HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Critics say a Hawaiian Electric proposal to bring liquified natural gas into Hawaii is a disingenuous ploy to drum up support for its proposed $4.3 billion sale to NextEra Energy.
HECO says bringing liquified natural gas into Hawaii will save residents money. But, they stress, only NextEra would have the wherewithal to make the proposal a reality.
Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, an environmental and community action group, called the timing of HECO's announcement "suspicious."
"HECO waited until all of the paperwork was in on the merger proceeding, waited until it was at the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) and now they're dangling a carrot in front of the PUC," he said.
Earlier this week, Hawaiian Electric announced it had negotiated a deal to import liquefied natural gas from Canada. But it says the contract is contingent on the PUC approving NextEra Energy's request to buy the utility.
It's unclear why a contract was drawn up that requires a merger that hasn't been finalized. But Hawaiian Electric says they've been working on LNG for a number of years and disagree that the timing is suspect.
"We've been working on this for a while, but we just wrapped up negotiations ... and were able to get the contract signed, so now we've submitted to PUC for approval," said HECO spokesman Dareen Pai.
Pai said customers could save $3.7 billion if Hawaiian Electric is able to partner with NextEra and bring liquefied natural gas to Hawaii.
"We want to have a lower cost more environmentally-friendly fuel than oil which we currently use, so our proposal will help us lower costs for our customers and work towards clean energy," Pai said.
Hawaiian Electric officials say the infrastructure needed to execute the contract they negotiated with an LNG provider in Canada requires the kind of financing that only NextEra can provide.
The PUC is deliberating HECO's sale, and Chairman Randy Iwase said the body won't be rushed.
"Looking at the LNG issue and whether it's a good fuel source for us going forward is totally unrelated to whether or not the parties are asserting that the merger has to be approved," he said.
HECO's proposal was filed just two weeks before a self-imposed deadline, after which the merger could fall apart.
Iwase says the PUC won't be pressured to come to a decision too quickly.
"All of this is coincidental. I'm going to take that position. And I will then say, those assertions will have no impact on us. None at all," Iwase said.
Critics of the merger say the timing of the LNG announcement is deliberate.
"If it can only happen if the NextEra merger is approved then it should have been part of the NextEra merger discussion," Curtis said.
He and others also said they don't believe it's possible for commissioners to make a decision on the NextEra deal without taking this new information into consideration. They say the request should actually void the entire proceeding.
"We would like to see the merger decision killed at this point and the LNG proposal withdrawn," he said.
Hawaiian Electric officials say their LNG plan will not just reduce costs, but help move the state towards its renewable energy goals. LNG is cleaner than burning oil.
"If the merger is not completed, we're still interested in pursuing LNG," Pai said. "We'll have to go back and work out a new contract structure. The development would take longer and potentially the savings for customers would not be as great."
Gov. David Ige has opposed any plans to import LNG, saying liquified natural gas would distract the state from seeking renewable energy sources.