Biologist: food supply, tourism may be harmed by oil dependence

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

by Ford Gunter – The Garden Island

At the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Lecture in the Garden Series Wednesday night, 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.

This dependence on oil may effect the food supply and agriculture as well as damage the tourism industry if it continues, Asquith explained.

To astounded groans and gasps, Asquith said probably close to 90 percent of Kaua‘i’s food is imported, and never was the island’s dependence on foreign food more evident than in the days following the March 14 Ka Loko Dam breach that temporarily cut off the North Shore from the rest of the island.

“There was a one-day supply of food at the Princeville Foodland,” he said.

Asquith acknowledged the shortage was the result of a panicked run the day after the disaster, but it still illustrates a valid point: Kaua‘i’s plantation history was based on export instead of cultivation to feed the local economy.

This is something he thinks will change, despite Kaua‘i being the oldest island in the chain and, as such, the one with the most nutrient-depleted soil.

The only crops that grow on the island are those that are easy to cultivate, he said, like sugar, taro and pineapples.

“There’s very few places with soil fertile enough to grow food, and most of it is in residential or conservation (areas), the two most restricted zoning areas,” he said.

Despite that, there will be a move in the near future to regain the island’s self-sufficiency in terms of food supply.

“Agriculture will regain its importance on Kaua‘i,” he said.

Tourism

Perhaps where Kaua‘i will be hit the hardest by rising fuel costs is in its bread and butter industry, Asquith said.

“One million visitors spend $1 billion every year (on Kaua‘i),” he said. “Expect this to change drastically.”

Rising costs of jet fuel will soon price out air travel for the common traveler, leaving only the ultra-wealthy able to afford to fly, especially to areas as remote as Hawai‘i.

Asquith cited a July 2005 article in Attache, the in-flight magazine of US Airways, in which the airline’s president and CEO Bruce Lakefield wrote a $1 increase in the cost of a barrel of crude oil costs the airline more than $25 million annually.

According to the Washington D.C.-based Air Transport Association’s Web site, “At a consumption rate of 19.9 billion gallons per year, every penny increase in the price of a gallon of jet fuel drives an additional $199 million in annual fuel costs for U.S. airlines. So if the price were a dollar higher over the course of a year, we’re talking about a $19.9 billion increase in expenses.”

Asquith also cited a well-published quote from Gary Kelly, in which the Southwest Airlines boss said no airline can make money at $50-per-barrel crude oil prices. On the day of Asquith’s lecture, oil was at about $70 a barrel.

“They’re going to have to pass the prices on to the consumer,” he said.

Asquith said both aviation and fuel engineers have told him there’s no alternative for jet fuel on the horizon.

“You can’t fly an airplane on ethanol,” he said.

As a result, he said, “Commercial air travel as we know it is about to disappear.”

The only economical way to see Kaua‘i will be by ship.

The future

As an energy-efficient method of transportation, shipping will increase drastically, Asquith said, and could be the savior of Hawai‘i.

“And it will only get better because the large size of ships allows for a variety of different engines, motors, fuels and fuel storage capacity,” he said.

“Because there will always be demand for trade internationally that will be water-based, Hawai‘i may grow in importance as a transpacific hub,” Asquith said.

• Ford Gunter, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or fgunter@kauaipubco.com

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