Coastal panel rejects natural gas terminal

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Times Staff Writer

In another blow to a huge natural gas terminal proposed off Southern California, a state commission rejected the project Thursday after concluding that it posed an unacceptable risk to the coast between Malibu and Ventura.

The California Coastal Commission unanimously decided that the project failed to meet rigorous coastal protection standards.

The commissioners concluded that the processing plant -- proposed to be moored about 20 miles off Malibu -- would damage marine mammals, ocean views and birds near Channel Islands National Park, and contribute to smog and global warming.


Further, the commissioners, echoing concerns of coastal residents, sharply criticized the company proposing the project, Australia energy and mining giant BHP Billiton.

“If we don’t feel that BHP has its heart in this, and you look at it as merely profit, it’s not in our coast’s best interest to have the project,” said Commissioner Ben Hueso, a San Diego councilman.

But the decision is expected to be challenged. BHP Billiton officials said they would consider their next move over the next few days. The company has 30 days to appeal to U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

The day before the hearing, BHP Billiton tried to prevent the commission from reviewing the project and also urged the federal Maritime Administration to halt an ongoing federal review of the project.

“California needs natural gas to meet its future energy and environmental needs. Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel,” Renee Klimczak, president of BHP Billiton LNG International Inc., told the commission.

Despite the company’s request, the commission proceeded with the hearing because the company’s federal application to build the plant remains valid.


Further, a decision on the project cannot be delayed because a key hearing last week before the U.S. Coast Guard triggered a clock under which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must render a decision on the terminal by May 21.

About 500 people attended the all-day hearing Thursday in Santa Barbara. It was the third hearing on the project in the last eight days.

The company seeks to build an $800-million offshore plant that would process about 800 million cubic feet of liquefied natural gas daily. Tankers would bring the super-chilled fuel from Australia and possibly Asia. The fuel would then be processed on the floating factory before being shipped to Oxnard.

But the Coastal Commission’s 12-0 decision was a major blow to the plan. It is the second time in four days that a state agency has rejected the project.

On Monday, the California Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over the pipelines, concluded that the environmental impact report was seriously flawed and refused to issue the company a lease. That decision cannot be challenged, except in court, and the governor cannot overturn it.

The company has spent nearly four years and tens of millions of dollars on studies and lobbying to build its project, called Cabrillo Port, which would be 14 miles offshore from the point where Ventura and Los Angeles counties meet.


During three key public hearings since last Thursday, hundreds of opponents -- from students to biologists to movie stars -- blasted the proposal.

The coastal commissioners overwhelmingly challenged the need for the natural gas terminal and ripped the 3,000-page environmental impact report on which it is based.

Commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu called the environmental review “highly deficient” and said the project would imperil migratory whales, marine birds and other sea life. She said underwater noise from the project would exceed 120 decibels for 390 square miles. She said the company failed to identify ways to prevent whales from being struck by ships and said there was “no mitigation, period” to protect endangered birds from bright lights.

Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said the company had failed to demonstrate “maximum feasible” controls to reduce greenhouse gases from its project.

Coastal Commission staff had requested that the company use natural gas to power its 11 Cabrillo Port ships across the Pacific Ocean, but the company had refused.

The commission staff estimated that the project would produce the equivalent of 23 million tons of carbon dioxide per year -- 40% of the amount emitted by New York City. It is the first time the Coastal Commission has examined global-warming gases when considering a project.


Many commissioners worried that the project would emit too much air pollution. Cabrillo Port and its vessels would release about 219 tons of smog-forming emissions annually upwind of Los Angeles and Ventura counties -- two of the smoggiest places in the nation. The commission’s staff contended that the company failed to adequately control emissions and instead won an exemption from the Clean Air Act that allowed it to skirt stringent measures that businesses ashore must meet.

Actor Pierce Brosnan, a Malibu resident, said public comments and votes by the regulatory agencies were sending a message to the governor.

“The Lands Commission has spoken, the Coastal Commission has spoken, and the public has spoken. It’s time for the governor to listen and say goodbye to LNG and send [Billiton] home,” Brosnan said.

Klimczak on Thursday said the company needed more time to digest the week’s events and plan its next steps.

“We appreciate the commission’s comments today, and we are continuing to review our options at this time,” Klimczak said.