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Environmental Report on Gas Plant Sparks Heated Debate

Times Staff Writer

Opponents of a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Long Beach lambasted a newly released environmental review at a public hearing Monday, calling the project too dangerous to build near the center of the region’s second-largest city.

But union representatives and other project supporters contended that such safety concerns are exaggerated. And others called the plant a source of cleaner-burning fuel that would help combat air pollution.

More than 150 people attended the first of four public hearings on the project’s draft federal and state environmental impact report. A total of 36 people spoke, divided almost evenly between supporters and critics.

The $450-million liquefied natural gas terminal has been proposed by a Mitsubishi Corp. subsidiary and ConocoPhillips for a pier at the Port of Long Beach, less than two miles west of the city’s newly gentrified downtown and tourist attractions such as the Queen Mary.

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The terminal would handle annual imports of nearly 5 million tons of LNG, which would be delivered every three days in tankers the length of three football fields. The liquefied gas would be stored in two 160,000-cubic-meter tanks and piped inland in gaseous form to heat homes and for other uses.

LNG is natural gas consisting largely of methane that is chilled so that its volume is reduced. It is transported by tanker from gas fields in Australia, Indonesia, Algeria and other countries.

Mitsubishi struck a deal with the Long Beach port in June 2003 for exclusive three-year rights to develop the project.

The project has deeply divided Long Beach residents. Some favor it as a source of fuel and jobs while others fear it would pose too great a risk to residents, seaports and tourism.

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On Monday, critics said they fear that the terminal would create a vulnerable target for terrorists within the Los Angeles-Long Beach seaport complex, the nation’s largest.

Terrorists could wreak havoc with U.S. trade if they were to aim an airliner at the LNG terminal and create a catastrophic fire, Long Beach attorney William McKinnon said. “Basically, we’re talking about a knife in the heart of the American economy,” he said.

But some backers said that an LNG terminal could help reduce the region’s dependence on trucks burning diesel fuel, which create cancer-causing emissions. Dr. James Baker, a Harbor-UCLA Medical Center pathologist, said he supports the terminal for that reason.

The project also caused a deep rift within the City Council, which voted 5 to 4 in June to continue talks with Tokyo-based Mitsubishi and ConocoPhillips despite opposition from residents of west Long Beach, where the terminal would be located. The terminal is expected to be one of the dominant issues in what are shaping up to be hotly contested April 2006 mayoral and council elections.

The controversy in Long Beach is being echoed in some other U.S. coastal cities where LNG terminals have been proposed, reflecting a surge of interest nationally in importing natural gas from overseas.

Although four plants have been proposed for the California coast, the two considered most likely to be built are the on-shore Long Beach project and one proposed by BHP Billiton, an Australian firm, 14 miles off the Ventura County coast.

A final environmental report on the proposed Long Beach plant is to be done by spring.


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