Hawai‘i’s senior senator talks local self-sufficiency, D.C. politics, and more.
By Jacob Shafer
In 2009, Brian Schatz walked into our office on North Main St. in Wailuku. At the time, the 41-year-old, fresh-faced Michigan-born Democrat was campaigning for lieutenant governor on the ticket with U.S. Rep. and soon-to-be-Governor Neil Abercrombie. Even back then it was clear he intended to become a long-term leading political voice.
Flash forward 13 years, and Schatz—who is up for re-election in 2022—is the senior U.S. senator from Hawai‘i, alongside fellow Democrat Mazie Hirono. Schatz sits on both the influential Appropriations, as well as the Foreign Relations Senate Committies.
For our Green Issue, Maui Times’ Jacob Shafer and J. Sam Weiss checked in with the Senator about local sustainability, federal environmental legislation, partisan gridlock, hemp and other agricultural initiatives. Our conversation has been condensed for clarity.
Maui Times: A decade ago, you told our predecessor publication, Maui TIme: “There are plenty of Republicans who will quietly acknowledge the reality of climate change. We’re trying to create a political climate so they can come out of their shell and start voting with us on solutions.” Do you still believe it’s possible to work across the aisle on environmental issues?
Senator Schatz: There still is bipartisan support for certain climate policies. For example, the infrastructure bill (signed into law by President Joe Biden in Nov. 2021) had lots of important climate elements, including initiatives to fund electric vehicle charging stations and support farmers who incorporate more sustainable practices. But while important, most of those are incremental steps.
If we’re going to take the big, bold, necessary actions to deal with this crisis, the Democrats will need to enact most of our climate action through either a budget bill or the reconciliation process, which we can accomplish with just the 50 votes we have from Democratic senators (along with the tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris).
MT: Being real, there’s virtually zero support for impactful environmental legislation from your GOP colleagues, right?
Senator: Many of the individual elements in the bill that we plan to enact have Republican support. But once it becomes a part of a signature piece of Biden legislation, they run in the opposite direction.
MT: What are the chances of something passing through the reconciliation process in 2022?
Senator: Our chances of enacting a big bill are high. We have broad agreement among all 50 Democrats about the climate provisions. … We can still do big things in this Congress in the next several months.
Everybody’s asking, “What does Joe Manchin think today? What is Joe Manchin going to say today?” It’s gotten to be exhausting for everyone, including Joe. The best way forward is for us to have a quiet negotiation and try to determine, not what I would put in a bill if I were in charge of everything, but how we can get 50 solid votes on important measures where we have consensus.
MT: Hawai‘i is deeply dependent on imported goods, including fuel, food, and building materials. How can we become more self-sufficient?
Senator: Tax incentives for the production of clean energy would turbo-charge our existing efforts, and Maui County has already done extraordinarily well in this area. But we’re all bumping up against the limits of a grid without battery storage. In the bill that we hope to pass there are needed subsidies for battery storage so we can get to higher degrees of penetration of clean energy on the grid.
Maui has an enormous opportunity in the electric vehicle space. But even on Maui people have range anxiety. They worry about where they are going to recharge their vehicle. One of my highest priorities is to make sure all parts of Hawaii have needed EV charging stations so that everybody has access to the clean energy revolution that’s happening with transportation.
MT: What specific legislation are you sponsoring to achieve that goal?
Senator: In the infrastructure bill that was signed into law last year, there’s $18 million dedicated for Hawai‘i charging stations. And in our next bill, there will be needed investments for electricity and battery storage. Once people know they can quickly and economically charge their electric vehicles, the market will take care of the rest.
MT: What does that mean?
Senator: People want electric vehicles. The limiting factor among a lot of consumers is they’re not sure where they’re going to charge and how long it’s going to take. No one wants to risk getting stranded. Once we alleviate that concern, which is often called “range anxiety,” there’s plenty of evidence people would prefer an electric vehicle. That’s why big automakers have bet that, within a decade or so, the internal combustion engine will be a relic of the past.
MT: What about other things, like building materials? Hawai‘i and Maui rely on imported products across the board. Is that solvable, or is it an inevitable reality for an island economy to depend on goods from afar?
Senator: It’s hard to look anyone in the eye and say with a straight face that we’re going to generate all our own materials for a modern life. We first need to focus on low hanging fruit. We shouldn’t have to generate our electricity in a way that’s overly dependent on fossil fuels.
There’s also enormous potential for Hawaii to grow a higher and higher percentage of the food that we consume. We ought to focus on the areas where there is real economic potential and a collective desire to get this right.
But the idea that we’re going to manufacture our own electronics or substantially replace the building materials that currently come from elsewhere is maybe not a fool’s errand but not a good use of our collective political will. We should focus on energy and food and recognize that in a global economy, there are some things that are going to keep showing up via a shipping container.
MT: The U.S. military’s Red Hill fuel storage facility on Oahu–which has leaked more than two million gallons of jet fuel, contaminated drinking water, and caused a public-health crisis–is making headlines. What are you doing to address that?
Senator: It needs to be shut down.
I’m exerting maximum pressure on the Department of Defense. I have been working very hard to make sure the White House and everybody in the executive branch fully comprehends how unanimous and passionate we all are. They don’t have a menu of options to choose from. They simply must shut down Red Hill.
MT: Is shutting it down imminent?
Senator: The decision can be made rather quickly, but I’m not an engineer. It will not be an instantaneous process. Red Hill contains 100 million gallons of fuel or more in a piece of infrastructure that’s almost a century old. De-fueling safely is something that has to be done thoughtfully. But the decision is simple. And I hope and expect that we’ll arrive at that soon.
MT: Is it on President Biden’s radar?
Senator: I haven’t spoken with the president directly about Red Hill, but I have spoken with his Chief of Staff, the Director of OMB (Office of Management and Budget), and the Secretary of Defense. I’m confident the Administration is aware that the citizens of Hawai‘i need Red Hill shut down.
MT: Maui, and Hawai‘i, would be unrecognizable without tourism. That said, how can we balance our environmental wellbeing with the need to welcome visitors?
Senator: This answer may not be satisfactory, but the commerce clause of the constitution prevents the federal government from having any role in regulating the movement of Americans within the United States. Whether it’s tourism or people moving to the state of Hawai‘i, as a matter of constitutional law, we can’t treat Americans in different ways.
MT: Working with the state and county government, do you feel there’s anything you can do as a federal representative?
Senator: I’m always happy to try to bring resources home to manage our cultural and natural reserves better and to give local people more control over their own destiny. But the questions around planning and permitting, additional resort development, how the governor uses the safe travels program to modulate the number of tourists coming—none of that is my kuleana.
MT: What is your working relationship with local officials, including Maui Mayor Michael Victorino?
Senator: I have a very good working relationship with all the county mayors, the governor and all the members of the county councils and legislature. I consider it my job to be everybody’s ally. If they want to get things done, I’ve got their back. That’s sort of the way I’ve approached this job. I’m in a position to be helpful to folks in elected office and everyone else. I steer clear of rivalries and competitive vibes.
MT: What is your position on federal cannabis and hemp legalization as it pertains to Hawai‘i?
Senator: There are a number of bills I’ve co-sponsored, some of them I’ve authored. The time for federal cannabis reform is long past. I’m going to keep pushing on the federal level for criminal justice reform, the rescheduling or de-scheduling of marijuana and eventually what I believe will be the consensus Democratic position, which is straight-up decriminalization. The time has come to end prohibition.