Continued dependence on oil could isolate Kaua‘i, biologist says

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two part story on a presentation given on Kaua‘i this week that discusses energy sustainability now and into the future. The second part will be in Sunday’s paper.

Scientist Adam Asquith spelled out a potentially gloomy future for Kaua‘i and the rest of the United States if immediate steps aren’t taken to alleviate dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.

Speaking at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Lecture in the Garden Series Wednesday night, Asquith spoke on energy sustainability on Kaua‘i.

Asquith, a Kapa‘a resident who works with the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program and the Kaua‘i Agricultural Research Station, presented his lecture, “Energy, Economy and the Sustainability of Kaua‘i,” to about 60. Though he did not set out to scare people, he gave the audience fair warning.

“I’m asking you guys to swallow some pills,” he said. “It’s not pleasant, but your lives, or your lifestyles, depend on it.”

Asquith’s premise — dependence on oil is hamstringing the nation — is not a new one, but he presents it in a different light.

“The issue is not running out of oil,” he said. “The issue is the cost of retrieving it.”

In addition to increasing costs, better drilling and exploration technology makes for faster extraction, which further drives down supply, Asquith said.

“The answer is not in technology,” he said.

In fact, Asquith said, oil companies can’t buy drill bits fast enough to keep up with demand.

Asquith calculates net energy by subtracting the amount of energy expended in retrieving fuel from the amount of energy derived from the fuel. He said early surface wells that were pressurized and difficult to cap had a 100 to one ratio of net energy, or energy returned on energy invested.

New wells, like deep water rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, operate at a six to one ratio, Asquith said.

Oil is becoming more and more expensive to find and extract.

“If they have to go to the North Pole, there’s not going to be a positive return,” Asquith said. “Pretty soon, it’s just not worth it.”

Furthermore, production rates are declining steadily and have been for some time.

“The North Sea decline rates have been at 10 percent a year,” Asquith said. A slide behind him illustrated the time between 1973 (peak discovery in the region) and 2000 (peak production), showing a lag time of 27 years.

In the continental United States, peak discovery occurred in 1930 while peak production hit in 1971, with a 41-year lag time.

“We’re now producing as much as we were during the Great Depression,” he said.

With no natural oil reserves, Hawai‘i relies completely on imports.

In 1999, Asquith said the state imported 140,000 barrels a day from Indonesia, Alaska, Australia and China. Then he clicked on a slide showing the production rates for those four areas.

“They are all past their production maximums,” he said. “They’re going to come to a point where they want their own oil.”

Unlike the continental U.S., Hawai‘i can’t rely on liquid natural gas, which is transported predominantly by pipeline, Asquith said. Shipping and harbor infrastructure to support a natural gas import would be “ridiculously expensive,” he said. “It’s not applicable to Hawai‘i.”

One exception the declining return rates on fuels is uranium, though Asquith said he didn’t think Kaua‘i would see a nuclear power plant any time soon.

A lower return on energy investment means a smaller spending budget which means a shrinking economy, Asquith said.

“The last four major recessions since World War II have coincided with spikes in petroleum prices,” he said.

But the current high prices are more than temporary he said.

“This is not a spike,” he said.

What it means for Kaua‘i—Electricity

The crux of Asquith’s lecture centered around how escalating oil prices currently affect Kaua‘i, and what the future may hold.

In declining order of how fixable each problem is, Asquith laid out the state of electricity, local transportation, food production and the tourism economy.

Electricity generation is the easiest problem to solve, he said.

“We need a paradigm shift in the way we think. We need to get used to looking at this,” he said, pointing to a slide of two wind turbines. “Better yet, we need to demand it.”

Asquith said 87 percent of Kaua‘i’s electricity comes from oil-fired power plants, and 90 percent of Kaua‘i’s petroleum, which is all imported, goes to electricity and 10 percent goes to transportation.

“We have some of the highest rates in the country, and they are tied directly to the price of oil,” he said.

A member of Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative, Asquith admires the organization’s recent renewable energy contracts with a wind farm, a waste-to-energy plant and two biomass facilities, but said the goal of 20 percent of the island’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020 is “wholly insufficient.”

“(By) 2020, it’s all over,” he said. “If we wait, at this rate, we’re going to be paying dollars and dollars per kilowatt-hour.”

A slide behind him showed a cost of more than $4 per kilowatt-hour by 2020. Now, the KIUC Web site lists electricity at less than 20 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Asquith went on to say Kaua‘i spends $50 million annually in fuel costs to generate electricity.

“Why are we letting our money be bled out off island?” he said. “It could be kept right here. Wind and solar companies are kicking down the doors to get in here.”

He said a wind company would pay $100,000 per year in rent for 10 acres in the right spot.

Local transportation

“Gnarly,” Asquith said about Kaua‘i’s transportation issues. “There’s no silver bullet.”

While it would cost an estimated $1.4 billion to replace Kaua‘i’s 70,000 registered personal automobiles with fuel-efficient cars, Asquith said, other changes can be made, namely in public transportation.

“With regard to public transport, I think everything should be on the table immediately,” he said. “Rails are an extremely efficient mode of transportation and it could fit right onto our existing road infrastructure. The plantations had these all over the island.”

Furthermore, he said city buses could be replaced with fuel-efficient models.

Matthew Simmons is a progressive-thinking investment banker from Houston that Asquith cited several times throughout the hour-long lecture.

“Matthew Simmons sees huge demand destruction as the only means to change behavior and redirect investment,” Asquith said. “The county currently levies a pittance of a fuel tax. We could slap a $7-per-gallon local fuel tax on gasoline.

At $10-per-gallon gas prices, we will see driving behaviors change.”

Asquith said the benefits would also generate significant revenue to reinvest in public transportation. Barring a clear-cut solution, Asquith was adamant about one thing.

“Perhaps more important is that we recognize and accept the coming change and not spend another single dime on new roads or bypasses,” he said.

Tomorrow’s second part will discuss food production and tourism on Kaua‘i.

• Ford Gunter, staff writer, may be reached at, or 245-3681 (ext. 251).


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