NorthernStar Natural Gas Inc.'s plan to convert a working offshore oil platform and use a previously certified undersea pipeline route for liquefied natural gas (LNG) importation carries less environmental risk than a competing project that California officials rejected earlier this year, according to a company executive.

NorthernStar Senior Vice President Joe Desmond spoke at the first of several community meetings held last Wednesday and Thursday by federal and state officials. The meetings began the environmental review process, which will end in another round of public sessions.

Desmond talked to NGI late Wednesday afternoon after an initial open house in Oxnard, CA, in which elected officials from nearby Port Hueneme and Malibu spoke against his company's proposed $700 million, 1 Bcf capacity LNG processing site.

"We think there are certainly some environmental advantages for our project," said Desmond, the former chief energy adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and head of the California Energy Commission. "It doesn't have the same environmental impact as the BHP Billiton [offshore terminal] project would have had."

He cited the use of ambient air -- not water -- vaporizers to warm the LNG back into its gaseous state as a distinct advantage as it will produce 80% less emissions than the BHP alternative, NorthernStar claims. An existing operating facility is being converted, so there would be no new source of offshore activity in the area.

"We're proposing to use existing infrastructure and that is consistent with the California Coastal Act. It also means we would not have the disturbance of building a new platform. And we are going to be putting our undersea pipeline along side an existing pipeline right of way, which has already had extensive ecological work and people are very familiar with that," Desmond said.

As a now-operating oil platform, if NorthernStar gets its permits to convert it to LNG use, Clearwater Port would have to shut the oil operations in compliance with the standards of the U.S. Minerals Management Services (MMS). And eventually, it will have to get the platform recertified to operate the LNG regasification and storage facilities. "It will essentially have to be recertified as if it were new," Desmond said.

As part of the initial scoping hearing Wednesday in Oxnard, the federal Maritime Administration (MARAD) and U.S. Coast Guard, in coordination with the California State Lands Commission, outlined their plans for the joint preparation of an environmental impact statement/report on the NorthernStar proposal during the next 12 months.

Afternoon and evening meetings continue Thursday in Santa Clarita, about 40 miles inland from Oxnard in northern Los Angeles County where supplies will merge into the Southern California Gas Co. transmission backbone pipeline/storage system.

The company's application calls for the development of a deepwater port more than 20 miles offshore from Oxnard to offload the LNG, then regasify and ship it in a newly constructed undersea natural gas pipeline to connecting transmission pipelines in Oxnard.

In the next year, NorthernStar will be focused on helping the state and federal governmental entities compile the environmental assessment, and "reaching out to the communities to educate them so they understand what the project is about and what the expected benefits and impacts will be," said Desmond, noting that 6,500 cargo ships currently ply the local waters within a 25-mile strip off the mostly south-facing Southern California coast and its proposed LNG terminal operating 100% all the time would mean an added 136 ships annually, or less than 2% growth in ship traffic.

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