Get ready for huge liquid natural gas import terminals

Where, oh where, are California’s Indian tribes now that they’re
really needed to save the state from what’s likely to become the
mother of all energy boondoggles?
Where, oh where, are California’s Indian tribes now that they’re really needed to save the state from what’s likely to become the mother of all energy boondoggles?

The question arises because the prospect of huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals rising on or just off the California coast is looking more and more like a sure thing every day.

Things looked much the same back in the early 1980s, when a powerful and wealthy consortium aiming to build an LNG import plant also had its plans pretty well greased, with the former campaign manager for then-Gov. Jerry Brown acting as its mouthpiece and every state commission set to rubber-stamp the plan.

As with today’s plans, the idea then was to freeze natural gas into an inert liquid at the wells where it is tapped, carry it here in a fleet of gigantic tankers costing billions of dollars, convert it back into a gaseous state and pipe it to California homes and businesses. But the Chumash Indians, now operators of a swank casino, filed suit in the nick of time, claiming that the planned LNG facility would defile ground at Pt. Conception in Santa Barbara County that is sacred to their religion and thus prevent their souls from reaching heaven.

The suit dragged on long enough for a worldwide natural gas glut to develop – and the LNG plan became moot because its gas would have been priced far higher than the market of the time.

But there is no Indian tribe fighting LNG today, only several environmental groups and civic activists in the coastal areas now earmarked for possible plants.Meanwhile, every organ of state government appears ready to okay the plans, and the California Public Utilities Commission has already declared it will authorize utilities to accept gas for LNG plants both in California and nearby parts of Mexico.

In fact, Sempra Energy – parent company of both Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric – has already been cleared to build the first such plant on the West Coast along the Baja California coast just north of Ensenada. How greased is the LNG concept?

“We will ensure adequate supplies of competitively priced natural gas by pursuing … pipeline expansion and permitting of new LNG terminals,” the state’s deputy energy secretary, Joseph Desmond, said during a fall briefing on the Schwarzenegger administration’s energy policy. “A community education and outreach effort on LNG safety and environmental issues is now being rolled out.”

Such a public relations campaign is needed, of course, because explosions at LNG plants killed 130 people in Cleveland in 1944 and 27 more last year in Algeria. This, despite constant safety assurances from the industry.

Giving a further clue to how assured state approval seems is the fact that the “education” campaign will be run by Navigators, a Sacramento political consulting firm whose operatives have served as spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on a variety of ballot proposition campaigns.

Meanwhile, Chevron Texaco, which aims to build plants both off Baja California and possibly off San Diego County near the U.S. Marines’ Camp Pendleton base, has contributed $200,000 to Schwarzenegger’s various campaign committees and $500,000 to the state Republican Party since the governor’s election.

Every page of the Navigator presentation to Chevron and other energy companies paying for its campaign featured a small photo of Schwarzenegger, who did not object.

At the same time, Schwarzenegger is trying to get LNG siting authority switched from the utilities commission to the state Energy Commission, where approvals require far less evidence. And the Energy Commission seems ready to nod quickly at LNG plans, with some commissioners bewailing the fact that current domestic natural gas supplies increasingly are going to the Midwest and East Coast.

But no one has answered two key questions: Are the plants safe, even if they’re built several miles offshore? And would they saddle Californians with high prices in perpetuity, even in times of worldwide surpluses? They would if the utilities commission approves deals bringing LNG at prices guaranteed to generate profits from the hyper-expensive new projects.

Which is why this state desperately needs a last-minute reprieve from another Indian tribe – or anyone else with an legal argument that can delay or defeat the LNG juggernaut.

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