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Drilling-Ban Bill Draws Technical and Economic Concerns

Posted October 31, 2012, 05:23 PM HST Updated November 2, 2012, 09:44 AM HST
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The Puna Geothermal Venture plant located in Pohoiki in lower Puna. Photo courtesy of PGV.

Opposition is growing to a County Council bill that would limit the drilling of geothermal wells to daytime hours.

Bill 292, which was introduced by Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, would limit drilling conducted within a mile of any residence to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The measure, which is designed to reduce noise impacts, was approved on its first reading on Oct. 3 and will be the subject of a public hearing Friday in Pahoa. A final vote is scheduled to be taken next month.

Those critical of the bill since that first vote include two state agencies, two Big Island chambers of commerce and the world’s largest oilfield services company.

According to the geothermal consulting company GeothermEx, restricting drilling to 12 hours each day would mean it would take three times as long to drill a well. That’s because for safety reasons, the drilling crews would have to spend up to several hours to pull the drill bit out of the hole at the end of drilling and then again to  reinsert it before operations could resume, an Oct. 12 memo to the state said.

GeothermEx is an arm of the Schlumberger company, which has more than 115,000 oilfield workers in 85 countries.

The GeothermEx memo said another concern is the stability of the hole which could collapse during the down period.

The company also said that such a restriction would be unprecedented.

The memo said that it could find no examples of a ban on night-time drilling anywhere in the world. It did note that extensive sound-proofing and camouflage has been used when drilling occurs in urban areas such as in Long Beach, Calif.

The head of the Hawaii State Energy Office cited similar concerns in a letter to the council.

Mark Glick, the administrator of the office which is a branch of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said longer drilling times would ultimately result in higher electricity costs to ratepayers.

Carty Chang, a state engineer with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which regulates geothermal well drilling, said he was concerned that drilling restrictions could result in the well caving in. He said the restriction could also cause potential safety issues involving stability of a well drilled near the geothermal steam resource.

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Also this month, the presidents of both the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaii wrote letters to the council expressing concern about the economic impacts of the bill.

“Imposing such a blanket restriction on drilling operations would likely increase the time needed to drill geothermal well as well as the electricity rates that must be paid by all ratepayers,” said the letter signed by HICC President Vaughn Cook.

Jon Arizumi, president of the JCCIH, said his organization was concerned that additional regulation might deter others in the industry from doing business in Hawaii, hampering the island’s goal of increased energy self-sufficiency.

Puna Geothermal Venture, which operates the state’s only geothermal plant, has expressed similar concerns before the council.

It has also maintained that the bill would infringe on vested approvals already granted by the state and county to continue development of the plant to a capacity of 60 megawatts. Although it is currently producing only  34 megawatts, it has signed contracts with Hawaii Electric Light Co. for a total of 38.

The company has also announced plans to install additional soundproofing during upcoming maintenance work.

Asked whether the recent information might have an impact on the legislation, Yagong told Big Island Now that he has not seen all of the documents and would withhold comment until he does.

However, he said he believes the information in the GeothermEx memo was not definite and consists of “possibilities and probabilities.”

“We’ll see what happens after the public hearing and when [the bill] comes back before the council on Nov. 9,” he said.

***Updated on Nov. 1 to correct the date Bill 292 is scheduled for a vote.***

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