To its supporters, the energy terminal planned for the Long Beach seaport would provide not only a reliable supply of liquefied natural gas, but relief for residents breathing some of the most unhealthful air in the country.
Yet the promise of cleaner air pales for some in the face of predictions that a worst-case liquefied natural gas accident could send highly flammable fumes spewing into downtown Long Beach and nearby neighborhoods.
A Mitsubishi Corp. subsidiary on Monday applied for federal and state permission to build the $400-million import facility, launching a formal review that the company hopes could allow construction to start in a year.
If local, state and federal approvals are secured, the first tanker carrying LNG, a highly chilled and condensed form of natural gas, could sail into San Pedro Bay by early 2008.Whether the West Coast's first LNG terminal would be a boon or a curse -- or both -- poses one of the most tangled energy questions to emerge in the Los Angeles region. Vehicles that burn cancer-causing diesel fuel could be replaced with those burning cleaner LNG, air quality experts say, and one of the area's biggest air pollution threats could be reduced.
Only four LNG terminals operate in the United States today, but a burst of interest in the moneymaking potential of LNG imports has touched off plans for 31 plants from Long Beach to Maine.
Although the LNG industry has what experts call a relatively safe record, some plans are creating a stir.
The governor of Alabama vowed this month to block an LNG terminal planned for Mobile Bay unless an independent study proves that it would be safe. The Bay Area city of Vallejo helped defeat an LNG plant a year ago when a study raised significant safety concerns.
Residents of tiny Harpswell, Maine, will vote March 9 on whether to allow an LNG terminal on their coast. And in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has attempted to block LNG tankers from moving through Boston Harbor to reach one of the nation's oldest LNG terminals in nearby Everett.
Just last week, an explosion at an Algerian LNG plant killed at least 27 people and injured 74 others. That plant performs a different purpose -- it chills natural gas into a liquid, while plants here turn it into a gaseous form again -- but U.S. officials are investigating the accident to make sure similar problems will not occur here.
Proponents of the Long Beach project say that they are unfazed by opposition in other cities or by local criticism raised in recent weeks.
"This is going to be the safest LNG receiving terminal in the world," said Tom Giles, head of Sound Energy Solutions, the Mitsubishi subsidiary. In an interview last week, he and James P. Lewis, an LNG safety expert working for the subsidiary, described plans for shielding massive LNG storage tanks with double walls -- one built of concrete and the other of nickel-reinforced metal -- to ensure that no gas can escape.
What makes LNG most attractive to importers is that it packs well.
Natural gas is chilled at minus 260 degrees, turning it into a clear, odorless liquid that takes up a tiny faction of the space of gas. When warmed and returned to gaseous form, it is used just like natural gas transported in pipes for warming homes, cooking meals and drying clothes.
"It's wonderful. We need the gas," said Ronald Koopman, a retired scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who spent 11 years testing LNG safety.
But Koopman also warned that a terminal should not be located within two or three miles of a populated area. In Long Beach, such tourist meccas as the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific are less than two miles downwind from the proposed site. So is the Long Beach Convention Center and an ambitious new restaurant and theater complex known as the Pike.
The Long Beach proposal is the furthest along of four LNG import plants proposed for California, and the only one in a highly populated area. A proposal for Humboldt Bay in Eureka is roiling some residents. Two offshore plants proposed along the Ventura County coast would convert the LNG back to gas form and ship it to the mainland via pipelines.
The LNG proposal for Long Beach illustrates the economic and social crossroads reached by the city, which suffered mightily in the early 1990s when the U.S. Navy left town and the aerospace industry fizzled.
The city's downtown is trying to remake itself with the Pike, posh restaurants along Pine Street and 3,000 to 4,000 downtown residential units for upscale clientele. At the same time, the mushrooming port complex has produced new jobs -- albeit with increased air pollution and truck traffic.
It may also provide cheaper gas prices to city residents and small businesses, who buy their gas from the city-owned gas company, Long Beach Energy. The city is negotiating with Mitsubishi in hopes of ensuring discounted gas.