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Plan for Natural Gas Terminal Raises Concern

Activists and Oxnard residents fear explosions and spills at the offshore facility. Project officials say there would be 'very little, if any' damage.

August 16, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs and Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writers

Environmentalists and Oxnard area residents expressed concern Friday about the latest proposal to construct a liquefied natural gas terminal off the Ventura County coast, saying the project could result in explosions, spills and damage to wildlife.

BHP Billiton, an Australian-based energy company, wants to build a floating terminal about 20 miles from shore to receive liquefied natural gas that would be processed and shipped to California customers, primarily electric-generating plants.

The $500-million project, named Cabrillo Port, would store up to 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas in three domed tanks on a barge moored to the ocean floor. The liquefied gas would be converted to vapor through a heat exchange system and transported by an undersea pipeline to a local gas utility's pipeline near Ormond Beach, officials said.

"I want to know exactly what they're going to do that might affect the environment," said Nancy Pedersen of Oxnard, a member of a group of residents who fought a natural gas terminal proposed last year by Occidental Petroleum. "We're in the process of restoring the Ormond Beach wetlands; so where exactly are they planning to come ashore?"

The activists are set to meet Monday with county Supervisor John Flynn to discuss the issue.

The BHP proposal comes just months after Crystal Energy in Houston proposed converting an aging oil platform 11 miles off the Oxnard shore into a similar processing facility.

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who chairs the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee, said a comprehensive analysis of the safety and environmental issues involved with such a project was crucial.

"We want to consider all the factors in something like this: its impacts on shipping, its effects on the ecosystems," Jackson said. "I'm always concerned that the more shipping we have, there is a greater likelihood for spills, emissions or unintended discharges."

Steve Meheen, project manager for BHP, said Cabrillo Port would have to comply with the provisions of the recently enacted Maritime Security Act, including special security measures and inspections of the two to three ships expected to call at the facility each week.

Unlike crude oil spills that spread for miles and kill birds, fish and other sea life, Meheen said natural gas transportation, which has had fewer mishaps, was also less harmful to the environment.

If one of the storage tanks were to have a catastrophic failure and plunge into the ocean, there would be "very little, if any" damage to marine life as a result, Meheen said. The natural gas would rise to the surface and evaporate quickly, without spreading.

"That whole spill would be off the water in less than six hours," he said. "It doesn't stay there, it doesn't produce a film and it doesn't leave a residue."

Some say the environmental benefits of using cleaner fuel sources greatly outweigh the potential negative effects of a natural gas terminal.

Todd Campbell, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air in Los Angeles, said using natural gas would contribute to cleaner air and a reduction in natural gas prices and create an incentive for companies to expand use of natural gas-powered vehicles.

Campbell said his organization has asked tough questions of the various companies proposing these ideas and was satisfied that the odds of some sort of chemical contamination or even an explosion were unlikely.

"Folks either don't understand the chemistry that's involved or just don't want anything out there," he said.

Officials at Crystal Energy said that they would do their best to dispel public misconceptions concerning such operations.

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