State utility regulators are embroiled in a debate over new kinds of natural gas that opponents contend would worsen air pollution, trip up power plants and make gas stoves, water heaters and other equipment more prone to fires.
The dispute concerns foreign liquefied natural gas, which could begin flowing into local pipelines within two years. The gas from other continents is chemically different and burns hotter than most U.S. natural gas.
And that worries an unusual collection of critics, including environmentalists, air quality regulators, appliance specialists and Southern California Edison. Critics point to a rash of pipeline leaks and a house explosion in Maryland last year, which the local utility blamed on the ill effects of gas from overseas.
"Everything we have here in California is geared toward North American natural gas," said Rory Cox, California program director for Pacific Environment, a group opposed to the importation of liquefied natural gas.
The hotter foreign gas, he added, "can lead to the erosion of pipeline seals, damage the internal workings of power plants and can affect people's home appliances" by damaging them or causing gas leaks.
Sempra Energy and other companies that plan to supply imported natural gas to California dispute that. San Diego-based Sempra says the new gas won't cause problems, and it is pushing the state Public Utilities Commission to clear the way for the "hot gas" by loosening existing gas quality specifications. The commission could vote as early as today.
The commission's decision would affect consumers and industrial users of natural gas statewide and would have implications for companies planning to build liquefied natural gas import terminals along the Pacific Coast.
Arguments over the issue have taken place out of the limelight and involved only limited input on behalf of consumers. But it's the state's homeowners and business owners with water heaters and other gas-fired equipment that would suffer the consequences if the commission enacts gas rules that cause problems in years to come, critics say.
"Like many things in the regulatory arena, it's hard for the average consumer to keep track of, much less understand the ramifications of it," said Loretta Lynch, a former California utility commissioner.
On the hot-gas issue, she said, "the consumers are outmanned and outgunned ... but they'll be paying the bill at the end of the day."
The Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers is concerned about the expected wave of new gas and is pushing federal regulators to establish nationwide standards instead of letting regions set their own limits.
"If you have a high flame temperature, higher than what the product was designed to deal with, you can get a fire hazard," said Joseph McGuire, the Washington-based trade group's president.
"Our concern is that if the consumer angle isn't fully understood and addressed, it's going to be impossible to go out and retrofit the millions and millions and millions of installed products already in place that present the bulk of the potential safety and performance concerns," McGuire said.
Last year alone, Californians installed more than 850,000 gas clothes dryers -- nearly 60% of yearly shipments nationwide -- and 790,000 gas ranges, or about 20% of the nationwide total, according to figures from the group.
Current LNG formulations now flowing through pipelines in other parts of the U.S. have been treated or blended with other gas to more closely mimic traditional gas supplies, McGuire said. Future supplies, however, are expected to "go outside the range that we view to be safe for product safety and for avoiding performance issues."
Last month, an administrative law judge issued a proposed decision that called for no change in California's existing gas-quality standards until after a study of the ramifications is conducted.
Michael R. Peevey, president of the state Public Utilities Commission, wrote an alternative proposed decision that would allow hotter gas than what is now used in the state -- a position backed by natural gas producers, Sempra and other companies involved in plans for importing natural gas. The proceeding also deals with several other natural gas issues, including storage and pipeline capacity.
"We've been investigating and studying what might occur should large volumes of LNG reach our service area," said Lee Stewart, senior vice president of gas operations for Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co., both subsidiaries of Sempra. "It will work fine for our system overall and for our customers' equipment."
At least five projects are still on the drawing board; Sempra's Baja California terminal is under construction and could begin operations in 2008.