It’s not often in politics that someone has the meteoric rise Brian Schatz had this month. Schatz has gone from lieutenant governor of a state with a little over a million people in the middle of the Pacific, to hitching a ride on Air Force One and becoming the sudden replacement to an iconic U.S. senator.
Earlier this month I rang up Schatz office. I was heading out to Japan in a couple of days on a reporting trip to look at the development of clean energy there. As Hawaii’s clean energy czar and someone who visited Japan earlier this year and talked renewable energy policy with officials there, I figured Schatz would have some insights. He invited me to the state Capitol the next day.
When the gigantic koa wood doors swung open to the LG’s palatial office, I shook his hand and said the obvious, “Nice digs.” Schatz shot me a disarmed, wry smile. In retrospect, having just come from Japan, where officials generally insist on all questions in advance, our conversation was refreshing and wide ranging.
Schatz demonstrated a firm, wonkish grasp on energy policy and a philosophy that weaves together climate change concerns with those about the economic security of Hawaii.
Civil Beat’s Sophie Cocke has written about Schatz’ support for rejiggering Hawaii’s infrastructure to handle LNG (liquefied natural gas) from the mainland. That’s a curious position for an avowed environmentalist and something I wanted to learn more about. Schatz made it clear that he indeed views fracking as destructive, but he also said the shift to handle LNG for Hawaii is necessary because the state’s dependence on imported oil is far worse. “Hawaii is the most isolated, populated place on the planet and we are totally dependent on fuel oil from a far,” he said.
Schatz continued, “I think the extraction of fossil energy from the earth whether its coal, oil, LNG or any other kind of fossil energy cannot be done without environmental consequences. One of the reasons I got into politics is that I am very concerned about climate change. But you often don’t get to flip a switch and move to a fossil-based economy into a clean energy-based economy. We have to make a transition, and we are in fact making a transition quicker than any of the other states in America.“
In a bit of unintentional foreshadowing, when I asked Schatz whether his support for importing LNG would undermine green energy projects around the state, he invoked then Sen. Dan Inouye. “(Inouye) saw in the ’70s what happened when oil prices took a dive, everyone sort of lost their interest in clean energy except for him and a few others. But we are committed to this because it is in our long term strategic and economic interest, it also aligns with our values.
“I happen to be deeply concerned about global climate change, but even if I weren’t I would say that we should move in the direction of clean energy because our economy is unlikely to thrive a generation from now if we are still generating 90 percent of electricity generation from afar.”
It will be fascinating to see Schatz, who will be the second youngest member of the Senate come January, try and make his mark. Opponents and those who loved Inouye were awestruck by his ability to bring federal dollars back home. One wonders if Schatz can conjure up some of that magic and combine it with his passion for clean energy projects. And it will be interesting to see his views evolve on national issues like fracking now that he will be casting votes on issues that extend beyond Hawaii’s shores.
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