Australian resources giant BHP Billiton's proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the Southern California coast from Oxnard begins an uncertain two-week voyage Wednesday with state and federal environmental impact hearings. In the end, two state agencies may end up disagreeing on whether to recommend building the $550 million, 800 MMcf/d project.

Billiton maintains the final environmental impact statement and report (EIS/EIR) confirms that it can operate an LNG terminal 14 miles off the coast safely and with minimal environmental impact. The California State Lands Commission and California Coastal Commission are likely to make different recommendation, with the coastal panel opposing the LNG project.

The hearings beginning Wednesday in Oxnard with the U.S. Coast Guard/U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) public hearing kick off a regulatory process time clock allowing 45 days for a final decision from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 90 days before MARAD is required to render a final decision.

The coastal commission staff has raised several "technical objections" to the project, but it is not recommending the overall project be rejected, according to an Oxnard-based spokesperson for Billiton's Cabrillo Port facility. "We expect to be able to answer all their objections at the hearing [April 12]."

The coastal panel will rule on the narrow issue of whether the LNG proposal conforms to state and federal coastal protection laws.

Following Wednesday's Coast Guard hearing on the EIS, the California State Lands Commission will hold its hearing Monday, April 9, to examine the lease needed for the pipeline from Cabrillo Port to shore where it will interconnect with Southern California Gas Co.'s transmission system in Oxnard.

Billiton's spokesperson called the current series of hearings "the right time and place" for the LNG proposal to win approval. She called what begins Wednesday "the final phase."

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