The federal agency that will decide if a liquefied natural gas terminal should be built in Long Beach has denied California officials access to key safety documents the agency used to determine that the project would not endanger the public.
The state Energy Commission, assigned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to review the project, has been seeking the records as it prepares its critique of the project's environmental impact report before Thursday's deadline for comment.
State officials are concerned that a fire at the proposed gas terminal could be catastrophic.
Regulators in Washington, D.C., say that, for security reasons, state officials cannot see the documents unless they sign a non-disclosure agreement.
But state Energy Commission officials refused, saying that would prevent them from sharing the safety information with the governor and other state agencies.
"We need to serve in a role as lead agency statewide," Claudia Chandler, a spokeswoman for The Energy Commission, said Tuesday. "We need to be able to share information with other agencies and the governor's office."
The records, titled Critical Energy Infrastructure Information, include specific details about the design of the proposed Mitsubishi-ConocoPhillips terminal.
They are part of the draft environmental impact report prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Port of Long Beach. That report concludes that a fire at the proposed $700-million terminal, less than two miles from downtown Long Beach, would not cause significant damage outside the port.
The state Energy Commission staff plans to comment on other sections of the report.
But its attorneys filed a motion with federal regulators late Monday, requesting an extra 30 days to comment once the regulators agree to release the records.
"This is such an important component for public health and safety that it was key that we had a period of time in which we were able to be thoughtful about that response," Chandler said.
FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said that her agency has not made a decision on the state's motion.
She said anyone who wants to see the Critical Energy Infrastructure Information report -- whether a Long Beach resident or the governor -- must sign the pact because of national security concerns.
"Everyone is treated equally," she said.
The dispute highlights the ambiguous role of state agencies in the approval process for liquefied natural gas plants under the new federal Energy Policy Act. Congress gave the federal government expanded authority to locate onshore plants, but instructed FERC to consult with states on safety issues.
As rising gas prices and dwindling domestic supplies have made imports more attractive, LNG plants have been proposed for many coastal sites nationwide.
In California, in addition to the Long Beach location, two terminals are being considered for locations in the ocean off Ventura County.
The Long Beach project has provoked concern from some experts that the highly volatile liquefied gas could escape in an accident or terrorist attack and ignite, causing a major fire.
A consultant working for the state public utilities commission has warned that a gas spill on water could lead to a fire that would endanger the 130,000 people living and working within three miles of the terminal.
But a consultant working for the port, who had access to the Critical Energy Infrastructure Information records, used them to assess potential hazards and determined that the public would not be at risk.
Long Beach Deputy Police Chief Tim Jackman, who was assigned by the city's Police Department to review the environmental impact report, has expressed concern about the consultant's conclusions.