Fracking in Hawaii?

The state doesn’t have oil or natural gas reserves, but a Big Island lawmaker is worried that technology similar to that being used to extract oil and gas on the mainland may soon be employed in Hawaii by geothermal developers.

As a pre-emptive measure, Sen. Russell Ruderman has introduced a bill that would regulate the practice in Hawaii.

The Senate Energy and Environment Committee heard the bill on Tuesday and delayed a decision until later this week. Ruderman is vice chair of the committee.

Hawaii Electric Light Co., the electric utility on the Big Island, is expected to seek proposals for developing more geothermal energy soon. Maui Electric Co. has also said that it will ask for proposals for renewable energy projects that would include geothermal.

Ruderman told Civil Beat that a number of geothermal companies hope to use the advanced geothermal technology in Hawaii. He declined to name the companies.

Ruderman told the Senate committee that companies want to use “enhanced geothermal” to break through layers of rocks and tap reserves that can’t be accessed through conventional technology.

“That opens up literally the entire state to geothermal development,” he said.

Ruderman said his measure attempts to prevent problems, like groundwater damage and even earthquakes, that could be a result of the drilling technique.

But while the use of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — in oil and gas development has been controversial on the mainland, geothermal experts say that the technology doesn’t carry the same risks for geothermal.

“It’s definitely different from how natural gas fracking is done,” said Don Thomas, a geochemist and director of the University of Hawaii’s Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes.

He is currently leading a team of university researchers and scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, to study whether there are lower-intensity geothermal resources that can be tapped throughout the state.

Currently, there is just one geothermal company in Hawaii run by Puna Geothermal Venture on the Big Island.

Thomas said he doesn’t understand why Ruderman would want to try to close off geothermal development that could help power Hawaii’s energy needs before there are any proposals.

“It is conceivable that we will find thermal areas in Hawaii where permeability is extremely low and where hydrofracking could potentially make something economically viable,” he said.

No Mention Of Geothermal In Bill

Ruderman’s bill has confused and angered some energy developers who believe the word “geothermal” was intentionally left out of the title and text of the bill. The measure talks about oil and gas drilling.

Mililani Trask, a cultural advisor for Honolulu-based Innovations Development Group, which plans to bid on the Big Island RFP, said Ruderman’s bill fuels controversy over geothermal development. She called the measure “embarrassing.”

Trask said Innovations Development Group was not looking to use the technology.

Ruderman, a freshman senator, campaigned against further geothermal development in the Puna district. He called past development “a nightmare” for the surrounding community when he spoke at a community meeting last year, according to a video of the meeting provided by Occupy Hawaii.

Ruderman acknowledged to Civil Beat that he wants to regulate geothermal fracking, but he wanted to avoid using the word geothermal in the title of this bill, mainly because he is known to be opposed to geothermal development.

“I wanted it to be about fracking as a separate issue from geothermal,” he said.

Geothermal Pulled Into Fracking Debate

The use of fracking technology to develop gas and oil reservoirs on the mainland has become controversial in recent years. The technology has made it possible to produce oil and gas from deposits that were once considered uneconomical. Industry supporters say that the technology is safe and has the potential to provide a domestic supply of energy for decades to come at low costs.

With hydraulic fracturing, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped deep into the ground where pressure causes fracturing, or cracks, in the shale. Gas and oil seeps into the cracks and can be pumped to the surface.

But Susan Petty, president of Seattle-based AltraRock Energy, says that geothermal fracking is different. It involves a technology called hydro-shearing, which doesn’t pose the same risks, she said.

With hydro-shearing, water is pumped down wells into the reservoir to expand existing cracks. But, she said, the pressure is much less and the technique is not trying to break rock, only open up existing cracks.

She said her company considered bidding on a project in Hawaii, but likely won’t because it doesn’t own the land needed to conduct an operation.

“People are very, very worked up about this,” she said. “But the big issues are with getting the natural gas into aquifers. In geothermal, there is no natural gas.”

How much do you value our journalism?

Civil Beat focuses exclusively on the kind of journalism most at risk of disappearing – in-depth, investigative and enterprise coverage of important local issues. While producing this type of journalism isn’t cheap, you won’t find our content hidden behind a paywall. We also never worry about upsetting advertisers – because we don’t allow any. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on donations from readers like you to help keep our stories free and accessible to everyone. If you value our journalism, show us with your support.


About the Author