Monday, August 15, 2005

Law firm weighs heavily in LNG debate

Australian resources firm BHP Billiton has called in the big dogs of law and lobbying to help them gain approval for an LNG terminal in Ventura County.

BHP Billiton, an Australian energy giant and leading contender to build a liquefied natural gas processing terminal off the California coast, has hired a lobbying group overseen by George David Kieffer, a Los Angeles lawyer so trusted by Schwarzenegger that the governor asked him to help recruit staff for the administration. He also has served as a personal lawyer to the governor's wife, Maria Shriver.

The account made Kieffer's firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the top- grossing firm in the capital in the first quarter of this year, up from a rank of 25th for the same period last year.

Beyond Manatt's efforts on behalf of BHP, a range of liquefied natural gas companies and trade groups joined forces last year to fund a $1 million campaign -- called Californians for Clean, Affordable and Safe Energy -- to increase public support for their product. The public relations team hired by the coalition includes current and former political consultants to the governor and a firm part-owned by Schwarzenegger's chief fundraiser.

The governor has unique authority to approve some of the projects under consideration. He appoints one of the three members of the State Lands Commission, which will decide whether to approve some of the ventures, and he has the sole power to veto any of the panel's decisions.

In recent remarks on liquefied natural gas proposals, Schwarzenegger said he supported a terminal "11, 12 miles off the shore" near Oxnard (Ventura County) -- a description loosely matching BHP's Cabrillo Port plan.

On its merits, Cabrillo Port probably makes the most sense among the proposed LNG sites, given its location and use of new technology, but I suppose bringing in Mannatt is like an insurance policy for BHP.