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Senate Denies States Authority on Gas Terminals

A 52-45 vote ensures that federal regulators will have final say over where LNG facilities go.

June 23, 2005|Richard Simon and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Wednesday to give federal regulators authority over the location of liquefied natural gas terminals, despite objections from governors, including California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, that states should be have an equal say in deciding where such projects are built.

Republican and Democratic officials from city halls to Capitol Hill have expressed concern that the terminals could become terrorism targets or pose other safety risks, and they have sought a role in siting them.

But President Bush has pushed for federal control in deciding where terminals are built, saying that a lengthy approval process could delay the building of facilities that are important for the economy.

On Wednesday, a majority of the Senate agreed with him. The lawmakers voted 52 to 45 against adding a provision to the energy legislation to give governors power to veto or impose conditions on the terminals.

As a result, the Senate bill -- like energy legislation already approved by the House -- would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the final word on where terminals are built, virtually ensuring that the provision will be included in any final bill that emerges from Congress.

The action came as the Senate headed toward approval of a sweeping overhaul of national energy policy, a Bush priority that has gained momentum as energy prices have surged.

In another action, the Senate rejected, 38 to 60, a proposal by Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to establish a mandatory cap on industrial emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The measure garnered five fewer votes than a similar version two years ago.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) had voted for that proposal but withdrew her support this time because of a new provision that could have provided subsidies for nuclear power plants. Her California Democratic colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, supported the McCain-Lieberman proposal.

Republicans criticized a mandatory limit as an unfair burden on the U.S. economy, and noted that many other large emitters of greenhouse gases -- including China -- had not committed to reducing them. Democrats focused on recent scientific calls for action on global warming and argued that the U.S., the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, had a duty to respond.

Lieberman argued that despite the Senate's apparent lack of interest in his proposal, momentum was clearly building among businesses, states and U.S. mayors to deal with global warming in a serious way.

"The science is changing to be clearer and clearer," he said. "What's not changing is the failure of all my colleagues to recognize that science."

The Senate did pass a bipartisan resolution supporting, in principle, a mandatory limit on greenhouse gas emissions. Supporters of stronger action on global warming argued that the "sense of the Senate" resolution, approved on a voice vote, signaled that lawmakers' views on the issue were shifting.

"The Senate is clearly moving beyond a discussion of whether America will begin to deal with the issue, and instead is beginning to focus on what to do about it," said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense.

The debate over liquid natural gas, or LNG, created an unusual alliance, bringing together conservatives and liberals representing states where terminals have been proposed.

Five terminals are in operation on the East Coast and Gulf Coast. Dozens of new facilities have been proposed, including one onshore in Long Beach, two off the Ventura County coast and one off Camp Pendleton.

The terminals, which receive natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid for transport, are projected to play a key role in the nation's energy needs. LNG accounts for about 3% of the nation's natural gas use, but it is projected to rise to more than 20% by 2025.

But the projects have generated concerns that they could pose safety risks or become targets for terrorist attacks. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) pointed to a study by Sandia National Laboratories, a nuclear weapons lab, that an explosion from an LNG tanker would cause second-degree burns on people nearly a mile away.

"We're not talking about the siting of a neighborhood ballpark here or a new Wal-Mart," Snowe said. She, along with Feinstein and Boxer, were on the losing end of the vote to give states more say over where terminals go.

But Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), using the acronym for "not in my backyard," complained about "NIMBYism at the state level delaying the ability of this country to build the kind of natural gas infrastructure we need today."

Although the provision would seem to run counter to the Republican-controlled Congress' tendency to support states' rights, Craig said, "I'm a states'-rights vote, but I also respect the Constitution and the commerce clause" -- a reference to the argument that siting LNG terminals should be a federal responsibility because the facilities are engaged in foreign and interstate commerce.

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