would limit damages to single liability instead of what Hunter said was triple indemnity.

The legislation wasn’t enacted, but its advancement from committee allowed the company to settle reasonably. Such moderate solutions became a Bill Hunter trademark.

Along the way, the young lawyer worked with politicians on both sides of the aisle, including senators like Mark Hatfield (R-OR), Sam Ervin (D-NC), Paul Laxalt (R-NV), Bob Dole (R-KS), John Glenn (R-AZ), Joe Biden (D-DE) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

Hunter represented 23 senators in a proposed 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case out of Texas that would have approved some prayer in schools. His brief showed his proclivity for a moderate path, arguing that prayer after school hours or in study hall, none sponsored by the school, is constitutional. The court refused to hear the case. But the following year, all the same arguments got incorporated into a bill passed in Congress. “I think this is how God works,” Hunter said.

During his years in Washington, he also worked on many cases representing oil companies and their trade associations. In one involving octane posting on gasoline pumps, Hunter was able to persuade the EPA and Friends of the Earth to join with big oil in court after finding that the FTC rule could increase pollution.

‘Almost everyone is harmed’

In 1987, Hunter took a job in Kentucky and began working with big insurance, tobacco and coal.

While serving as general counsel of a large insurance company in Kentucky, Hunter argued for keeping the results of HIV tests private on the premise that no one would take the tests if the outcomes went public. He also found that Blacks in Delaware were charged more than whites for insurance and worked to help the insurer fix the problem. Often, he helped companies do the right thing and also avoid big liability.

Back in private practice, he helped one small company that was being excluded from markets by larger cigarette makers.

In one of his famous noted projects, he was on a team that finalized a 1998 settlement that saw tobacco companies pay more than $235 billion to states for health and safety. Tobacco marketing aimed at youths was banned.

Hunter thinks a similar framework could work to address climate change. While representing oil firms, he began to see that executives were holding back what they knew about global science and even had devised a strategy of questioning solid science. Even today, that lie fuels the opposition to climate repair.

Hunter sees the falsehoods as an antitrust conspiracy and violation of multiple other laws. The lies impeded companies that decades ago were trying to develop solar and wind power and electric vehicles. For almost a decade, he’s been building an antitrust case and preparing a settlement proposal that would see fossil fuel companies foot the bill for mitigating climate change.

The billions of dollars could be used immediately to reduce harmful emissions as well as to build sea walls around Miami and New York City or preserve forests. If the companies switch to solar and wind, their payments would decrease. It's a solution powered by market forces.

“Almost everyone is harmed by this,” Hunter said, listing possible plaintiffs. Winter sports enthusiasts the world over can’t ski or snowboard. Windmill and solar panel manufacturers were stymied for years. Various states and cities pay big dollars to keep people safe from the effects of climate change. Places like the Santiam Canyon burned more dramatically because of weather shifts. The 2021 heat dome killed about 800 people in the Pacific Northwest.

Alarmingly, the Pentagon has warned that climate change exacerbates security risks for the United States, with drought reducing water supply and agricultural production and increasing migration and competition for scarce resources. At the same time increased flooding inundates critical assets and damages infrastructure.

“Our whole integrated common home is being attacked,” Hunter said, echoing a phrase from Pope Francis. “Maybe everyone on earth has a claim.”

Hunter said a settlement is preferable to a trial because with climate change, time is of the essence. “If we just keep a case going, only the lawyers will benefit,” he said with a wry smile. “a settlement is good for all, including the oil companies.”

“I am going to keep on this,” he said, admitting that he thinks it’s God’s work. Hunter sent his idea to Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Vatican official who liked it. Hunter thinks the Vatican would be a good place for settlement talks following Pope Francis’ 2019 gathering of oil and gas company CEO’s and investors to encourage action on climate.

Becoming Catholic

Alongside his life’s move toward climate justice, Hunter felt more and more attracted to Catholicism.

In Louisville, the Hunters attended a large evangelical church that offered weekly communion, as did Jenny’s Disciples of Christ background, which he thinks helped lead them to Catholicism.

They also had Catholic friends and family who seemed to have a special way about them.

Avid cyclists, the Hunters would ride to Gethsemani Trappist Abbey in north central Kentucky.

One Christmas, during a trip to New York, the Hunters went to St. Patrick Cathedral. Hunter was deeply moved by Cardinal John O’Connor’s homily about Mary’s “yes” to God. While praying during Mass near an altar dedicated to Mary, Hunter was deeply moved by an experience of God’s loving presence.

He listened to talks by Pope John Paul II. Then he read Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on love. “It blew me away,” he said. During a visit to St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict made eye contact with him.

One day while giving a tour to an Italian client, Hunter drove past his massive evangelical church in Louisville. A discussion ensued in which the man pondered how non-denominational churches could determine true doctrine and then predicted that Hunter would someday become Catholic.

In Italy he and Jenny climbed the Sacro Monte di Varese, a mountain path with 15 chapels. They visited the Vatican museums. They spent time in Assisi and met a charming Franciscan friar.

Catholics had long been among his favorite writers: G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Upon moving west and settling on Alameda Ridge in Northeast Portland, the Hunters explored the area by bicycle, riding past The Madeleine Church. Its beauty drew them in and the parishioners offered a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, Hunter downloaded “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on care for our common home.

“Laudato Si’’ answered many of the questions I had about the church,” said Hunter. “It was about far more than the climate. It was about the interrelation of people with the earth and of people with each other.”

The Hunters became Catholic four years ago at The Madeleine. They loved the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, learning new things but also finding other ideas confirmed.

The couple has marched for global climate reform and lead a Madeleine group of the Laudato Si Movement that prays, discusses and acts on the matter.

“Jenny and I never expected we’d become Catholic,” Hunter says. “But in retrospect, I think we were drawn by the Holy Spirit for years and years.”