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Council Approves Ban on Nighttime Well Drilling

Posted November 9, 2012, 07:58 PM HST Updated November 10, 2012, 11:09 AM HST
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Hilo Councilman Donald Ikeda was unsuccessful in his attempt to amend the bill banning nighttime drilling of geothermal wells. Photo by Dave Smith.

The County Council today approved a bill prohibiting nighttime drilling of geothermal wells on the Big Island.

However, the current council may not have the final say on the matter, at least if the bill is vetoed by Mayor Billy Kenoi.

According to the timeline established in the County Charter, the mayor has up to 10 days to veto the bill, and the council must wait an additional five days before it takes up an override.

If  Kenoi waits the full 10 working days allowed by the charter before vetoing the bill, because of the Veterans Day holiday on Monday, the earliest the council could take it up again would be Dec. 3, the day the newly elected council takes office.

Only three of the existing council members have been re-elected, and two of them, J Yoshimoto and Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, cast the only votes against the drilling ban. The third, Councilwoman Brenda Ford, was among five council members who voted in favor.

Kenoi in July vetoed two geothermal-related bills previously introduced by Yagong. The council attempted to override those vetoes on Aug. 1 but could not muster the two-thirds majority required.

Puna Councilman Fred Blas, who represents the area where PGV is located, was absent from today’s meeting. According to Council Chairman Dominic, Blas was on the mainland attending to a family emergency.

The bill restricts drilling operations to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. for geothermal wells within one mile of a residence.

Yagong had introduced the bill following complaints from neighbors of the PGV plant in lower Puna about noise from drilling operations.

Neighbors and others critical of PGV came out in force last week for a public hearing on the bill in Pahoa. The call for the public hearing was made following lengthy discussion before the council when it previously came up for a final vote.

The action came despite extensive testimony the ban could compromise the safety of the well and the surrounding community, and add time and costs to the drilling of wells.

Testimony critical of the bill was submitted by a variety of geothermal consultants and associations.

“We believe that this measure is overly broad, will increase the cost and risks associated with geothermal drilling, and will set-back efforts to expand renewable power production in Hawaii,” Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, said in a letter to the council.

According to information submitted by the consulting company GeothermEx, a subsidiary of the world’s largest oilfield company, shutting down drilling operations each night would require the daily replacing and removal of the drill pipe and bit.

GeothermEx engineers said the result would be “thermal cycling” — alternating cycles of heating and cooling which could compromise the well’s integrity.

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The company said the periodic shutdowns could also result in a buildup of gases which are usually circulated out of the hole by drilling fluids. Those gases could cause a blow-out, it said, or could escape from the well and contaminate groundwater.

The gases could also break out above the ground “even at some distance from the wellbore,” the company said.

A third concern is that stopping the circulation of the drilling mud could cause the well’s walls to collapse.

Two state agencies also weighed in on the matter: the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which said the ban would hamper the state’s efforts to expand renewable energy sources, and the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

William Aila Jr., DLNR’s director, said installation of additional noise abatement measures would be preferable to the ban.

“We feel this would be a reasonable balance that addresses the concerns of those living in close proximity, while not increasing the risk to public safety or our resources,” Aila said in a letter.

Puna Geothermal Venture officials have told the council they intend to pursue sound abatement efforts.

Today’s vote came after council members rejected a proposed amendment designed to clarify that PGV’s current operation was exempt from the prohibition.

Several council members said the amendment was not necessary because county attorneys have said — during a briefing in closed session — that it would not apply to PGV until after it reaches its permitted capacity of 60 megawatts, 22 more than is covered by existing contracts.

Councilman J Yoshimoto argued for the amendment, saying it would make it clearer to the public what the bill would do.

PGV attorney Tom Yeh told the council that without the amendment the bill is a “blanket” prohibition against nighttime drilling.

The amendment was proposed by Councilman Donald Ikeda who had previously expressed concern that applying the ban to PGV would result in a lawsuit against the county.

PGV has maintained its existing permits make it exempt from after-the-fact restrictions.

Ikeda was absent from the room when the final vote was taken.

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