The field of candidates for building a $550 million West Coast North American liquefied natural gas receiving terminal got a bit more crowded this past week as an Australian mining/energy company threw its hat in the ring with the first offshore California proposal. Initial permits are expected by the end of next year, and the proponents hope to have the facility operating in 2008.

Talked and written about as a concept in national industry publications earlier in the year, BHP Billiton, the firm from Down Under, made it official Thursday in a news release and interviews with Dow Jones Newswire, specifying it intends to develop the first regasification facility that would float offshore Ventura County, about 50 miles up the coast from Los Angeles. Supplies could come from a number of Australian and other Pacific Rim sources, a spokesperson said, noting that BHP Billiton is one of six partners in an existing offshore gas production and liquefaction facility off Australia’s Northwest Shelf.

“We’re well connected with access to resources,” the Houston-based spokesperson told NGI late Friday.

Similar to another concept for converting a mothballed offshore drilling platform, Billiton intends to develop its so-called “Cabrillo Port” as an entirely new floating platform 21.5 miles off of the town of Oxnard, serving as a major regasification point for LNG shipments to the North American West Coast. The fuel would be transported in gaseous form through an offshore pipeline that would connect with Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas Co. onshore backbone transmission pipeline system that runs through the area.

“We understand California’s concern for its coastline and its communities,” said Stephen Billiot, a vice president with Billiton’s BHP Billiton LNG International, Inc. “Although LNG’s excellent safety record is well documented, we’re siting this much-needed facility far offshore and away from population centers to ensure the highest level of protection for the California coast and public safety.”

Billing itself on its web site as the “world’s largest diversified resource (mining/energy development) company,” Billiton said it will file applications with both the U.S. Coast Guard and California State Lands Commission, before seeking what it called a “joint and cooperative environmental and public review.”

What it envisions as a “floating storage and regasification unit” (FSRU), Billiton said, would be permanently moored to the ocean floor and connected to the shore via a traditional natural gas pipeline, coming ashore near Ormond Beach, which is the location of a major gas-fired electric generating plant now owned and operated by Reliant, and near SoCalGas’s major transmission pipeline in the coastal area.

The floating unit’s design includes three “spherical tanks” for what the company called “state-of-the-art LNG storage with collective capacity equivalent to about 6 Bcf of natural gas in its gaseous state. There will be eight vaporizers to enable conversion of LNG — “regasification” — of up to 1.5 Bcf/d. The facility’s average daily sendout is now pegged at 800 MMcf/d.

BHP Billiton is billing its proposal as a “unique and environmentally friendly alternative” to meeting California’s energy and environmental demands. No estimated cost was given for the proposed facility, one of at least two or three that have surfaced this year that would be located on or offshore California’s coast, joining four or five earlier proposals for the Pacific Coast of North Baja in Mexico, about 20 to 60 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

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