by Rob Parsons
Burning for Palm Plantations
In early 2007, Hawaiian Electric Co. and subsidiary Maui Electric Co. announced plans by BlueEarth Biofuels to construct a mega-sized palm oil refinery on Maui, which would have been the largest in the world. Since that time, several respected Hawaii environmental and cultural groups have raised a red flag against the idea of importing Malaysian palm oil to Hawaii.
Sierra Club-Maui, Maui Tomorrow Foundation and several Oahu organizations stated that merely replacing one imported fuel with another does nothing for our energy security, local economy or sustainability. In fact, the cultivation of palm oil results in wide-ranging impacts of devastation to rain forest habitats through slash-and-burn clearing, which releases more carbon into the atmosphere than any reductions in HECO's or MECO's smokestack emissions.
Undaunted by criticism that palm oil imported from Southeast Asia can never be sustainable, HECO forged an alliance with the Natural Resources Defense Council and concocted sustainability standards for imported biofuels. The idea was soundly criticized during a round of community meetings held on three islands and at Public Utility Commission hearings.
Despite turning down a biodiesel importation docket in 2008-09, the PUC last June approved HECO's request to import 2.5 million gallons of palm oil from Southeast Asia for testing on Oahu and at MECO's Maalaea power plant.
Tests are not needed. MECO already knows that biodiesel is cleaner burning, since it has contracted with Pacific Biodiesel for years to provide locally recycled vegetable oil biodiesel for generator startups to meet Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Health emissions standards.
HECO claims that palm oil represents a bridge to the future, hoping that agricultural entrepreneurs might begin producing oil crops locally for conversion to biodiesel. But, that same reasoning was used in 2006 when Hawaii mandated 10 percent ethanol in our gasoline. To date, no one has produced ethanol commercially in Hawaii. We import all our ethanol from the Mainland - where it is federally subsidized - and from Brazil.
The bridge to the future referred to by HECO's spokesman would be a grim future indeed for diminishing rain forests, endangered orangutans and hundreds of other mammals, plants, insects, as cited in a November 2008 National Geographic cover story.
It may take years for any oil crops planted in Hawaii today to mature and produce. Furthermore, the 2006 "Biodiesel Crop Implementation In Hawaii" report indicates that even if all the available agricultural acreage in Hawaii were planted to fuel crops, it wouldn't come close to fulfilling our energy needs. It makes far more sense to utilize any locally produced biodiesel for transportation fuel and to move away from burning imported fuels for electricity. Wind, solar and wave energy are viable alternatives.
Yet, we now have learned that HECO has formed a nonprofit advocacy group, Hawaii Biofuel Foundation, which will conduct statewide meetings in December to present the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels Standard for Hawaii. It has the appearance of another exercise to allow HECO and MECO to continue foot-dragging and obstruction of efforts to integrate more local renewables and to promote proved energy conservation and efficiency efforts.
Hawaii environmental groups are partnering with the international organization Rainforest-Rescue.org to spread the news of HECO's ill-conceived palm oil importation plan across the globe. More than 17,000 people have added their names to protest the action. Their concerns will be conveyed to HECO, MECO, Hawaii's elected leaders, the PUC and NRDC.
Will you add your voice to speak for a better Hawaii energy future to reduce our foreign dependency, to keep our energy dollars here at home and to provide well-paying energy jobs in Hawaii?
* Rob Parsons is the conservation chairman for Sierra Club-Maui, vice president of Maui Tomorrow Foundation and has served on the Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Emissions Working Group of the Maui County Energy Alliance. Lance Holter is chairman of Sierra Club-Maui and a Maui Tomorrow board member.