Most of the 250 citizens and elected officials showing up Wednesday night at a U.S. Coast Guard hearing on BHP Billiton’s proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminal offshore Southern California opposed the project on safety and environmental grounds, according to a report in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times. But there were supporters who cited various state assessments that California needs new sources of natural gas.

The local opposition is typical of what proponents of new LNG receiving terminals on both the West and East Coasts have run into so far, but the Wednesday evening hearing in Oxnard kicked off a mandated 90-day process that will end with a final decision from the U.S. Maritime Commission (MARAD) in early July. Similarly, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now has 45 days to make his decision on the terminal proposal.

Local and state elected officials in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, along with residents Wednesday expressed concerns about the safety and air pollution impacts of the terminal. Earlier in the permitting process the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reversed itself and made it easier for BHP to comply with what opponents characterize as more lenient air quality requirements.

For several months now, the EPA action has prompted U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) as House chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to launch an investigation of the EPA actions, trying to determine if the agency caved in to pressure from the White House. Waxman has sent at least two letters to the head of EPA, but the results of his investigation have not been made public.

Australian resources giant Billiton has the most advanced of four proposals for building a LNG terminal off the Southern California coast. Its Cabrillo Port project would be 21 miles from Oxnard, CA, and 14 miles from the nearest onshore point. The Coast Guard hearing started an uncertain two-week voyage that will complete the state and federal environmental impact review process. In the end, two state agencies may end up disagreeing on whether to recommend building the $550 million, 800 MMcf/d project.

BHP 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, which helped draft the EIS/EIR jointly with the Coast guard, and California Coastal Commission are likely to make different recommendations, with the coastal panel opposing the LNG project. The staffs for both agencies concluded there are environmental impacts that cannot be eliminated.

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 the hearing, the state lands commission will hold its hearing Monday to examine the lease needed for the 21-mile pipeline from Cabrillo Port to shore where it will interconnect with Southern California Gas Co.’s transmission system in Oxnard.

BHP’s spokesperson called the current series of hearings “the right time and place” for the LNG proposal to win approval. She called the Coast Guard hearing the start of “the final phase.”

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