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Sempra LNG, Mexican Enviros Tell Whale Tales

The North American West Coast's only liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminal has become more than a budding global energy hub. Albeit still underutilized, the terminal, located along the North Baja California coast in Mexico, has established itself as the poster child for protecting gray whales and other creatures who ply the Pacific waters from Alaska to Mexico.

Even before it began construction work at the site about 80 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border, Sempra Energy's LNG operations began five years ago to work with an Ensenada, Mexico-based environmental group, Centro de Investigacion Cientifica y de Educacion Superior de Ensenada (CICESE), translated as the Center for Scientific Investigation and Superior Education, to establish a program for monitoring and protecting marine mammals offshore from the construction site on a pristine stretch of the North Baja coast, now called the Energia Costa Azul LNG facility.

A focal point of the program is the magnificent gray whale, stretching to 52 feet in length, weighing upwards of 36 tons and living on the average 50 to 60 years, which makes an annual 8,000-mile round trip between the Bering and Chukchi Seas in Alaska and Mexico's Baja California peninsula. These creatures make the trip to warm waters and back annually between December and May.

Today there is a permanent observation tower erected on high ground inland behind the LNG facility's two storage tanks, used by CICESE to monitor marine mammal activity off the coastal site of the LNG receipt terminal.

Equipped with some of the most acute hearing of any mammal, gray whales were protected, along with other species, during the facility's construction that began in 2005; there was always a marine biologist on site during the migratory months, and work was halted whenever mammals got too close to the terminal, Sempra officials said in a recent winter edition of the company's internal employee newsletter, Ambassador.

CICESE subsequently helped establish operational safeguards for the LNG site, including three steps:

Part of CICESE's role was to initially track the migration patterns in the area of gray, blue and orca whales, dolphins and seals that lived in or passed through the plant site's offshore waters. The Mexican scientific research group pinpointed the routes and other activities of the various mammals.

Eventually biologists from the research center became regular members of the Sempra team creating construction-management plans, the San Diego-based energy holding company told its employees.

"We know that there is abundant marine life in this area," according to the employee report's quote of Costa Azul Terminal Manager Dimas Hernandez. "We do everything possible, and sometimes at great expense, to ensure that we do not disrupt their ocean habitats or migratory routes."

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