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Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Predicted

Facilities are safe and are needed to meet energy demands, PUC chief tells an Oxnard forum.

March 13, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

The first liquefied natural gas plant in California will likely become a reality in a few years as utility companies look for ways to meet a growing demand for energy while keeping costs down, the president of the state Public Utilities Commission said Friday.

Although critics warn that such terminals, where liquefied gas is converted back to vapor form, could pose safety and environmental hazards, PUC President Michael Peevey said during an energy forum in Oxnard that he believed the processing plants were safe.

"We do need a facility," Peevey said. "We know that they're safe. They've been in operation at 45 facilities around the world for well over 30 years, and there's never been an incident at any of those places worldwide."

Four projects proposed along the California coast are in various stages of review by federal and state regulators: Two are in the ocean off Oxnard and Malibu, one is onshore in Long Beach and another is onshore in Humboldt County.

Peevey said he was not taking sides on which one should be built. The PUC is squabbling with federal regulators over who would have authority over the Long Beach terminal, which is being proposed by a Mitsubishi subsidiary.

The commission does not have jurisdiction over the offshore sites, which must be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and the State Lands Commission.

But Lee Quaintance, director of the Ventura County environmental group the Beacon Foundation, said utility companies were trying to "steamroll" the projects through the review process without adequate time for public analysis.

"Putting them offshore is an unusual method that proponents say will make it safer, but it could also make it riskier," Quaintance said. "They want to put them in an environmentally sensitive area, where there is a marine sanctuary, a bird migration flyway and a national park. We're talking about a very complicated and sophisticated proposal that requires careful analysis." Peevey said the projects would be allowed to move forward only after rigorous scrutiny by experts regarding safety and terrorism concerns, environmental standards and infrastructure costs.

"This is similar to the debate that used to go on with nuclear power plants," Peevey told the business and utility company representatives at the forum.

"Should we be siting these facilities in urban areas or only at remote sites? That is why there has been a great deal of interest in California. These are tough issues to sort out."

Increasing demand and rising prices are behind the call for more liquefied natural gas plants, with 31 proposals vying for approval nationwide and four off Baja California.

Natural gas -- which fuels most California power plants and heats many homes -- takes up 600 times less space when it is turned from a vapor into a liquid. The gas is converted to liquid by chilling it to minus 259 degrees Fahrenheit.

Houston-based Crystal Energy proposes spending $300 million to convert an old oil platform 11 miles off the coast of Oxnard into a liquefied natural gas terminal, where supertankers from Alaska would unload their shipment.

The terminal aboard Platform Grace would convert the chilled fluid back into gaseous form, shooting the vapor through a pipeline that would hit land at Reliant Energy's Mandalay power plant in Oxnard and proceed several miles to gas lines inland.

An Australian minerals company wants to build a similar plant 21 miles off Oxnard on a new floating platform that would be anchored to the seabed.

Its undersea pipeline would connect with existing lines at Reliant's plant at Ormond Beach.

Developer BHP Billiton would spend about $500 million on construction before shipping natural gas from its reserves in Australia.

BHP will hold an open house and informational meetings on its proposal Monday at noon and at 6:30 p.m. at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, 800 Hobson Way; and Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Malibu High School auditorium, 30215 Morning View Drive.

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