IT’S EASY TO UNDERSTAND why many Long Beach residents aren’t thrilled about the idea of a liquefied natural gas terminal being built at the port. A report last year by Sandia National Laboratories found that a terrorist attack on a tanker delivering LNG to such a terminal could produce an explosion that would burn skin and damage buildings nearly a mile away.
Then again, it’s easy to understand why many other Long Beach residents aren’t too concerned. Another study, this one performed by Quest Consultants Inc. and inserted into the draft environmental study for the proposed terminal, found that the burn zone from a blast at the plant would only go a short way past the boundaries of the terminal’s property, while a tanker leak would be unlikely to cause serious damage on shore.
So maybe that’s the definitive answer. Except ... testimony from an expert hired by the California Public Utilities Commission suggested that a tanker spill could kill or cause second-degree burns up to three miles away. Downtown Long Beach is two miles from the proposed terminal.
The size of the blast is just one of the unknowns. What degree of heat is acceptable at what distance? What are the odds of a terrorist attack or catastrophic accident? Such questions make it easy simply to dismiss the Long Beach terminal as too risky. But there is too much riding on the decision for that. Instead, Californians have a right to demand better answers.
LNG is formed when natural gas is cooled to 260 degrees below zero. In liquid form, it can be shipped from overseas. There are only a handful of LNG terminals in the U.S., none of them on the West Coast. Rising fuel prices and demand make importing more natural gas an economic necessity; natural gas is also a much cleaner fuel than coal or petroleum, so more imports are environmentally desirable as well.
There are four proposals for LNG terminals in California, three of them involving offshore platforms that avoid the public safety risks of the one in Long Beach. But the other three -- one of which is all but dead -- are farther from existing pipelines.
California certainly doesn’t need four LNG terminals. But it does need at least one. Questions about the safety hazards of a Long Beach plant are vital in assessing which is the best choice. The final version of the project’s environmental study is supposed to address public comment, so our comment is: Give us more answers about safety and reconcile the various studies on explosions or explain why they’re so different.