What’s the difference between a telescope and an oil pipeline?

There are many similarities between the Native Hawaiian protest against the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea and Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The issues raised by both projects are significant: The need to respect indigenous cultures, remedy the federal government’s broken promises to both Hawaiians and Native Americans, protect our natural resources and reconcile the ongoing struggle for social justice and indigenous peoples’ right to have a greater say in public land use policy. The process matters.

Purpose matters, too. That’s where the differences between the DAPL and TMT are also significant.

DAPL is hazardous to the environment and local water supply. TMT is not. Not by a long shot. In the last 40 years of astronomy on Mauna Kea, there has been zero proof of water contamination and far less environmental impact than ranching, invasive species and the Pohakuloa Training Area military installation. Despite claims to the contrary in the current contested case hearing, there is no risk of mercury spills by TMT as this substance is no longer used. The last mercury spill in the Astronomy District was 25 years ago, and that was inside an observatory building, all but 70 ml (about 5 tablespoons) were recovered, and that probably evaporated.  In fact, Hawaii’s volcanic gas puts out about 2 million times that amount of mercury into the air every year.

Artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope with all vents open. The vents are designed to optimize air flow over the primary mirror so as to reduce mirror seeing effects.
Artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope with all vents open. The vents are designed to optimize air flow over the primary mirror so as to reduce mirror seeing effects. Thirty Meter Telescope

DAPL is being built by a private oil company on land taken by eminent domain. TMT is being built in the existing Astronomy District of Mauna Kea, by a nonprofit international partnership of scientific and academic institutions that are investing in Hawaii’s economic and educational development, and supported by seed money from the Moore Foundation, a charitable organization known for its commitment to benefit the lives of indigenous people worldwide.

DAPL is a massive project. TMT is tiny in comparison. DAPL covers over 1,100 miles, spans four states, and will transport half a million barrels of crude oil every day. The pipeline crosses wetlands, farms, and historic Native American sites. In contrast, the proposed TMT site is a reasonable distance from cultural preservation locations and almost a mile away from the nearest native burial grounds. Contrary to social media memes, TMT will not be as big as Aloha Stadium and will not appear as large as the moon over Mauna Kea. In fact, TMT would be only 39 feet taller than the existing Subaru Telescope.

TMT’s entire footprint of about 5 acres would fit inside the Hilo Walmart parking lot, and sited well within the 525 acres of the Astronomy District where it would be visible from less than 15 percent of Hawaii Island.

DAPL is all about money.  TMT is all about science. While both projects will generate local jobs and economic stimulus, there’s a big difference between crude oil transportation and space exploration. The existing telescopes in the Mauna Kea Observatory complex and the University of Hawaii have played a key role in every major astronomical discovery and science education for the last 40 years. New knowledge gained from the TMT project would benefit all people of Planet Earth.

DAPL is perpetuating dependency on fossil fuels. Which makes it a little ironic that space science research and development is the basis of new materials that make the next generation of solar panels possible. In fact, many NASA spinoffs have led to a lot of cleaner tech and more efficient energy usage. TMT funding for STEM education in local schools may even help create the next generation of scientists who develop greener technology for the future.

DAPL is at odds with native culture and beliefs. Astronomy is a vital part of Hawaiian culture, heritage and spirit. Study of the stars, wayfinding, exploration and discovery are an integral part of Hawaiian values. Hawaii’s most visionary monarchs from Kamehameha I, King David Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani all recognized the cultural significance of astronomy and embraced modern technology. Today’s modern Hawaiians and all people of earth can track Hokulea’s voyage using GPS satellites. Renowned Hawaiian navigator and Hokelua Captain Chad Babayan testified that TMT and its mission are a natural evolution of native traditions.

“As Hawaiian I recognize that I am a descendant of some of the best naked eye astronomers the world has ever known. It is culturally consistent to advocate for Hawaiian participation in a field of science that continues to enable that tradition and a field of work we ought to lead.”

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