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Report details risks of gas project

Times Staff Writer

A comprehensive study released Friday on a natural gas processing plant that would be built in the ocean about 20 miles from Malibu concludes that the project poses substantial environmental and safety concerns for the California coast.

BHP Billiton, one of the largest energy companies in the world, wants its $800-million terminal to become the portal through which California receives natural gas from Australia. The Bush administration has endorsed offshore gas terminals, as have many business leaders. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- expected to have final say over the proposal by summer -- has given the project qualified support.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 14, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Natural gas plant: An article in Saturday’s California section about a liquefied natural gas processing plant that would be built off the coast near Malibu incorrectly said the terminal and its ships would emit about 219 tons of ozone-forming emissions and 35 tons of smoke and soot daily. Those are annual figures.

With several regulatory hearings on the project set to begin, the report says the terminal would significantly affect air quality, ocean views and marine life. It also concludes that an accident could affect ships heading to or departing from the nation’s busiest port complex, at Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.

The findings are contained in a 3,000-page final environmental impact report prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard, California State Lands Commission and U.S. Maritime Administration. The document will play a key role in a series of hearings over the next 70 days that will determine whether the facility will be the first liquefied natural gas terminal built on the West Coast.

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Environmentalists and local officials have vigorously opposed the project and say the findings prove it should be scrapped. They say they will urge Schwarzenegger to reject it and will ask California lawmakers to work for its defeat.

“It still has many problems,” said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network. And because of that, she said, “this project should be denied.”

But BHP Billiton officials say their project, Cabrillo Port, is good for California. They say that it would provide energy to boost the state’s economy and that natural gas is the least-polluting fossil fuel available.

“Cabrillo Port will be built to the highest public safety and environmental standards and will provide clean, safe, reliable energy to meet Ventura County’s and California’s ever-growing energy needs,” said Renee Klimczak, president of BHP Billiton LNG International Inc.

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The terminal would consist of a 971-foot-long gas-processing vessel moored 14 miles offshore between Malibu and Port Hueneme and connected to the mainland by underwater pipes. It would process about 800 million cubic feet of natural gas daily for use in homes, factories and power plants. The gas would be pumped from fields overseas, chilled and shipped in tankers across the ocean, then heated to become vapor again for use in California.

But the terminal and its ships would emit about 219 tons of ozone-forming emissions and 35 tons of smoke and soot daily -- ranking it as one of the biggest air pollution sources for Ventura County. Southern California air quality officials have expressed concerns that the project could add to pollution in the Los Angeles region.

To reduce air pollution, the company has agreed to use advanced technology at the floating processing plant, power the tankers and tugboats with clean-burning fuels and offset the remaining emissions by cleaning up two other tugboats that push barges up and down the California coast.

“BHP Billiton is proposing extensive mitigation that will result in an improvement to the region’s air quality,” Klimczak said.

But the environmental document concludes that the company, working with the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has failed to show it can reduce emissions to an insignificant level.

Air pollution has been a contentious issue surrounding the project. The EPA initially required that the company reduce more than its share of emissions, but the agency reversed itself in June 2005 without explanation after BHP Billiton officials lobbied the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining. Since then, the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District has told the EPA that the project must meet the original rigorous cleanup standards, the same limits that would apply if the project were built on land.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is investigating the matter. In a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson on Monday, he charged that EPA political appointees in Washington overruled the EPA staff in San Francisco, which had insisted on stringent emissions controls for the project.

On Friday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) wrote to Johnson demanding a full accounting of the EPA reversal as well as documents that they say the agency has been unwilling to provide to Waxman.

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On other issues, the report identifies a hazard from possible explosion and fire. If another vessel crashed into the terminal at high speed -- an event the study deems improbable -- liquefied natural gas would probably spill into the ocean beyond a 1,640-foot safety zone.

A safety study conducted by Sandia National Laboratories concluded that, in a worst-case scenario, an attack on the terminal could rupture two of the three natural gas holding tanks, releasing about 200,000 cubic meters of fuel. It would unleash a powerful and spectacular fireball across the water, spreading more than seven miles and damaging any recreational boaters or ships navigating the nearby Santa Barbara Channel. But the explosion would end 6.6 miles from land, causing no damage to people onshore, the study found.

The report also says the risk of such a catastrophe is slight. The company plans to patrol waters around the terminal and employ safety training and equipment. In the 40 years that the liquefied natural gas industry has been operating, fewer than 20 marine accidents have occurred worldwide, and none resulted in a significant release of natural gas, the report says.

The report also identifies noise as a serious problem that would be noticeable to boaters within three miles of the terminal and loud enough to interfere with personal conversations within about half a mile. Noise from construction and operation of the facility -- including helicopters, ships and machinery -- could affect marine mammals. The report calls for greater use of sound-reducing technologies and changes in operations during gray whale migrations.

The document also says the plant could be an eyesore for boaters, whale watchers and visitors to nearby Channel Islands National Park. At night, lights from the operation would be visible from homes in Malibu. The study says the project would “cause a long-term significant adverse change in the visual character of the open ocean.”

The study concludes that although many of the impacts can be mitigated, a number “would remain significant and unavoidable.”

Energy development along the Southern California coast has been controversial, especially since the 1969 Union Oil Co. petroleum spill that fouled Santa Barbara beaches and was a catalyst for the environmental movement of the 1970s.

Nevertheless, President Bush, Schwarzenegger and energy industry leaders endorse importing natural gas to diversify energy sources and meet demand. Growth in California adds about 550,000 residents annually.

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Completion of the environmental report triggers a series of regulatory hearings mandated under the Deepwater Port Act that will determine the fate of the project.

The State Lands Commission will hold a hearing on the matter April 9, and the California Coastal Commission will review the project at its April 10-13 meeting in Santa Barbara. On April 4, the Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration will hold a public hearing at the Performing Arts Center in Oxnard. That hearing starts a countdown of 45 days, by the end of which Schwarzenegger is required to render a decision on the project.

The governor has said he will not take an official position until reviews are complete, but in 2005 he expressed a “personal preference” for the project. Schwarzenegger once met with Australian Prime Minister John Howard -- the land down under stands to earn $15 billion if the project is approved -- to discuss the proposal. And members of the governor’s Cabinet took an 11-day energy tour of Australia and Asia in 2004 paid by a foundation supported by the energy industry. BHP Billiton spent $1.8 million in California lobbying for its project last year -- the seventh-highest expenditure among special-interest groups, according to the secretary of state.

A copy of the environmental impact report can be found at www.cabrilloport.ene.com.

gary.polakovic@latimes.com


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