Any time fire destroys a paradise, fingers point. But while officials blame climate change for the fire and other recent natural disasters, the wildfires that killed 115 people and ravaged the village of Lahaina, Maui, were actually fueled by distracted bureaucracies more focused on virtue signaling and self-dealing than public safety.
On the most recent episode of The Drill Down podcast, Peter Schweizer and Eric Eggers show how misdirected incentives, governmental corruption, and incompetence made the wildfire disaster on Maui worse but inevitable.
Despite a report by the Cost of Government Commission for the County of Maui that found “the number of incidents from a combination of wild/brush/forest fires appears to be increasing,” Hawaiian Electric, the public utility that supplies power to the islands, spent just $245,000 over the previous three years on wildfire preparation.
At the same time, Hawaiian Electric had announced twenty-nine new “clean energy” projects that would cost between $3.5 and $4 billion. This was money allocated by the Biden administration’s “green energy” spending that was contained in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act. Where the money flows, the attention goes.
At the federal level, a report by the Government Accounting Office found, for example, that the wildfire mitigation efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were more or less “ad hoc” while the agency was spending billions of dollars on climate change-focused efforts.
It’s not just a lesson Hawaii struggles with. In California, where wildfires happen every year, the state has, after years of wildfire disasters that could have been prevented by such controlled burns, finally resorted to asking local Indian tribes to supervise controlled burns, the way their distant ancestors used to do, because the state lacks the manpower to do it itself.
As Eric puts it during the podcast, “You’re wondering why we are not focusing more on the things that save lives. It’s because nobody makes money off it.”
And money is there to be made. Lee Fang has documented the too-cozy relationship between the government body that is supposed to regulate the power company, and that company itself. He found that “every member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, which regulates Hawaiian Electric, has financial or previous professional ties to the company.”
“Commissioner Leodoloff Asuncion, the chair of PUC, previously worked directly for Hawaiian Electric, Commissioner Naomi Kuwaye previously worked as an outside attorney for Hawaiian Electric, and Commissioner Colin Yost runs a renewable energy firm, RevoluSun, which partners with Hawaiian Electric… Ethics records show Hawaiian Electric spent $437,252 on lobbying state officials, including utility regulators, since 2019, far more than it spent addressing the Maui wildfire threat.”
Peter calls it “regulatory capture,” and says it happens commonly. “What the political left won’t confront or appreciate [when it insists that government try to control certain industries] is that the regulated industry will just collude with the regulators,” Peter says.
“There’s this notion government will hold at bay the terrible forces of the private sector – it’s really the opposite. They work together to incentivize the worst behaviors, and this is just another example of that.”
The result is poor performance and no accountability. How else to explain the fact that M. Kaleo Manuel, the now-former deputy director of the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management, waited for more than five hours before he authorized the release of water to fight the fires raging on the island and yet was not even fired; he was transferred to another position within the department.
Manuel faced no consequences as a result of the fires on the island. The people of Hawaii weren’t as lucky.