At the beginning of the 2022 legislative session, a group of lawmakers introduced a dozen proposals to protect Hawaii’s environment. With a key deadline passing last week, most of the bills are dead.

But five of the bills proposed by the Environmental Legislative Caucus are still standing, including ones that call for a study to determine ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, set deadlines for state buildings to create cost-effective energy efficiency measures, create a pilot program to keep forests and farm lands intact and initiate a healthy soil program.

Hawaii last year was the first state to declare a climate emergency, which prompted legislators to come up with concrete initiatives this year. But priorities varied, with measures offering an array of solutions to address the complicated and intensifying climate crisis.

Rising seas and increased flooding regularly close stretches of Kamehameha Highway, the only way in and out for residents living in Hauula, Kaaawa and other windward Oahu communities. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

Among those that failed were bills that proposed a green amendment to the state constitution giving people a right to a healthful environment, a temporary income tax credit on cesspool upgrades, removal of limits on wastewater systems, protection of endangered species from land uses that could harm them and the creation of a refundable income tax credit to mitigate the effects of a carbon emissions tax on taxpayers.

Existing environmental bills have until April 6 to be approved by their final committees. Once cleared, the bills will be sent to the full House or Senate for a final vote. Then the bills will go back to their original chambers for another round of reviews.

Sen. Mike Gabbard, who co-chairs the caucus, was disappointed by the number of the caucus’ measures surviving so far, citing the Rolling Stones’ famous line, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Waikiki with what looks like less visitors and beachgoers on January 20, 2022 during a statewide Covid-19 surge. January 20, 2022
Lawmakers were considering creating a green fee for visitors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The most recent bill that fell short would have created an impact fee program within the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Senate Bill 3192, which was part of the caucus’ package, aimed to protect Hawaii’s natural resources from the impact of tourists visiting state parks, beaches, hiking trails and state-owned forests.

Rep. Richard Onishi, who chairs the House Labor and Tourism Committee, said he didn’t give the bill a hearing and is opposed to green fees. He said that he was concerned that stakeholders would not have a say in how the funds were spent and that the bill lacked a process for setting fees.

“I don’t know if the issue is overtourism,” Onishi said. “The issue should be resource management. We can have 20 million people, but if the resource is managed correctly, the impact is minimal.”

With hundreds of bills continuing to move through the legislative process, Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said bills on clean transportation and achieving zero emissions are still alive.

“When you deal with the climate crisis, it’s not just transportation and fossil fuels, it’s dealing with sea level rise and dealing with mitigation,” Luke said. “It’s not just one thing.”

Luke said the Legislature has not come up with any concrete way to “meet our renewable energy goals on a timely basis.”

She said that one bill that would have done that, by Rep. Nicole Lowen, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, would have required reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 70% below the 2005 level by 2030.

Lowen has said Hawaii already achieved one goal by reducing carbon emissions below the 1990 level by 2020. Her House Bill 1800, part of the caucus’ package, would have updated that goal.

But first, the bill was amended to reduce emissions by 50% from 2005 instead of 70%. Then the bill was amended again deleting any goal at all, instead calling for a study to determine how the state should achieve its decarbonization goals.

EV electric vehicle chargers at Ala Moana Shopping Center.
An EV electric vehicle charger at Ala Moana Shopping Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Melissa Miyashiro, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, said the nonprofit organization has been pushing for several bills, which so far have survived, dealing with energy efficiency, clean transportation and renewable energy.

“Energy efficiency is one of those things that maybe isn’t as sexy as some of the other clean energy bills, but we think it’s critically important in our future for 100% clean energy,” Miyashiro said. “Especially in a moment like now when energy prices are soaring.”

Two particularly important measures, she said,  would help “achieve a carbon negative economy by 2045.” One, House Bill 1801, part of the caucus’ package, and another similar measure, Senate Bill 2963, would set a deadline for state buildings – except smaller buildings – to implement cost-effective energy efficiency measures.

If one of the bills become law, starting July 1, 2023 all new state buildings will be required to maximize energy and water efficiency, as well as using building materials that reduce the carbon footprint.

“We have to start thinking about what actions we can take in the near term to reduce emissions now,” Miyashiro said. “That’s why that bill is important to us.”

Other bills relating to electric vehicles are also faring well.

Senate Bill 3158 would create an electric bicycle and electric moped rebate program. And Senate Bill 2720 would allow new electric vehicle charging stations to qualify for a rebate.

“This bill is looking at a successful rebate program that we already have in the state for installing electric vehicle chargers in publicly accessible places,” Miyashiro said. “So this is a bill that makes some small programmatic tweaks to be able to reach more Hawaii residents.”

Luke said the scope of some of the bills gets pared back by the time they get to her committee. “But I’m still hopeful that there are big concepts still alive,” she said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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