Who Controls the Mineral Rights to Hawaiian Home Lands?

National Park Service

Millions of dollars could be at stake in an emerging dispute over who owns the mineral rights to Hawaiian home lands that are being considered for the development of geothermal energy.

While the state contends that it owns the rights, a committee under the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands submitted a report last week pushing for legislative action “which acknowledges the Department of Hawaiian Home Land’s inalienable rights to the minerals.”

Whoever controls the rights – either the state or Native Hawaiian beneficiaries of DHHL – gets the money through royalty payments. The state contends it holds the rights to all minerals on all lands — no matter who owns them. But opponents say some Hawaiian home lands conveyed prior to statehood are covered by federal law, which would give the mineral rights to the landowner. It's one of the most complicated issues facing the state and at least one lawsuit has been filed over the matter.

"At the end of the day, the dispute is going to be settled in the courts," said Robbie Lea Kapiolani Cabral, a senior adviser to Innovations Development Group, a local company hoping to develop geothermal energy in Hawaii. While she said that it was her understanding that the mineral rights are assets of the state, if it was determined that DHHL controlled the rights it would be great for Native Hawaiians.

"If it does turn out to be their resource, I think it would be a fabulous resource for them to have," she said.

DHHL is responsible for approximately 200,000 acres of land that was set aside by the federal government as a land trust for Native Hawaiian homesteads, in accordance with the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Responsibility for administering the trust rested with a federal agency until Hawaii statehood in 1959, when the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands assumed the role.

The land is to forever benefit Native Hawaiians, where they may live, farm and engage in commercial or industrial activities.

A final decision about submitting legislation relating to mineral rights has not been made, Crystal Kua, a spokeswoman for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, told Civil Beat.

While the development of Hawaii’s extensive geothermal resources has been at a near standstill for two decades, mainly because of opposition by Native Hawaiians concerned about disturbing sacred areas, there has been a shift in sentiment recently. Local groups, including Native Hawaiians who had been against the development, are now encouraging the state to tap the resource. The renewable energy source could provide greater energy security and cost stability for the state, which relies on imported fossil fuels for 90 percent of its energy needs.

And it could bring millions of dollars to the owner of the resource. A company operating a geothermal project on the Big Island has paid more than $12 million in royalties to the state this past decade.

Hawaiian Electric Co. also recently asked for input from potential developers, landowners and the local community about geothermal development. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands expressed interest, and geothermal companies have been angling for development opportunities.

The push for geothermal energy has raised the issue of control over mineral rights on Hawaiian home lands.

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