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Keep Oxnard clean

The state agencies considering an offshore liquefied natural gas terminal should vote no.

April 08, 2007

THE DECISION OVER whether to build an $800-million liquefied natural gas terminal 14 miles off the coast of Oxnard is a difficult one. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports it; Pierce Brosnan does not. The staff of the State Lands Commission has recommended approval of the idea; their counterparts at the Coastal Commission disagree. Depending on how you look at the proposed plant, it would be either remarkably clean or untenably dirty; vital to California's energy needs or extraneous. It's a complicated call to make, but when officials weigh in on the proposal this week, they should vote a resounding "no."

Liquefied natural gas, while still a fossil fuel, is cleaner than oil or coal and more portable than natural gas in its gaseous form. In order to be offloaded from ships and converted into usable energy, however, it requires a terminal, and there are currently no terminals on the West Coast of the United States.

The Lands Commission meets Monday to decide on the project; the Coastal Commission weighs in Thursday. It also must be approved by Schwarzenegger and the U.S. Maritime Administration.

How would the terminal affect the environment? Though some Ventura County residents worry about spills and fire, the facility would be far enough offshore to render such threats remote. BHP Billiton, which would build and own the plant, has taken unprecedented steps to minimize its environmental damage.

Yet it still isn't clean enough for California's precious coastline. The LNG tankers, support craft and the terminal itself would emit about 215 tons annually of smog-forming pollutants that would drift onshore, including to Los Angeles County. And because of an Environmental Protection Agency policy reversal that is currently under congressional investigation, the terminal would be exempted from Ventura County's clean-air rules, meaning it wouldn't have to buy credits to offset the filth.

The negatives might be worth it if a less-populated site were chosen and if the state's energy future truly required an LNG terminal, but recent developments have called the latter into question. On the supply side, Sempra Energy is building an LNG plant in Baja California that will ship huge quantities of gas north of the border starting in 2008.

As for demand, projections differ. The state Energy Commission predicts that natural gas consumption will rise slightly through 2016, while the state's biggest utilities foresee a decrease through 2015. Meanwhile, state lawmakers, backed by the governor, are in the process of mandating a move away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

Assessing the need and selecting the best possible site from four competing proposals should have been a methodical, scientific process handled at the state level. Yet a bill to require precisely that has been repeatedly squelched by energy companies, organized labor and others. As a result, Californians are left with unanswered questions and faced with reacting to each new LNG project as it comes up.

By approving the BHP terminal off Oxnard, regulators could saddle California with a dirty, unsightly coastal gas plant of perhaps limited benefit to the state's energy consumers. They should instead vote no.

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