Nick Pope on August 18, 2023
While climate hawks were quick to blame the tragic Hawaiian fires on climate change, some of the state’s green policies and questionable decision-making before and during the tragedy helped set the stage for a disaster that has so far claimed over 100 lives.
Along with other Democrats and some members of the media, Democratic Gov. Josh Green repeatedly suggested in the wake of the disaster that climate change and its effects were the primary cause, with Green himself stating explicitly that climate change is “the ultimate reason that so many people perished.” However, a growing list of actions and green policy decisions made by elected and unelected officials of key Hawaiian institutions, public and private, in the years leading up to the fires appear to have played a major role.
For years before the fires, government agencies understood that Western Maui, the hardest-hit area, was particularly susceptible to wildfires because of high concentrations of non-native grasses in the area, according to The New York Times. An assessment report from 2020 stated that the region had a 90% chance of wildfires each year on average, a percentage calculated with the pervasive non-native dry grasses in mind.
Despite its understanding that the abundance of dry grass in the region posed a threat, the state allowed it to grow without doing much to trim it or otherwise keep it under control, according to NBC News. As a result, huge swaths of the region became open-air tinderboxes, particularly in West Maui.
For example, the state appears to have dragged its feet in negotiations with Hawaiian Electric, the state’s utility company whose downed power lines reportedly started the blaze. Hawaiian Electric had identified an urgent need as early as 2019 to make infrastructure upgrades and manage vegetation to reduce the possibility that its equipment could spark a fire, and it proposed to spend $190 million to do so last June, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In response to the proposal, state bureaucrats and regulators bogged the proposal down in red tape and reviews, according to the WSJ. The utility said that it would not begin the work until it had negotiated a deal with the state to recover the costs from ratepayers, an arrangement which is typical for utility companies seeking to make major investments of this variety, according to the WSJ.
Hawaiian Electric is not completely absolved of responsibility, Dan Kish, senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“It’s sad to see all the government and utility officials passing the buck rather than stepping up and admitting that mistakes were made,” Kish told the DCNF.
“Hawaii’s obsession with climate took the utility’s eyes off the ball,” Kish continued. “Rather than concentrating on what they can fix, they focused on the climate industrial complex and its unworkable solutions.”
Hawaiian Electric interpreted the signals sent by the state’s commitment to reach 100% green electricity generation by 2045, deciding to expend significant resources to achieve this aim, according to the WSJ. The firm invested vast resources in green technologies, but ultimately spent less than $245,000 on wildfire-specific projects on the island between 2019 and 2022, after it had determined that it had to do more to mitigate the risks posed by errant sparks, according to the WSJ.
“While there was concern for wildfire risk, politically the focus was on electricity generation,” Mina Morita, chair of the state utilities commission from 2011 to 2015, told the WSJ.
A 2020 audit of the company’s management systems found that its risk considerations were mostly focused on financial risks, with minimal analysis of operational risks, while the division within the firm that oversaw power line operations had significant management problems, according to the WSJ.
Hawaiian Electric did not respond immediately to a request for comment.