Heat turns up in coastal LNG battle

BHP Billiton sends a busload of supporters to Malibu hearing, but a state official says public shows of support of opposition are meant for public consumption, not decision making.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Editor’s note: Because of production deadlines, this article was written before Tuesday’s public hearing took place in Malibu on the environmental impact report for BHP Billiton’s Cabrillo Port. A complete article and photos from that hearing are posted at www.malibutimes.com, and will be printed in next week’s edition.

Although supporters and opponents are placing importance on this week’s public hearings on a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal visible from Malibu, a state official is warning that public displays of support or opposition are largely irrelevant to the decision now being made.

Tuesday night’s hearing at Malibu High School, along with hearings Monday at Santa Clarita and Wednesday at Oxnard, were limited to the state government receiving testimony on the scientific accuracy of the nearly 5,000 pages contained in Cabrillo Port’s environmental impact report and supplemental documents, studies and analysis, said a State Lands Commission official.

At issue is a plan by Australia industrial conglomerate BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining firm, to place a set of 14-story-high tanks aboard a permanent ship in the Pacific Ocean 13.8 miles off the Malibu coast at Leo Carrillo State Beach. Dual submerged 22-mile pipelines would parallel the coastline west and turn ashore at Oxnard, and a fleet of LNG carriers would dock at the ship to unload on a continuous basis.


BHP Billiton spokeswoman Kathy Hann told a Ventura newspaper reporter that the company plans to charter busses to get its supporters to the Malibu public hearing, although only one bus is expected. The Ventura County Star also reported that area industry leaders were treated to a steak and tequila party at an Oxnard helicopter charter firm as part of its pro-LNG campaign, which also included pizza parties for office workers.

Ocean advocates, meanwhile, have been staffing phone outreach banks and have leafleted the lower-income neighborhoods in Oxnard that are nearest to the twin high-pressure natural gas lines that will come ashore there. The Oxnard City Council and mayor have also come out publicly opposed to the LNG plant, chiefly because of its projected smog emissions, which would make it the largest air polluter in Ventura County.

An Oxnard anti-LNG group spokesman, Trevor Smith, said he was not surprised that a Billiton public relations consultant surreptitiously attended his group’s meetings and rallies.

“I suppose they’re worried about our plans, but we are a non-exclusive group, and if they want to hear our plans, I guess anybody’s welcome,” Smith said.

The consultant, John Lockhart, said he was interested in hearing what Billiton’s opponents had to say, and that he did not feel he had to identify himself as a Billiton consultant at a public hearing.

Dwight Sanders, the state official who will chair this week’s official hearings, said the public displays of support or rejection are of little importance at this stage.

“These hearings are solely for the purpose of soliciting public comments on the adequacy of the project’s environmental impact report and are by no means a hearing on the project itself,” Sanders said.

State environmental law requires that large projects compile an EIR to study potential negative impacts, thus giving government agencies choices for requiring steps to mitigate the problems. The hearings this week are on Billiton’s second EIR. The first one had more than 120 major unanswered questions and was sent back by government officials for extensive additional research.

The new EIR found that major smog, aesthetic and public safety impacts caused by the project cannot be mitigated, and that a worst-case scenario would cause a blast 14.4 miles in diameter, with prevailing winds heading toward Malibu. Environmental groups are analyzing the report, and say it again underestimates the smog and safety impacts on the coast.

Environmentalists say the 14.4 mile flash fire estimate would keep the catastrophe zone at sea, but note it is four times larger than the estimate in the original report, which Billiton publicly assured was the worst imaginable scenario.

The state will collect comments via mail and the Internet until May 12, a date that was just extended by 15 days. Scientists looking at the EIR had demanded extra time due to a snafu in obtaining air pollution predictions from the state agency.

After the comment period closes, the state’s consultants will examine claims made by citizens about any errors or omissions in the EIR. Problems must be addressed by Billiton, and it was that process that tripped up the project 14 months ago, when Malibu residents and others noticed scores of errors in the original assessment.

Sometime this summer, Sanders said, the three-member commission will hold hearings on the project itself, and then vote. LNG opponents say two of the three commission members appear to be on their side. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has already spoken critically about LNG imports, and Comptroller Steve Westly has been running TV commercials against the oil industry in his gubernatorial campaign.

Beyond that, the state applications must then go to the California Coastal Commission for a coastal development permit. Although state law prohibits industrial intrusions into scenic coastal areas, other sections of the law allow oil and gas platforms to be built if there is no other alternative site, said Coastal Commission spokeswoman Sarah Christie.

Two other companies are proposing terminals near the Port of Los Angeles, and Christie said that may be considered when the commission decides on Cabrillo Port. “But some people are assuming that the Coastal Commission will never allow that [Cabrillo Port] to happen, and it’s not that simple.”

Allison Detmer, manager of the Coastal Commission’s Ocean and Resources Unit, told a recent gathering of environmental lawyers that she expects the commission to approve one or two of the five LNG terminals proposed for California shores. “The question is, which one or two?” she said.

Further complicating the matter is a federal law that places state approval or rejection of an offshore LNG terminal exclusively in the hands of the governor.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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