Opponents of the Big Wind project failed on Tuesday to derail legislation that would make it easier to build large-scale wind farms on Lanai and Molokai and transmit the electricity to Oahu.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen and Rep. Gil Riviere tried to insert language into Senate Bill 2785 that excluded the two islands from legislation that would facilitate financing for undersea cables between islands.

Last year, similar legislation that focused on the Big Wind project failed to pass amid heated opposition to the proposed wind farms on Lanai and Molokai. This year, the bill’s supporters have tried to distance the measure from the project by stressing that the legislation is not specific to any island or renewable energy project and not a rubber stamp for Big Wind.

“This bill has nothing to do with any renewable energy project,” said Rep. Denny Coffman, chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, while defending the bill on Tuesday during a floor vote.

The state energy office and Hawaiian Electric Co., the state’s main electric utility company, are also exploring the development of geothermal and wind energy on Maui and the Big Island for export to Oahu. Without a statewide electric grid, they say, Hawaii won’t be able to meet its renewable energy goals.

But Thielen and Riviere weren’t buying the argument that the bill wasn’t aimed at directly facilitating the controversial wind farms.

“If we’re not going to be pointing the gun at the islands of Lanai and Molokai to be our industrial wasteland to provide power to Oahu, let’s say it up front,” Thielen told fellow House members.

Riviere echoed Thielen’s concerns, arguing that the measure was important to ensure that the feelings of Molokai and Lanai residents weren’t overstepped.

“I disagree with the premise that we need to go to an island and extrapolate power against the wishes of the people of that island,” he said. “It just seems very imperialistic.”

But the amendment was defeated and the House passed the bill in a 45 – 6 vote. Thielen and Riviere were joined by fellow Republicans, Gene Ward and Barbara Marumoto, in opposing the bill. Democratic representatives, Faye Hanohano and Jessica Wooley, also voted against the measure.

This was not the first time that lawmakers inserted language into the bill aimed at driving the state’s energy policy away from the Big Wind project, which in the past has been hailed as the cornerstone of Hawaii’s Clean Energy Initiative. Earlier this year, senators inserted a clause into the bill saying that, “Nothing in this Act is intended to require the construction of an interisland cable from the islands of Molokai or Lanai to Oahu unless the communities affirmatively request an interisland cable.”

But the language was struck last month when Gov. Neil Abercrombie successfully convinced lawmakers to remove the clause that gave Molokai and Lanai an “opt out” of the bill. The governor questioned whether the amendment was enforceable.

An amendment that failed Tuesday said that the law would not apply to islands with a population of 50,000 people or less.

Senate Bill 2785 will now go to conference committee where differences will be worked out. If that’s accomplished, it will go back to a vote of both chambers and then to the governor.

While the legislation failed to make it out of conference committee last year, Abercrombie’s strong backing is expected to help drive it through. The governor has made the cable bill a centerpiece of his legislative package this year.

The Abercrombie administration has been non-committal recently about its support for the Lanai and Molokai wind farms. While the governor threatened to take over Molokai property last year when its owners stood in the way of the project, Abercrombie has also said that his support for the project depends on community acceptance.

Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz told Civil Beat last month that the administration still thought Big Wind was a viable project.

But “we’re not going to bang our heads against the wall either,” he said.

Currently, Castle & Cooke, which owns Lanai, has an agreement with Hawaiian Electric Co. to build the wind farm on Lanai. However, the Molokai portion of the project has been put out to bid and companies proposing projects on other islands are expected to bid.

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