Council backs fracking bill


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

A bill to ban hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — received the support of the Hawaii County Council during its first reading Wednesday.

The council, which must vote on the bill one more time, voted 7-0 in support after amending the legislation to increase penalties. Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi and Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter were both absent.

The bill was drafted to prohibit a process known as “enhanced geothermal,” though it would apply to all forms of fracking.

Fracking involves injecting water and, at least in the most controversial practices, chemicals deep underground to break apart rock to access hard-to-reach resources, such as natural gas and oil.

With enhanced geothermal, fluids are also injected deep in the earth to widen cracks in order to increase permeability. That allows more underground heat sources to be reached.

No geothermal companies have publicly stated any intent to use enhanced geothermal in Hawaii.

But bill supporters, concerned that the practice would contaminate groundwater and increase earthquake activity, say the ban is needed to err on the side of caution and ensure that damage can’t be done.

More than a dozen people spoke in favor of the bill.

Many were from Puna, which hosts the state’s only geothermal plant and is one of the more geologically active areas.

“Just because you have the technology doesn’t mean you have to use it,” said Leimana Pelton, who compared the potential threats to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

Several commenters noted concerns over earthquake activity and referred to projects elsewhere they say had been stopped for that issue.

“We are very concerned that induced seismic activity can have more significant consequences for us, too, because we’re sitting on a volcano,” said Suzanne Wakelin.

Others spoke of the need to put people before “corporate profits.”

Ka‘u/South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who introduced the bill, called the legislation “pre-emptive.”

One concern with enhanced geothermal, or perhaps a benefit depending on how one looks at it, is the potential to unlock underground heat sources away from the isle’s active rift zones.

That could potentially lead to a further expansion of geothermal power, which is promoted by its supporters as offering a way to provide affordable, renewable energy, but criticized by opponents who see the technology as not safe or reliable.

“This is not just about Puna,” Ford said. “It could happen on other islands, too.”

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, also spoke in favor of the bill.

He introduced an anti-fracking bill last session which was later withdrawn in favor of a resolution. Ruderman has said he plans to propose a statewide ban again next year.

Ormat Technologies, which runs Puna Geothermal Venture, finished an enhanced geothermal project earlier this year in Nevada.

In an email to the Tribune-Herald in September, company spokeswoman Heidi Bethel said it was the first to be attached to the electrical grid in the United States.

She also said no chemical additives were used during the process, which involved water and “geothermal brine.”

“Geothermal stimulation is much different than natural gas fracking,” Bethel wrote.

“For starters, it aims to enhance natural permeability by shifting existing fractures while both oil and natural gas use very high pressure to break the rock and create fractures that otherwise would not exist.”

In a follow-up email, Bethel acknowledged that “tracer compounds” were used to track the flow in groundwater and surface water during the process.

The project’s environmental assessment referred to those compounds as uranine and napthalene sulfonates.

Bethel said the company, which operates the 38-megawatt plant and is seeking a contract with Hawaii Electric Light Co. for another 50 mgw, does not plan to use enhanced geothermal in the state.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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