Rob Parsons


They're the bomb!

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
February 22, 2007

We have met the enemy, and he is us.
-Walt Kelly's Pogo

The 1960's were a time when Cold War politics dictated that Americans live in fear of the Soviets dropping "the big one," a nuclear bomb. Thousands of families constructed and stocked backyard fallout shelters. Elementary school children drilled "drop and cover" maneuvers beneath their desks.

Fortunately, that bomb never dropped. But, late in the decade there was another explosion of sorts. In 1968, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist wrote The Population Bomb,

a study of unavoidable consequences of human population growth. Though some have criticized his doomsday predictions of widespread famine and food wars, Ehrlich recently pointed out that the 2.8 billion people we've added to the planet since the 3.5 billion already alive in 1968 certainly constitutes an explosion, which continues to degrade the global environment.

I read The Population Bomb a few years later after it published, when I was a senior in high school. It's one of a half dozen books I've read that substantially changed the way I view the world around me. Page by page I read Ehrlich's work and thought to myself, "Oh my God, we're screwed."

Even considering all the recent discussion of renewable energy possibilities for Hawai`i, Maui Electric Company's (MECO) sudden announcement of plans to construct a $61 million biodiesel refinery was a bit of a bombshell. The proposal, in which MECO teams with BlueEarth Biofuels, LLC, projects a first phase output in 2009 of 40 million gallons of biodiesel fuel, more than half of the 73 million gallons of diesel MECO used in 2005 to run its generators. While the facility would utilize imported palm oil, it aspires to set up a nonprofit public trust to encourage the growth of local fuel crops.

If all goes well, in just a few years we'll be able to crank up our air-conditioning, set out more strings of holiday lights and heat our Jacuzzis? all guilt-free. But, closer examination of the MECO/BlueEarth proposal raises questions.

Lots of questions.

BlueEarth Maui Biodiesel registered as a Limited Liability Corporation with the Hawai`i Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Business Registration Division on Jan. 29, 2007. BlueEarth's two principle partners, Robert Wellington and Landis Maez, live in Texas and Arizona, respectively. Is there a local connection?

The Maui News recently reported that BlueEarth is building a plant in Mason City, Iowa capable of producing 30 million gallons of biofuel. But the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association website reports that plant is being constructed by Freedom Fuels, with general contracting by NewMech of St. Paul, Minnesota.

How did MECO select BlueEarth, a new company with no track record in Hawai`i and possibly anywhere else? By what process did they deem them worthy of this joint venture that is seeking legislative approval to receive $59 million in special purpose revenue bonds? Isn't that the largest request of public funds since the proposed Superferry?

Also on Jan. 29, 2007, Raymond Sweeney Jr. of Sweeney Communications in Honolulu registered as a lobbyist for the BlueEarth Biofuels office Frisco, Texas. Senate Bill 1718, authorizing the revenue bonds, has already sailed through the Energy and Environment Committee, and soon will face a hearing with the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Maui's Roz Baker.

Henry Curtis of Life of the Land is perhaps the state's leading renewable energy advocate. In his testimony on SB 1718, Curtis asked, "Who is applying? Why do they need money? What are the environmental, cultural, and social impacts? Or are we giving away money to anyone who wants to invest in an energy project which begins in 'bio'?"

Life of the Land, advocating for the people and the `aina since 1970, has a stated mission of preservation and protection "through sustainable land use and energy policies, and by promoting open government through research, education, advocacy, and litigation." They are currently involved in a contested case hearing with Hawai`i Electric Company over that agency's proposed 110 megawatt generating station at Campbell Industrial Park.

Will the "rush to renewables" allow us to make intelligent, sustainable choices, or are we heading down a feel-good path, while adversely impacting the environment in unseen ways?

In a Dec. 6, 2005 commentary in The Guardian, George Monbiot maintains that palm oil is worse than the fossil fuel it looks to replace. Turns out there's a global rush to use palm oil-derived diesel, with commodity traders listed in such diverse locales as Russia, South Korea, India and Dubai. But palm oil plantations in Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo and Thailand have faced harsh environmental scrutiny for destroying millions of hectares of rainforests.

A 2005 report by Friends of the Earth, titled Oil for Apes Scandal, found that 90 percent of orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Maylasia had been destroyed, placing the apes at the edge of extinction. Simply imperiled are the Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros, gibbons, tapirs and the Asian elephant.

A U.S. embassy energy news posting from Jakarta, Indonesia states that, "North Sumatra has avoided the haze from fires used to clear the forests for oil palm cultivation, and the oil palm plantations provide a buffer for environmentally protected areas." A North Sumatran environmental official noted that heating the oil palm nut to extract the crude palm oil is still a dirty business, as is burning the empty husks.

BlueEarth claims they will buy palm oil imported from the Pacific Rim and in South America from suppliers "that practice sustainable palm production." By 2011, they expect their refinery to produce 120 million gallons yearly, enough to provide fuel for electric generation on Oahu and the Big Island.

But to what extent would this giant venture employ local labor in the construction or in regular operations? Would something of this scope and size encourage grassroots biofuel agricultural production or just benefit traditional large plantation owners and spark squabbles over water allocation?

Moreover, can MECO partner in building this facility, then buy the fuel from itself without going through a competitive bidding process? Would such a request to provide biofuels contain incentives for locally produced, not imported fuels?

Representative Mina Morita of Kauai raised an even more essential question at the Governor's Biofuel Summit last August. She asked what, with all this talk of using agricultural lands to raise crops to produce electricity, are we doing in terms of food security?

There was no answer-just a hush in the Hawai`i Convention Center's meeting room. But, shouldn't there be an equally ambitious effort to offset our state's 85 percent dependence on imported food? It seems that the earlier model of the family farm and small towns made a lot more sense than our current agribusiness-dominated global economy. As Kelly King of Pacific Biodiesel reminded a panel audience recently, all sustainability is local. In fact, King advocates a community model of local biofuel production far different than the recent bio-bomb dropped by the big state utility.

In their closing argument against Hawai`i Electric's proposed new generating plant, Life of the Land's Curtis called for alternatives to combustion-even of biofuels-which produce less harmful emissions. He advocated Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, seawater air conditioning and wave energy, which is currently being tested off Kaneohe Bay on Oahu. Curtis reminded us that all forms of energy production have environmental impacts.

Much as we'd like to blame others for all the challenges we face in the 21st century, we need to realize that we are the problem. Every dire environmental problem, from global warming to rainforest destruction, over-fishing to lack of fresh water, is traceable to the rapidly increasing number of humans impacting the planet. This year alone, an estimated 133 million babies are expected to be born. Can we learn to live without our SUVs, big screen TVs and shipped-in luxuries? Will we convince each other to live in a way that minimizes environmental degradation?

Lots of big questions, indeed.