HILO — The state Environmental Council is set to vote on exemptions that would allow drilling of exploratory geothermal wells up to a mile deep without an environmental assessment.
The exploratory drilling was one of three exemptions for geothermal exploration approved Thursday by the council’s Exemption Committee. Exemptions approved by the Exemption Committee are not automatic, but they go on a list of activities that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources can approve without requiring the applicant to go through the entire process of obtaining an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
The Environmental Council, which is under the state Department of Health’s Office of Environmental Quality Control, plans to vote on the issue May 17 in Honolulu.
The committee voted unanimously to approve exemptions allowing noninvasive geothermal exploration activity as well as mining or surface leasing of state land for geothermal exploration. But the third exemption, allowing the drilling of so-called slim wells, encountered opposition from one member of the committee, Environmental Quality Control Director Gary Hooser, who sits on the council as an ex-officio voting member. He cast the sole dissenting vote in the 6-1 split.
“It’s making it relatively easy to exempt something if it doesn’t have much impact. I felt drilling didn’t fall into that category,” Hooser told West Hawaii Today on Monday. “There’s a little too much moving parts and it’s too complicated and complex to make it exempt.”
Currently, Puna Geothermal Venture operates a 30 megawatt plant in Puna. Hawaii Electric Light Co. recently opened a docket with the Public Utilities Commission, seeking to operate a 50 megawatt plant somewhere in West Hawaii.
Proponents of the exemptions say the high cost of environmental permits make it hard to move forward on Hawaii’s goals for energy self-sufficiency. Geothermal is a natural fit, they say, but requiring extensive permits for tests adds delays to an already onerous process. There will be plenty of environmental assessments before the actual production wells are drilled, they say.
Mililani Trask of Hilo is one such proponent. An attorney and former geothermal opponent who represented Native Hawaiians in the original fight to stop the Puna plant, Trask is now a consultant pushing for more geothermal as a way to empower Native Hawaiians.
“Hawaii’s energy and financial crisis requires immediate attention. We do not have the time for duplicative agency procedures,” Trask said in testimony to the committee. “Geothermal resources are the property of Native Hawaiians and a public trust resource. Hawaiians have a right to pursue economic development and achieve energy self-sufficiency.”
Another former protestor of the Puna plant, Jim Albertini of Kurtistown, has maintained his strong opposition. He wrote in testimony to the committee about a 1990 attempt to operate a large geothermal plant in the Wao Kele O Puna rainforest; a project that launched massive demonstrations and arrests before it was halted.
Albertini accused Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources with trying to do “an end run” around EIS requirements, in the same manner as the ill-fated Superferry of the Gov. Linda Lingle administration.
“Let’s not repeat history,” Albertini said. “No fast-tracking geothermal. Full hearings and EA/EIS from the getgo.”