RFK Under Fire

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Weighs In on Controversy over LNG

by Ethan Stewart

RF_Kennedy_Jr.jpgThe fallout from a controversial op-ed in the Ventura County Star shows little signs of abating, with its author, environmental champion Robert F. Kennedy Jr., drawing heavy criticism last week for his perceived support for a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facility proposed for the Santa Barbara Channel. Traditionally lauded for his earth-friendly policies, Kennedy turned more than a few heads earlier this month when he wrote an editorial heralding LNG as an “important bridge fuel” on the road to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and ethanol.

Acknowledging that “no energy project is perfect,” Kennedy argued that LNG burns cleaner than traditional coal and oil sources and is more cost-effective than nuclear energy. Furthermore, he wrote, the demand for LNG is “growing,” while current facilities are “flat.” Kennedy also downplayed the risks associated with piping the flammable fuel ashore, arguing that when done right, LNG “impose[s] a relatively tiny ecological footprint and poses far less public health risks than grave injuries endured by workers and residents in coal communities or the many public health threats from burning dirtier fossil fuels.”

Though the editorial never mentioned by name the controversial BHP Billiton Cabrillo Port facility currently undergoing review for installation in Ventura waters, several local environmentalists perceived Kennedy’s comments as a misguided vote of support for the stalled project and have since flooded the Star and the Internet with demands that the former Independent cover boy retract his statement. Pointing to recent data suggesting that the life cycle carbon dioxide emissions of an LNG plant equal those of a coal-fired power plant, Community Environmental Council’s energy programs director Tam Hunt said of the op-ed, “Putting it simply, it’s just plain uninformed.”

Since the op-ed appeared in print, conspiracy theories have run rampant as to why Kennedy, a chief counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and onetime savior of New York City’s water supply, assumed a pro-LNG stance and whether it indicates that he intends to support BHP Billiton’s project. Adding a curious twist to the speculation is the role the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm — which works as a lobbyist on behalf of BHP — played in the days leading up to the op-ed’s publication. Two days before Kennedy’s piece ran, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips attorney David Huard emailed an earlier version of the article to at least one enviro as proof that Huard’s pro-BHP view was “shared by recognized environmentalists.” Furthermore, some have found significance in the fact that this earlier version included an explicit mention of the BHP project and was dated November 14, 2006, suggesting that the op-ed may have been held for publication until it was more politically relevant.

However, in an interview with the Malibu Surfside News just after the controversial piece ran, Kennedy stood by his views, saying that he supports LNG as a coal or oil alternative, but that he has “huge concern” about the environmental impacts of the BHP project specifically. Echoing that, NRDC spokesperson Joel Reynolds supported Kennedy this week by calling the earlier version of the op-ed “irrelevant” and pointing out that the printed op-ed “clearly did not state a position on the BHP project … It didn’t even mention it.” Then, alluding to the Surfside News interview, Reynolds said that Kennedy’s views are consistent with the NRDC’s in that they both pledge cautious support of LNG as a viable substitute for coal, oil, or nuclear energy, but that both also view the Cabrillo Port project as “unacceptable” due to the fact that it would be the number one contributor of smog-forming pollutants in Ventura County, among other reasons.

Regardless of the intentions behind Kennedy’s editorial, the Cabrillo Port project remains in limbo, since the U.S. Coast Guard deferred the project’s application process early last year in order to gain time to weigh in on the various safety and air quality concerns associated with the proposed $800 million facility. In the same vein, the California Coastal Commission is scheduled to tackle the BHP debate at its April hearing in Santa Barbara, while the California State Lands Commission is slated to examine the issue at its April 9 meeting in Oxnard.

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