HILO — Hawaii County is objecting to a bill passed last legislative session that it says removes its permitting authority over new geothermal projects.
Adopted last April, Act 97 eliminated a requirement that geothermal projects occur in designated subzones, taking out what legislators saw as an unnecessary hurdle for developers.
But it also struck out references to the jurisdiction of county-level planning commissions over approving geothermal resource permits, a change that takes the county out of the loop, said county Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd.
Leithead Todd said that took the county by surprise, and she is drafting legislation to put its oversight back into the Hawaii Revised Statutes.
“I had been monitoring it (the bill) and I had been reassured that county controls over permitting would be in the final draft,” she said, referring to Senate Bill 3003, which became Act 97.
“We want to reinsert prior controls that the county had,” Leithead Todd added.
Restoring that oversight will also allow for a public hearing before the planning commission, and an “opportunity for people to object,” she said.
The bill, which won’t address the elimination of geothermal subzones, will be part of Mayor Billy Kenoi’s recommendations to the Legislature when it reconvenes in January.
The county will have the support from at least two Big Island legislators, included one of the sponsors of SB 3003.
It needs a legislator to sponsor the bill for it to be considered.
Rep. Denny Coffman, D-Ocean View, Captain Cook, called the removal of county-level oversight a mistake, and said he is also working on his own legislation to undo it.
“It just basically wiped out some of their control,” he said. “It was just a mistake, so we need to go in and fix that.”
Sen. Josh Green, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he also supports adding in the county-level oversight.
Both referred to the change as unintentional.
“It’s my hope we restore home rule provisions so there is complete collaboration between the county and state,” said Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u.
Sen. Gilbert Kahele, the bill’s primary sponsor, was a little more hesitant.
“I guess we could be open to that,” he said. “If it makes sense.”
Kahele, D-Hilo, differed with Green and Coffman as to whether removal of the county-level permitting process was an oversight.
He said it was done as part of an effort to streamline geothermal development and believes the county would still have input on proposed projects at the state level.
“It shortens the process,” Kahele said. “And if there is in fact an area for development … the county can still comment.”
He said the motivation for the changes was to reduce electricity costs.
Proponents of geothermal power say it is a cheaper alternative to oil, the Big Island’s largest energy source.
Hawaii Electric Light Co. has a contract with Puna Geothermal Venture, the state’s only current geothermal plant, for 38 megawatts of electricity. The utility is preparing to seek proposals for up to 50 megawatts of additional geothermal power.