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Report details risks of gas project

U.S. and state agencies say a liquefied natural gas facility offshore near Malibu would affect air quality and marine life, and pose safety issues.

March 10, 2007|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

A comprehensive study released Friday on a natural gas processing plant that would be built in the ocean about 20 miles from Malibu concludes that the project poses substantial environmental and safety concerns for the California coast.

BHP Billiton, one of the largest energy companies in the world, wants its $800-million terminal to become the portal through which California receives natural gas from Australia. The Bush administration has endorsed offshore gas terminals, as have many business leaders. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- expected to have final say over the proposal by summer -- has given the project qualified support.

With several regulatory hearings on the project set to begin, the report says the terminal would significantly affect air quality, ocean views and marine life. It also concludes that an accident could affect ships heading to or departing from the nation's busiest port complex, at Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.

The findings are contained in a 3,000-page final environmental impact report prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard, California State Lands Commission and U.S. Maritime Administration. The document will play a key role in a series of hearings over the next 70 days that will determine whether the facility will be the first liquefied natural gas terminal built on the West Coast.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Natural gas plant: An article in Saturday's California section about a liquefied natural gas processing plant that would be built off the coast near Malibu incorrectly said the terminal and its ships would emit about 219 tons of ozone-forming emissions and 35 tons of smoke and soot daily. Those are annual figures.

Environmentalists and local officials have vigorously opposed the project and say the findings prove it should be scrapped. They say they will urge Schwarzenegger to reject it and will ask California lawmakers to work for its defeat.

"It still has many problems," said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network. And because of that, she said, "this project should be denied."

But BHP Billiton officials say their project, Cabrillo Port, is good for California. They say that it would provide energy to boost the state's economy and that natural gas is the least-polluting fossil fuel available.

"Cabrillo Port will be built to the highest public safety and environmental standards and will provide clean, safe, reliable energy to meet Ventura County's and California's ever-growing energy needs," said Renee Klimczak, president of BHP Billiton LNG International Inc.

The terminal would consist of a 971-foot-long gas-processing vessel moored 14 miles offshore between Malibu and Port Hueneme and connected to the mainland by underwater pipes. It would process about 800 million cubic feet of natural gas daily for use in homes, factories and power plants. The gas would be pumped from fields overseas, chilled and shipped in tankers across the ocean, then heated to become vapor again for use in California.

But the terminal and its ships would emit about 219 tons of ozone-forming emissions and 35 tons of smoke and soot daily -- ranking it as one of the biggest air pollution sources for Ventura County. Southern California air quality officials have expressed concerns that the project could add to pollution in the Los Angeles region.

To reduce air pollution, the company has agreed to use advanced technology at the floating processing plant, power the tankers and tugboats with clean-burning fuels and offset the remaining emissions by cleaning up two other tugboats that push barges up and down the California coast.

"BHP Billiton is proposing extensive mitigation that will result in an improvement to the region's air quality," Klimczak said.

But the environmental document concludes that the company, working with the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has failed to show it can reduce emissions to an insignificant level.

Air pollution has been a contentious issue surrounding the project. The EPA initially required that the company reduce more than its share of emissions, but the agency reversed itself in June 2005 without explanation after BHP Billiton officials lobbied the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining. Since then, the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District has told the EPA that the project must meet the original rigorous cleanup standards, the same limits that would apply if the project were built on land.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is investigating the matter. In a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson on Monday, he charged that EPA political appointees in Washington overruled the EPA staff in San Francisco, which had insisted on stringent emissions controls for the project.

On Friday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) wrote to Johnson demanding a full accounting of the EPA reversal as well as documents that they say the agency has been unwilling to provide to Waxman.

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