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State Officials Tour LNG Sites With Energy Execs

August 02, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Top Schwarzenegger administration officials have come under attack from environmental and community leaders for taking an 11-day tour of Australia and Asia in the company of oil industry executives who want to build lucrative -- and controversial -- gas terminals along the California coast.

At a time when the state is grappling with complex decisions about whether to import liquefied natural gas, three cabinet secretaries visited LNG facilities in the July trip paid for by a foundation supported by the energy industry.

Their itinerary included meals, receptions and briefings with top energy executives and Australian and South Korean government officials, but no meetings with overseas environmental groups. The 14-member delegation included executives from BHP Billiton, Calpine, ChevronTexaco, Sempra Energy, Shell and Southern California Edison, along with one representative of a California environmental group.

LNG has been an important fuel for decades in Asia, but only in the last few years have energy companies seriously explored importing it to the West Coast, causing consternation among residents who fear that such terminals could pose safety and security risks.

The LNG tour guest list included state Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman, Cal/EPA Secretary Terry Tamminen; Cabinet Secretary Marybel Batjer, representing the governor; and Joseph F. Desmond, deputy resources secretary for energy.

The trip included a stay at the Four Seasons hotel in Sydney, Australia, a yacht tour of Sydney Harbor and, for some, a trip to the Korean demilitarized zone.

Among the sites visited were the Kogas Inchon LNG terminal in South Korea, and Barrow Island, a nature reserve known as "Australia's ark." The island is the proposed site of a much-debated LNG undertaking known as the Gorgon Project.

Although critics dismissed the trip as a junket, several who took part said it involved grueling travel, 4 a.m. wake-up calls and late-night sessions. Chrisman called it an opportunity to visit state-of-the-art LNG facilities and to learn from the companies that run them and governments that oversee them. There are four LNG terminals in the United States, none in California.

"It's important to put the trip in context," Chrisman said. "It was a great primer. Talking to the people who handle this on a daily basis -- it was very helpful."

Just days before leaving for Asia, Chrisman and Tamminen met with a number of LNG critics who had asked for the chance to raise concerns about LNG projects around the state. The 90-minute meeting took place in Sacramento.

Some of those critics, however, say the trip provided the oil companies 11 days of close contact with the very officials who will help decide the future of their projects.

"It's just unbelievable access," said Bill Powers, chairman of the Border Power Plant Working Group, a nonprofit group that addresses energy and environmental issues along the U.S.-Mexican border. "I can't imagine that the state hierarchy wasn't aware that it was going to cause some heartburn if this became public."

The trip was organized by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that plans conferences and tours intended to address major issues facing the state.

The foundation board is made up largely of corporate members, along with some government, labor and environmental representatives. It is funded primarily by an array of California corporations.

The foundation's president, Patrick F. Mason, a former AFL-CIO research economist, said the group brings together diverse members to try to resolve policy questions.

"We reach out for a variety of points of view," he said. Mason estimated that the LNG tour cost $7,000 to $8,000 per person.

The state Political Reform Act allows public officials to accept a gift of transportation from a nonprofit foundation, exempt from gift limits, as long as the travel is related to government purpose or an issue of public policy. Both the foundation and the official must report the gift.

Nonetheless, one ethics expert said the LNG trip poses some knotty issues.

"If the government did not feel it was important enough to pay for it, then they shouldn't have gone," said Robert Stern, a coauthor of the Political Reform Act and president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based research group.

Even though a nonprofit group sponsored the trip, he said, "This was not the Red Cross taking them. It appears that special interests are getting special access. And things were supposed to be different under the Schwarzenegger administration."

Douglas Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, agreed. "If this was an important policy trip," he said, "the governor should have had the state pay for it, and they didn't need to stay at the Four Seasons hotel."

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