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Energy-Permit Plan Opposed

Community groups fear that projects would be pushed through without adequate scrutiny.

March 24, 2004|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Community groups are fighting a proposal that could make it easier for energy companies to get approval to build oil storage tanks, pipelines and other projects -- setting the stage for another conflict between environmental and safety concerns and California's urgent need to boost its gasoline supplies.

The concept of streamlining the permitting process dates to 2000 and is one of several recommendations included in the state energy policy report recently submitted to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by the California Energy Commission. Two bills supporting the plan have been introduced in the state Assembly, and public hearings are scheduled to discuss the plan.

State officials, energy experts and the oil industry say simplifying California's lengthy and complex permit-review system could help speed badly needed expansion of fuel production and storage facilities. That could help ease the supply crunch that has left California drivers vulnerable to sharp price increases for gasoline.

Opponents, however, fear the plan would bypass local authorities and push controversial projects through without adequate public scrutiny.

Jesse Marquez, executive director of the 300-member Wilmington Coalition for a Safe Environment, is leading a loose coalition of environmental and community groups that opposes the energy commission's proposal and has been active in vetting permit requests involving nearby refineries.

"Right now we can go to our local planning commission, our local city council," said Marquez, who plans to voice his concerns at a commission public hearing tonight at Banning's Landing Community Center in Wilmington. If the review process were centralized, he said, "we would have to go to Sacramento and fight the petroleum industry and their lobbyists."

Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director of the state energy commission, said, "The whole point of these meetings is to hear what people have to say.... Is it a good idea? Is it a bad idea?"

"No one's trying to cut anybody out of the process," said Keith Richman (R-Northridge), who is sponsoring a bill that would seek recommendations from the energy commission on ways to streamline permitting for petroleum infrastructure projects.

But, he added, "It's very easy to oppose things. It's much harder to solve a problem.... All the people who drive in California have a problem, and that problem is that we don't have enough [gasoline] supply to meet demand."

A separate bill introduced by Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) would require the commission to speed up its certification process for oil industry projects.

Over the years, various studies have underscored the increasingly precarious balance between California's gasoline supply -- almost all of which is produced by 13 refineries located in the state -- and the growing demand from its motorists. One problem that has come to light is a shortage of fuel storage tanks that can hold extra supplies and help handle imports.

Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, a major pipeline company, has proposed building 18 to 20 new storage tanks at its Carson facility, where it already has 55 tanks capable of holding 4 million barrels of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel. Initial plans call for 10 tanks with 800,000 barrels of storage capacity.

Surrounding communities have strenuously objected, raising worries about the safety of the fuel storage and added air pollution from the new tanks. The oil industry, however, says the Carson project would provide storage space for fuel imports, helping to ease the state's gas crunch.

"We just want to have the chance to build something," said Joseph Sparano, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn.

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