Despite fears in coastal communities, a liquefied natural gas terminal proposed in the Santa Barbara Channel would do no harm on shore if it were destroyed in an accident or an act of terrorism, according to an environmental report released Friday.
The 1,200-page draft environmental impact report should reassure local residents, said a spokeswoman for BHP Billiton, the Australian minerals company proposing the massive project.
However, a number of environmental activists suggested the report was tailored to ensure the project’s ultimate approval by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. While reserving judgment on safety issues, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center criticized the $1.5-million effort for failing to thoroughly investigate whether imported LNG is needed in the first place.
The proposed terminal would be at sea 14 miles from the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Tankers from Australia would unload the super-chilled liquid fuel at the terminal, where it would be reconverted into a vapor and pumped through an undersea pipeline into a web of natural-gas lines that already crisscross the state.
Known as Cabrillo Port, the BHP project is one of two liquefied natural gas projects in the Santa Barbara Channel vying for state and federal approval. The other, developed by Crystal Energy of Houston, would turn a dormant oil platform 11 miles offshore into an LNG terminal.
Supporters argue that the projects are safe, technologically advanced methods of bringing a much-needed resource to California. The environmental report only confirms that point of view, said BHP spokeswoman Kathi Hann.
The report concluded that even in the worst circumstances, an ignited vapor cloud would span an area of 1.6 miles around the terminal, less than company scientists had assumed, Hann said. The chance of that occurring would be less than one in 1 million, the report said.
The project’s critics, however, point to a 1977 Oxnard study that forecast an LNG accident producing a 30-mile-wide blanket of flame.
“I don’t know what’s happened in the interim to change that,” said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez. “The laws of physics haven’t changed.”
Skeptical about the environmental report, Lopez described it as “a whitewash.” The city councils in Oxnard and Malibu have voted to oppose both offshore projects. The agencies with direct authority over them are the Coast Guard and the State Lands Commission, which hired the San Francisco consulting firm Ecology and Environment Inc. to prepare the report.
The proposals are to reach Schwarzenegger’s desk next spring.
Spokesmen for environmental groups said the report failed to address some crucial issues.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, arguing that the report did not consider the possibilities of increased conservation and additional reliance on renewable energy sources.
She recalled the urgency expressed by developers who wanted to build a California LNG facility in the wake of the gas shortages of the 1970s.
“By the time the studies were done, it was determined we didn’t need one,” Krop said. “This feels like deja vu.”
In addition to weighing the risks of an accident, the report evaluated the project’s potential effects on fishing, recreation and shipping. It said BHP’s collaboration with the Navy reduced the risk of errant missiles from the testing range at nearby Point Mugu.
While seismic faults lace the region, sophisticated engineering techniques should keep the terminal and its pipelines safe, the report concluded.
Noise from the terminal would be “noticeable” more than three miles away, but it could be muted with advanced equipment, the report said. It also recommended that construction be timed to not disturb migrating whales.
Several public meetings have been set to allow public comment on the draft environmental report, which can be read at www.cabrilloport.ene.com.
They are at Santa Clarita City Hall on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m.; at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center on Nov. 30 at 1 and 6:30 p.m.; and at Malibu’s Webster Elementary School on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.