A Bi-partisan Energy Screwup

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 29, 2009
| Del.icio.us

We govern in the long-term and we govern in the short - unfortunately, not in equal proportions. A year ago, when a barrel of oil cost $147 per barrel, we were all concerned about ending our dependence on imported oil. The governor was; mayors and legislators were. Even the owners of muscle cars, oversized trucks and gas-ravenous SUVs looked enviously at every passing hybrid on the road.

But that was last summer, when all the major presidential candidates, particularly the ultimate winner, talked ad nauseum about the need to end the country’s dependence on imported oil.

This summer, the urgency’s gone. As I write, a barrel of oil costs $67. SUV owners feel little envy. Republican Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a bill that would have raised the tax on a barrel of oil from 5 cents to $1.05. The state Senate, overwhelmingly controlled by self-proclaimed energy-conscious Democrats, could-n’t muster the votes to override her veto. So House Bill 1271, the Food and Energy Security Act, went down. Its supporters argued that it would have put some walk underneath all the talk about energy independence for Hawaii; it would have raised between $30 million and $40 million a year to fund food and energy “security programs” and the governor’s own clean energy initiative. But Lingle would have none of it.


“What is particularly distressing is the barrel tax would hurt the lowest income and poorest members of our community the hardest by increasing the cost of gasoline and electricity,” she wrote in her objections to the bill, “and I cannot allow that to happen especially in this current economic climate. As I have said before, we cannot tax our way out of the fiscal crisis we are in.”

Democrats in the state Senate blamed pressure from the local airline lobby for their failure to override the governor’s veto. According to Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, she and her colleagues felt that it might cause “another airline (to go) down.”

Nonsense and piffle! The bill would have added 3 cents per gallon to the price of gasoline at the pump, 25 cents to an interisland airline ticket. Any airline that would fail because of a 25-cent increase in the cost of a ticket undoubtedly deserves to fail. And any driver who for-goes energy independence for his children for 3 cents should check his credentials as a parent.

Lingle’s veto and the Senate Democrats’ weak knees in sustaining it had everything to do with short-term politics, nothing to do the long-term implications of Hawaii’s utter dependence on imported oil.

Last week, in an Outreach College lecture at the UHManoa, economist Denise Konan outlined the state’s dilemma. Currently, 89 percent of Hawaii’s energy comes from petroleum - compared with 40 percent on the Mainland.

Where Mainland states have alternatives to petroleum (coal, nuclear), “our opportunities are in renewables,” said Konan (wind, geothermal, solar, wave, biofeuls. “But we rank 46th among the states in terms of our development of renewables.”

Vulnerability to fluctuations in the price of oil is a huge, always immediate part of Hawaii’s problem. But Konan pointed to a far larger one: our contribution to global warming. Her lecture included the famous blue line slide that shows what global warming would do to low-lying areas of Oahu. If oceans rise the one meter expected of them over the next century, we could kiss goodbye Waikiki, lower Makiki and much more of coastal Oahu.

Obviously, Hawaii’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is relatively small, but if an underwater future for much of Oahu’s prime real estate is to be avoided, we must do our part. And that will require long-term governance, not the short-term (and short-sighted) demonstrated by the governor and state Senate in their disposition of House Bill 1271.

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