It seems likely that ferry service will go forward, and we might hope this turns out to be a win-win for Hawaii’s sustainability movement.
Why? Because the need to reduce our carbon emissions overshadows all other concerns.
It's not that the protesters oppose the Superferry, per se. Rather, the threat of more traffic congestion, the spread of invasive species, and potential collisions with whales looms large in statewide grumbling (see part I).
Ironically, concerns about the energy efficiency of inter-island transport have only recently entered the debate amid claims these boats would actually generate more emissions than inter-island jets, though the available data (see below) suggest the opposite is true.
Of course, some say the most important concern is the way the Superferry has been “fast-tracked” without an EIS. Yet, the State built the first ferry terminal on O`ahu 4 years ago to attract this kind of business and has (so far) prevailed in court against those seeking to force an EIS.
Now, I’m not a big fan of the EIS process. IMHO, it is easily neutered and it is outdated in terms of the interconnected sustainability concerns we now face.
Either way, let’s assume there will be no EIS.
At the same time, let’s try to come to grips with how these concerns interconnect on the canvas of global warming.
Let’s look at the traffic issue, for openers: On Kaua`i, the Superferry could on- and off-load up to 300 cars each day at 5:30PM. If, say, half are headed West and half East, this means that at, say, the junction of Kapule and Kuhio highways near Hanama`ulu, there would be a traffic "surge" of 150 cars. And from traffic statistics, we know there are already 1,500 cars each way on this road during the "peak hour" at this time of day. (Turns out, this currently occurs between 3:30 and 4:30PM; most of the “rush” has dissipated by 5:30.)
So, in round numbers let’s say the ferry will add 10% to this fairly busy road. Is this a big number? A show-stopper? Probably not.
The same is true with invasive species and the need for "risk assessment". Note that a) our islands are virtually overrun with invasives; and b) each island has a highly effective "Invasive Species Committee" (valiantly marshalling amazing volunteer power).
So, the added risk and impact attributable to the Superferry must be fairly small.
And, regarding threats to whales, note that a) “whale avoidance” has become a fine art in the islands and our whale populations are growing; and b) the Superferry’s “mitigation” responses to these challenges probably makes this boat less of a threat than the hundreds of “whale watch” tour boats that have become one of the islands’ most popular visitor attractions.
Again, there is some risk here, yet probably not large.
So, we come to the question of energy efficiency and the need for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Note that a) air travel is our most worrisome source of emissions; and b) water transport emissions (especially this nexgen ferry) beats plane emissions, hands down (based on the latest data from ghg protocol comparing transport alternatives on a consistent basis).
This "energy footprint" difference turns out to be a very big number: something like 20-to-1 for marine versus air transport. In other words, if all inter-island travel were by boat instead of plane, emissions would sum to 30,000 tons of CO2 from ferries versus 600,000 tons from the planes we’re flying today.
So where does this leave us? IMHO, we look for ways to minimize traffic disruption and whale collisions and added species invasions, yet the big prize seems to be in shifting our transport choices from planes to boats.
This is not (yet) a popular view, in part, it seems, because concerns about the Superferry have taken on a kind of "wikiality" (i.e., truth determined by consensus rather than fact). Make your own call on this.
From a sustainability perspective, I would simply note that Hawai`i could go a long way toward meeting it's emission reduction goals by substituting ferries for jets in its inter-island and international transport.
Fact is, we cannot meet these planet-friendly goals without doing so…or giving up inter-island travel altogether.
Conceivably, the ferries could be a win-win…As in: keep the travel AND cut the emissions.
Lord knows, this is where all of our energy should be going.