State lawmakers debate geothermal proposal


HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers are debating a bill to give island counties more control over the development of geothermal energy resources.

Many state leaders see Hawaii’s volcanoes as part of the solution to the state’s energy woes. Already, geothermal energy supplies about 20 percent of the electricity used on the Big Island. But environmental groups and Native Hawaiian organizations are worried about the effects of unbridled development.

The House Committee on Finance approved a bill Monday that would require county approval of geothermal energy projects by establishing a county-level permitting process.

The bill also explicitly allows counties to impose rules limiting geothermal energy development.

Advocates say the proposal adds important environmental safeguards and community input.

But some say the current version of the bill doesn’t provide enough protections for the land or the public.

The original version of the bill, authored by Rep. Faye Hanohano, sought to overturn a 2012 law that allowed geothermal energy development to occur throughout the state, rather than just in designated subzones. Critics say the law doesn’t allow enough county oversight over potential projects.

The purpose of the law was to make it easier to develop geothermal energy, but Hanohano says it went too far.

“Every time they talk about streamlining it’s more like steamrolling,” the Democrat said. “Let’s do it right.”

Although the House Committee on Water and Land changed Hanohano’s bill from a full repeal to a county permitting process, Hanohano said she supports the current version.

Robert Harris, president of the Hawaii Sierra Club, says that while a county permitting process is a good idea, the state should also reinstitute the subzones.

Harry Kim, former mayor of the Big Island and a strong proponent of the original bill, agrees.

But the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism oppose recreating subzones.

They told lawmakers that doing so would be unnecessary and costly. They said they support giving counties more input instead.