Hawaii Gas wants to bring liquefied natural gas to Hawaii to help lower the cost of energy.
But environmental groups oppose the move and are working to prevent it for environmental reasons.
The Sierra Club and the Blue Planet Foundation filed motions with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission late last week to intervene in the Hawaii gas company's attempt to import the fossil fuel.
Hawaii Gas asked FERC for approval to import LNG in August. Theapplication (pdf) is still pending. The company hopes that natural gas will help improve the state's energy efficiency as well as reduce costs for consumers.
Hawaii has the highest dependency on fossil fuels of any state, according to the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiativewebsite. Hawaii residents also pay more for electricity than almost anyone else in the nation.
LNG is seen by many as an inexpensive alternative to oil and the proposal has the support of the Abercrombie administration. State officials have said that even when shipping costs are factored in, consumers would save money with natural gas.
Jeff Mikulina, director of the Blue Planet Foundation, acknowledged that natural gas is an inexpensive energy option and that renewable energy has high upfront costs. But he argued that the gas company's initiative is a step back from the state's goal of reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
"It’s seductive to think that we can simply import a different fossil fuel that’s going to somehow be cheaper and still think that we’re going to achieve our clean energy goals," Mikulina said.
Robert Harris, director of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club, said he also is concerned that investing further in fossil fuels will sidetrack Hawaii from shifting to renewable energy.
"There’s a limited supply of money for energy infrastructure," Harris said. "We’d rather see the dollars invested in clean energy."
Mikulina shares the same view.
"The state has signed Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative," Mikulina said. "And yet here they are entertaining a cheap abundant fossil fuel source. We don’t have infinite dollars in the state ... That’s money that we’re not spending on wind, solar and indigenous clean resources."
But Joseph Boivin, spokesman for Hawaii Gas, said that a trade off isn't necessary — natural gas can be complementary to renewable energy.
"Until we find a way to store energy from renewable energy we’re always going to need a source of firm energy to back it up," said Boivin, adding that natural-gas fired power plants fill that need.
But Mikulina called this a "deficiency of imagination."
"We don’t need to rely on fossil fuel to power our state," he said. "The technology is developing so rapidly."
Environmental advocates said their main concern about importing LNG is its negative impact on the environment.
"Liquefied natural gas is a very greenhouse gas-intensive fuel because of all of the energy it takes to drill, liquefy, transport and re-gasify it," said Ellen Medlin, an attorney at the Sierra Club who helped draft the organization's motion to intervene in the gas company's application.
But Hawaii Gas considers LNG to be clean energy, according to the company website. Boivin noted that LNG is cleaner than coal or oil. Natural gas releases less carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide than coal or oil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
If Hawaii Gas's application is approved, the company will bring in the fuel in relatively small amounts.
"In the initial project stage, liquefied natural gas is intended for emergency backup purposes only," Boivin said.
Hawaii Gas is requesting approval for the first of three phases of importing natural gas. The first phase is limited to bringing in natural gas in containers, similar to how propane is imported. The larger long-term project includes plans for a storage facility that will hold up to 10 million gallons of the fuel.
Medlin said it's important to look at the company's entire plan.
"It’s the agency’s obligation to look at the impact of all phases together before allowing the company to get a foot into the door," she said. "Approval of this [first] phase without looking at the environmental impact won’t allow the agency to see the full picture."