Monday, February 27, 2006

LNG proposal to get new legs

The environmental review process for a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Ventura County is getting new life.

It's been just over a year since federal regulators temporarily suspended their review of a controversial plan to install a liquefied natural gas terminal 14 miles off the Ventura County shoreline.

A lot can happen in a year.

During that time, a new player joined the crowded field vying to build an LNG terminal on the West Coast. President Bush signed a law giving the federal government authority to approve onshore LNG terminals over the objections of state and local authorities. And a pair of powerful hurricanes slammed into the Gulf Coast, shutting down oil and gas operations and underscoring the vulnerability of the nation's energy supply to disruption.

One thing has not changed since January 2005, when the Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration told BHP Billiton they were stopping the review process because of "deficiencies in the information" the company had provided. Critics of the project still adamantly oppose allowing huge tankers carrying super-cooled gas to unload their flammable cargo in the Santa Barbara Channel and pipe it through Oxnard. Project foes have spent the past year marshaling their forces and honing their arguments in anticipation of a renewed battle once the review process starts again.

BHP Billiton has not been idle. The company — an Australian mining firm with global interests in coal, diamonds, nickel, silver, copper, iron, oil and gas — also has been gearing up for the next stage in the regulatory review, by running ads, changing the project to mollify some of its critics and soliciting support from community leaders. It has a new local public relations firm and a new project manager. It's been gathering and submitting hundreds of pages of additional information requested by the state and federal agencies processing the application.

The next round in the fight is likely to begin within two weeks with the release of a revised environmental document reflecting the new information. With both sides better prepared than they were a year ago to make their case before regulators and the public, the most contentious local environmental dispute in a generation seems certain to grow even more heated.