For Hawaii Rep. Jessica Wooley, being nominated by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to lead the state’s Office of Environmental Quality Control is a pretty big deal.

If all goes well with Wooley’s Senate confirmation, she’ll have much more access to the governor, running an office that’s charged with reviewing environmental impact statements that influence what development can and can’t occur in Hawaii. (She will also get a big raise.)

But some worry that Wooley’s departure could change the way the Legislature deals with the highly contentious issue of genetically modified organisms in food and farming.

Several proponents of regulating GMOs were disappointed by Thursday’s announcement.

“She’s been one of the strongest advocates in the Legislature for us,” said Walter Ritte, a well-known activist from Molokai. “We depended on her this year and it’s a big loss.”

Activists like Ritte say that Wooley was instrumental in shepherding a bill through the House last year to label genetically modified food.

Nomi Carmona, president of the advocacy group Babes Against Biotech, is worried that Wooley might be replaced by the Agriculture Committee Vice Chair Richard Onishi from the Big Island, who is much less sympathetic to concerns about genetic engineering.

Others see cynical motives behind the nomination.

“I think it’s a political move to get her out of the way,” said Hawaii County Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced legislation on the Big Island that banned genetically modified farming. Wille said before Wooley started leading the Agriculture Committee, lawmakers didn’t even consider GMO labeling proposals.

House Speaker Joseph Souki said Thursday that the House leadership hasn’t yet decided who might replace Wooley.

The Senate confirmation process might not be complete for another month, meaning that Wooley could continue to serve into April.

That would give whoever replaces her little time to make any sort of mark this session. The legislative session ends in early May.

Souki said House leadership hasn’t crossed Onishi off the list but emphasized that the House doesn’t usually elect freshmen legislators to lead committees. Onishi was just elected in 2012.

Before accepting the governor’s offer, Wooley said she thought about what her departure might mean for the House’s handling of GMO-related issues. But after talking with her colleagues, she decided that she thinks the House will remain consistent even if she leaves.

The House passed a bill last year to require labels on some genetically modified food. And while this year the Senate has considered proposals to undermine county GMO regulations, the House has refused to hear those bills.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said Thursday that the House wants to wait until the courts decide on the merits of county rules before intervening. Several companies, including Syngenta, have sued Kauai County to protest its new law requiring more disclosure about genetic engineering and pesticide use from biotech companies.

“House leadership is committed to the same policies,” Wooley said. “I don’t think anything will change as a result [of my departure].”

That rings true to Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, former director of the OEQC. Although Hooser supports regulation of genetically modified farming, he’s confident — unlike some other activists — that the House won’t change its position.

“I believe the House and the Senate have heard loud and clear from the public already that taking away the county authority to regulate and protect citizens is not good policy, nor good politics,” Hooser said.

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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