In a move that virtually assures funding for a multimillion-dollar restoration project at Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad, the California Coastal Commission gave the go-ahead Thursday for construction of a pipeline from Los Angeles to Texas.
Long Beach-based Pacific Texas Pipeline Co. will be allowed to proceed with the $1.66-billion oil pipeline project on the condition that it pay for enhancement of the lagoon to offset environmental damage the pipeline is expected to cause in Los Angeles Harbor.
Meeting in San Francisco, the commission voted 11-1 to give the green light for the pipeline if Pacific Texas puts money for the lagoon restoration into an escrow account for use in the future.
Traditionally, developers are required to begin such mitigation work before their projects go forward. But the Batiquitos restoration has been held up by local political conflicts, so Pacific Texas officials sought to provide the money but break ties with work at the lagoon.
Although Pacific Texas officials were allowed to begin construction of the pipeline, the firm had to make concessions. Most significantly, the commission ordered the company to provide $20 million for the restoration job, well in excess of the $15 million originally proposed.
The extra money pleased Carlsbad officials, but they were troubled by the commission's insistence on placing an 18-month deadline for work on the lagoon to begin.
"When you're dealing with so many agencies, it takes a while to get something like this going," Councilwoman Ann Kulchin said after the meeting. "I guess it's up to us now to get off our duffers and do something about it."
Mayor-elect Claude (Buddy) Lewis agreed: "We'll just have to make sure we accomplish something within the commission's timetable."
Nonetheless, the commission's ruling eased some of the pressure on state and local officials to settle a dispute that had threatened to sink both the pipeline project and the lagoon restoration.
In recent months, the various state and local agencies involved in the Batiquitos project have been engaged in a bureaucratic tug-of-war with the billionaire Hunt brothers of Dallas, who own about two-thirds of the lagoon.
State officials say the land must be publicly owned before the restoration work can begin. But officials with Hunt Properties Inc. say they will relinquish their lagoon lands only when Carlsbad and the Coastal Commission grant final approval for their 1,000-acre resort and housing project planned for the north shore of Batiquitos.
Pacific Texas officials were growing concerned because the coastal commission staff continued to insist that the Batiquitos project go forward at the same time as the pipeline project.
As Pacific Texas officials tell it, the glitches over the lagoon restoration threatened to delay the start of construction on the pipeline to such an extent that the entire deal might be torpedoed.
Eager to distance themselves from the ups and downs of the lagoon project, Pacific Texas officials proposed putting money for the restoration work into an account before construction of the pipeline so the state could move ahead with restoration of the lagoon at its own speed.
On Thursday, after a lengthy hearing, the commission agreed. The commission gave the project the go-ahead, however, only after Pacific Texas President Cecil Owens agreed to have the firm increase its payment for the lagoon work by $5 million, a concession the company's leader seemed more than willing to make to get the pipeline started.
Despite their enthusiasm over the $20 million, Carlsbad officials said they fear troubles with the Hunts could jeopardize the lagoon project. At that point, the coastal commission might decide to seize the $20 million and spend it on another wetlands enhancement project elsewhere in the state.
If such a roadblock should occur, Carlsbad leaders have said, they are willing to begin condemnation proceedings to acquire the Hunts' land in time to get the project going.