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Editorial | Island Voices

Hawaii’s oil addiction threatens our island way of life

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We have seen the horror unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico: fellow Americans, working in tourism, fishing and other sea-related industries, suffering while millions of gallons of oil gush daily into their marine environment.

We do not have offshore oil drilling here, but we import, via tankers, about 45 million barrels of oil annually to meet roughly 90 percent of our energy needs. If history is a guide, we are also vulnerable to an oil cataclysm.

In 1977, the Hawaiian Patriot sank 300 miles from Honolulu, discharging 30 million gallons of crude, roughly three times that of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Smaller spills and other close calls have happened since. Without transitioning to renewable energy and an enforceable national ocean policy to protect, maintain and restore marine ecosystems, our fossil fuel addiction makes inevitable a local oil-driven socio-bio-economic calamity.

On World Oceans Day last month, a broad coalition of elected officials and community leaders endorsed the scientific, economic, moral and geopolitical bases for the U.S. Senate moving forward with comprehensive climate and clean-energy legislation this year.

The call to action was organized in conjunction with World Oceans Day, because the lack of coordination and management of the full spectrum of industrial activities affecting our oceans, as well as global climate change, are among the greatest threats to us.

The extent of the devastation in the Gulf has yet to be fully assessed, while elevated seawater temperatures have already been responsible for extensive mass-bleaching events that have destroyed large areas of coral reef in the Pacific and Caribbean. Our reefs protect us from millions of dollars of storm surge damage annually, in addition to supporting the economy, native Hawaiian culture and local lifestyles.

We spend nearly $10 million daily to buy the oil that powers Hawaii—money that simply leaves the state. With Hawaii’s abundance of renewable energy sources, if climate and clean energy legislation is passed by Congress, then we could expect 4,000 to 10,000 high-paying clean-energy jobs by 2020, according to a recent study, "Clean Energy and Climate Policy for U.S. Growth and Job Creation," by David Roland-Holst with the University of California, Berkeley.

All 50 states stand to gain economically from strong federal energy climate policy. Funding to mitigate the effects of climate change on wildlife and marine ecosystems, including their restoration and management, could provide hundreds of additional jobs in Hawaii.

This is not just about sustainability, but about the survivability of our island way of life. We all share a spiritual responsibility as stewards of creation to preserve life for future generations. Members of the native Hawaiian, faith, peace and justice communities have noted that native people and the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change, as they would be in a large oil spill. Our kupuna recognized that working in harmony with the environment would protect our fisheries, estuaries and reefs. It is time we lived up to those ancient and yet relevant ideals.

President Obama recently requested a "bill that drives the production of more renewable energy in America … (that) will invest $15 billion a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, (and) clean coal."

Our coastlines are vital recreational, economic, and ecological treasures, and we cannot risk destroying these valuable natural resources to feed our oil addiction.

Now is the time for comprehensive climate and clean-energy legislation combined with an enforceable national ocean policy to protect, maintain and restore marine ecosystems to save Hawaii and our country now and for our children’s children.

This commentary was co-authored by Robert H. Richmond, Ph.D., professor at the University of Hawaii Kewalo Marine Laboratory; Mark Duda, Hawaii Solar Energy Association president; and Rob Kinslow, executive director of Hawaii Interfaith and Light.


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