Long Beach must have seemed the perfect location for a liquefied natural gas terminal when Mitsubishi Corp. unfurled its plans more than two years ago for the $450-million project.
This is not a city that shies from the ugly realities of energy production. Oil pumps still bob in the Los Cerritos marshes, and those palm-dotted islands offshore are really poorly disguised oil derricks.
But despite this port city’s reputation as pro-industry, the proposed LNG terminal has set off a furious debate over safety.
Under pressure from a coalition of LNG critics, the City Council will consider Tuesday whether to cut off talks with a Mitsubishi subsidiary, a move that could doom the terminal.
Slow to react, Long Beach now joins many other towns, from rural Maine to Oregon, where fierce community opposition has ignited as more than 40 terminals have been proposed along the nation’s coasts. With domestic supplies of the gas that fuels stoves, heaters and power plants on the decline, the industry is increasingly looking to import it.
At the center of the debate in Long Beach and nationwide are concerns that an accident or terrorist attack at an urban LNG facility could puncture a massive tanker or storage tank and create a conflagration.
But LNG supporters counter that cities in Europe and Asia have imported liquefied gas for decades without a major release or terminal fire, and they call the current fears overblown.
Tom Giles, who is spearheading the Long Beach project for Tokyo-based Mitsubishi, said many federal and state agencies are scrutinizing safety plans for the proposed terminal.
“No other LNG terminal in the world has ever been looked at more closely,” said Giles, executive vice president of Sound Energy Solutions, the Mitsubishi subsidiary developing the project with ConocoPhillips.
Some Long Beach residents are questioning the wisdom of building the terminal at the Los Angeles-Long Beach seaport complex, the nation’s busiest, less than two miles from the city’s refurbished downtown. A recent federal report stoked their worries, concluding that a tanker fire caused by terrorists could inflict second-degree burns within 30 seconds on people a mile away.
“That politicians at any level of government could consider putting this much risk so close to such dense population is unforgivable,” said Bry Myown, a Long Beach LNG critic and neighborhood activist.
She and other critics say they are dubious of how thoroughly federal agencies will scrutinize the project in view of the Bush administration’s strong support for increasing LNG imports.
They point out that when a California agency, the state Public Utilities Commission, attempted last year to review the Long Beach proposal, federal officials objected, claiming that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has final say in approving onshore LNG terminals.
As mayors and governors in some regions -- notably New England -- have declared war on onshore terminals in urban areas, Long Beach’s elected officials have been slow to take a stand. The mayor postponed a vote last week, saying the council needed more information, irritating scores of opponents at the meeting.
Much of the City Council’s hesitation stems from the city’s historic roots in the oil industry, the port, the military and defense work. In the last two decades, however, oil revenues have ebbed, the Navy has left town and the aerospace industry has collapsed.
In response, Long Beach has built up tourism, expanded its port and redeveloped its downtown, drawing young couples to its tree-shaded neighborhoods and Craftsman bungalows.
But employment remains a hot-button issue. Trade unions, which have considerable sway, support the LNG plant because of the estimated 1,000 construction jobs it could bring to town.
Long Beach, in fact, is a city torn between two identities. It remains a big-shouldered industrial center, unbothered by the towering port cranes and steaming refineries on the horizon. Yet with its rebuilt downtown and spiffed-up waterfront, it is also evolving into a more urbane city, dependent on tourism and white-collar jobs.
The LNG debate has exposed the tensions between those identities.
The specter of a terrorist attack on a terminal tank filled with 160,000 cubic meters of liquefied gas has mobilized many neighborhood groups.
Industry officials say the terminal would be closely guarded, and the Coast Guard would escort tankers in and out of the port.
But public concern about LNG safety has mounted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and an explosion at an Algerian LNG facility last year that killed 27 people and injured scores of others.
A recent report from Sandia National Laboratories, an Energy Department research center, concluded that current laws and safeguards could prevent accidental LNG spills but that protecting it against a terrorist attack would be harder. And Richard A. Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism expert, concluded last month that terrorists could relatively easily attack an urban facility with a high risk of “catastrophic damage.”
That scenario stirs worry and anger even among the Coffee Bean-and-Trader Joe’s crowd in the tony neighborhoods of Belmont Shore and Bixby Knolls, far north and east of the proposed plant site.
