Mayor reaffirms city’s opposition to LNG terminal

A recent junket to Asia and Australia by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s cabinet members raises concerns about impartiality of future decision making on a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal to be located off the coast, near Malibu. Some question the need for such a terminal, with low demand for natural gas predicted in California in the next 10 years.

By Mark Bassett/Special to The Malibu Times

The recent controversial liquefied natural gas fact-finding trip to South Korea and Australia by high-ranking cabinet members from Gov. Schwarzenegger’s administration has Oxnard’s mayor questioning the “impartiality” of the governor’s staff, in a recent Ventura County Star article, and Malibu’s mayor reaffirming the city’s opposition to a LNG terminal being located near Malibu.

The cabinet members were joined on the trip by energy executives, including leaders from Australia’s BHP Billiton, which has proposed a LNG regasification deepwater port that would be located 14 miles northwest off the coast of Malibu. The trip was paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, which, according to its Web site, educates the public and private sector on developing solutions to “California’s complex economic, environmental and social issues.” According to the Ventura County Star, BHP Billiton’s Vice President Stephen Billiot became a foundation board member a few months after Billiton proposed the LNG receiving terminal in September. The attendees will report directly to Gov. Schwarzenegger, who has veto power over any LNG plant off the coast of California.

Malibu’s City Council formally opposed the terminal proposed by BHP Billiton earlier this year. “There will be a contingency of elected officials to make clear this council’s resolution to oppose the project,” Mayor Sharon Barovsky said in a telephone interview Tuesday, regarding upcoming public scoping meetings on the project. “Malibu has a long history of activism. I doubt very much that’s changed.”

Malibu City Councilmember Jeff Jennings said that fact-finding trips are not uncommon and are part of the process in many private projects that seek to serve a public concern. He also said the range of attendees, including Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, provided diversified representation of interests. Jordan, who is also co-sponsor of the Statewide LNG Environmental Stakeholder Working Group, which discusses issues of liquefied natural gas and represents communities’ concerns before the government, was the lone environmentalist on the trip.

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“I would’ve thought they would have had a much larger representation of environmental concerns,” Barovsky said. “I would be very disheartened if our legislators would let this project happen.”

The 14-member group also included Cabinet Secretary Marybel Batjer, Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman, California EPA Secretary Terrence Tamminen and Deputy Secretary of Energy in the Department of Resources Joseph Desmond. In addition to Billiot, CFEE board members who went on the trip included energy executives from Sempra Energy, ChevronTexaco Corp., Calpine Corp., Shell and Southern California Edison Co.

Jennings did question the need for an increase of natural gas supplies in the state of California.

The supply and demand equation of energy in California has been miscalculated in the past, leaving the state with an absence of adequate supply, rolling blackouts and high fuel costs. But will Australian LNG solve this problem?

“According to the California Energy Commission, the demand for natural gas will increase no more than 1 percent in the next 10 years in California,” said Malibu resident Kraig Hill, a local activist who opposes the port. “There is a demand in other parts of the country.”

Steve Meheen of BHP Billiton agreed that projections for natural gas consumption in California show only a slight increase in demand, but that on the supply side there will be a significant shortage.

“It will bring down the price of your electricity, it will bring down the price of your refined petroleum products, gasoline and diesel,” Meheen said.

Hill acknowledges the benefits of this clean burring fuel, but said that if the demand is on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, it would be more cost effective to site any new LNG facilities on the Gulf Coast or the East Coast and import the gas from South America or Africa, as it would necessitate shorter tanker trips than required for importation from Australia.

Meheen pointed to the track record of successful and safe trade between Australia and the United States, and while conceding that LNG export is an important aspect of trade for the Australian government, he also reinforced the fact that BHP Billiton has nearly two centuries of experience with fossil fuels and that there has never been an accident on an LNG terminal.

The possibility of an accident at the offshore terminal or at the receiving point to the Southern California Gas Company, the impact to area ecology and the threat of terrorists targeting the project has prompted much of the community opposition.

While Meheen said the facility is “not close to much of anything” and that a catastrophic event would not reach land, Hill countered that the terminal and the visiting tankers will be in a semi-circle of environmentally sensitive areas, and the blast radius of a catastrophic accident is unknown as natural gas spreads faster on water than it does on land.

“BHP Billiton says it could be as much as 4 miles radius, other scientists say it could be as much as 20 miles, which would encompass parts of Malibu,” Hill said.

BHP Billiton is one of several fuel companies that have submitted proposals for natural gas facilities in California. LNG is considered a clean petroleum product, but is also a highly flammable toxic gas. Several disasters, including a BHP Billiton plant that recently exploded in Algeria, motivated citizens in Malibu and Oxnard to fight the project. In Oxnard, efforts resulted in relocating, away from populated areas, the landfall of the pipeline that transports the natural gas from the proposed Cabrillo Port to shore. The environmental review of the proposal was halted when the U.S. Coast Guard requested more safety data, and an upcoming pubic scoping meeting will provide the community an opportunity to weigh in on the Cabrillo Port project. Comments at the scoping meeting will be factored into the decision-making process.

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

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