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Profiles in Stupidity: Hawaii Superferry Idled by Courts

If your eyes glazed over in disbelief from this week’s court ruling out in Hawaii, well, that’s a natural reaction. But you shouldn’t have expected anything less. The preliminary injunction preventing the Superferry from operating to Maui until the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) completes the Environmental Assessment (EA) mandated by the State Supreme Court could well be the end of the road for the innovative, but embattled service. And that would be beyond wrong.

Although Governor Lingle and some legislative leaders are right at this moment trying to organize a special legislative session to enact a bill that would allow the ferry to operate while the EA is being conducted, I wouldn’t bet on it. This is a classic case of a vocal minority imposing its frivolous whims on the general public, under the thin veneer of environmental protection, while dooming a legitimate business entity to probable failure. In reality, this is about an elite few who want to preserve an exclusive way of life that the vast majority of the islands’ residents have no hope of ever living without the introduction of safe, economic and reliable transportation. That vehicle is here.

Of course, it really could be about the environment. If so, this is a case that extends well beyond the shores of idyllic Hawaii. Despite the best efforts of the Hawaii Superferry (HSF) to build in any number of environmental safeguards into the design, operation -- and yes, the very paint on the side of the hull -- it is clear that nothing that it can do will ever be good enough. This is about stalling the project long enough to bankrupt HSF, or make it go away and operate somewhere else. Where? The environmentalists really don’t care. Like a port authority that plugs in seagoing vessels to “cold iron” them alongside the dock in the name of environmental correctness, only to send the pollution upstream to the smokestack of a fossil fuel power plant, the effort is futile, and ultimately stupid.

The situation in Hawaii is not unique, however. It plays itself out all over the fruited plain, every day. There hasn’t been a refinery built in this country for more than three decades despite a clear and present need for more refining capacity. We continue to be held hostage to a trade deficit that hinges largely on energy imports because we don’t have the intestinal fortitude to drill for the domestic oil and gas that we know is available, here and now. The same Congress that considers drilling (in the Arctic or the Gulf of Mexico) a sacrilege, at the same time extends MFN (Most Favored Nation) status to countries that deliver toxic products to our shores. And just across the Rio Grande, our NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) partners spill their bile from factories that would never pass environmental muster in the most lax state in the union.

The 2008 presidential elections are coming. Some candidates would have you believe that, were we to give them our vote, we’d be out of Iraq in a jiffy. These are usually the same candidates who would vote against tapping our own domestic energy supplies to help make that possible. Don’t you believe it. We’re going to be there in strength for at least a generation -- possibly longer -- and until we can get a handle on our energy situation. Maybe we can start with the wind farms that Ted Kennedy opposes off the coast of Massachusetts. No, these units won’t quite get the job done, but every little bit helps.

At some point, we’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot; here and abroad. Not to worry. Contingency planning is underway at Hawaii Superferry. Very soon, it is possible that you’ll see the Hawaii Superferry back in operation, not here, but at some other Pacific Rim island. In the meantime, the average Hawaiian citizen (84% of whom want the new service) will continue to be denied the opportunity to travel freely between the islands and prosper. They, too, will continue to be held hostage.

I wonder where the environmentalists were when the Hawaii Superferry was being built. I wonder where they were when three large, deep draft cruise liners entered Hawaii’s waters to transport tens of thousands of tourists in and out of the Aloha State’s ports. Mostly, though, I wonder where they will be in five years when we are still battling in the Middle East and sitting on top of a vast, still untapped treasure trove of energy.

Superferry President and CEO John Garibaldi said this week, “Obviously, we are disappointed. While the ruling is a loss for Hawaii Superferry and our employees, it is a greater loss for the state of Hawaii.” The loss extends well beyond Hawaii, however. This latest setback is just one of many and it certainly will not be the last one. Eventually, though, it is just this type of event that will ultimately take us all down. And that’s just stupid.

Joseph Keefe can be reached with comments or questions at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com.