Notably, one of the councilmen most critical of the proposal is Frank Colonna, who runs a real estate firm in Belmont Shore and often has voted pro-business and pro-port.
“We have a downtown that’s thriving and continuing to grow, and I’m very concerned that this could cast a pall over that,” Colonna said, “and I’m very concerned about the risk to the population.”
For decades, Long Beach has done heavy lifting for the region by transporting its imports and pumping its fuel, Colonna added. “We sacrificed our shoreline. We sacrificed our water quality, our air and transportation,” he said. “It’s time to draw a line.”
Colonna and two colleagues plan to introduce a motion Tuesday to end negotiations with Mitsubishi over the pipeline to the terminal and over gas sales to the city-owned utility. The nine-member council cannot shut down the terminal plan. That power rests with the port’s five commissioners. But a council vote to end talks would send a powerful message to the commissioners to halt the project.
LNG supporters contend that the council should reserve judgment until state and federal environmental studies are completed in late summer or early fall. Only then will city residents know exactly what risks, if any, the terminal would pose, Giles said. “Who’s going to get hurt waiting for the data? Nobody.”
Mitsubishi has had extensive talks with the Coast Guard and fire officials about security precautions, said Sound Energy Solutions spokesman Jeffrey Adler. “The goal is to make this secure and safe, absolutely,” he said.
Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga wants the council to wait for the studies; for that reason, she plans to introduce a motion with Councilman Val Lerch on Tuesday.
Her district includes lower-income areas near the port in western Long Beach, where air pollution from diesel-fueled ships and trucks has been blamed for respiratory illnesses, including asthma.
Reyes Uranga said she was intrigued by the prospect of LNG as a cleaner-burning vehicle fuel. “The hysteria has gotten a little out of control in terms of the safety issue,” she said. “Right now, the relief we need is from diesel emissions. We can’t breathe.” She said she also likes the possibility of hundreds of high-paying construction jobs.
But others on the council say the potential risks are too great.
“The jobs are here for three years, and the residents are here for 33 years and we have to look at the bigger picture,” said Councilwoman Rae Gabelich.
At a recent City Council meeting, about 170 critics and supporters spilled out of the council chambers, standing in stairwells and in the lobby.
“I’m all for people working, but I think this particular facility is too dangerous,” said resident Ellen Butler, 60, a retired teacher.
Sewnet Mamo, a public health doctoral student and 10-year Long Beach resident, added, “Any accident could happen. And nowadays, with terrorist attacks, we’ve very vulnerable.”
But the LNG terminal has its defenders, including Dave San Jose, 64, a lifelong Long Beach resident. “It needs to go somewhere, somehow. I can’t think of a better location to put it,” San Jose said. “I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than refineries.”
The debate mirrored others that have erupted in coastal cities on the East and West coasts in the last two years, as interest has grown in importing natural gas in liquid form from overseas.
LNG is natural gas, primarily methane, that shrinks dramatically in volume when chilled so that it can be carried by tanker from gas fields in countries that include Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.
More than 40 terminals worldwide are operating today. But there are only five import terminals on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts and none on the West Coast.
Now, four terminals have been proposed for the California coast alone -- the onshore Long Beach plant, two off the Ventura County coast and one off the coast of Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County.
The Long Beach proposal attracted virtually no public attention in May 2003, when the city-owned port gave Mitsubishi exclusive rights for three years to pursue the project.
Plans call for a terminal with the capacity to handle nearly 5 million tons of LNG per year. Tankers the length of three football fields would arrive every three days, delivering LNG to be stored in two 160,000-cubic-meter tanks and then “re-gasified” and moved inland by pipeline.
To sell their project, Mitsubishi representatives have met with more than 200 groups and individuals in Long Beach over the last six months, Giles said, “and the longer you talk about it, the more comfortable they get.”
He said he was mystified about why the City Council would want to end talks now. “Don’t the people of Long Beach,” he asked, “have a right to cleaner air and cheaper gas?”
But LNG critic Bill Powers, who works with an organization called Border Power Plants Working Group, said the port is “a terrible place” for a terminal, adding, “Sticking an LNG facility in Long Beach Harbor presumes that nothing will ever go wrong.”
Times staff writer Tonya Alanez contributed to this report.