Exactly one year ago, it seemed all but certain that the southern stretch of the Santa Barbara Channel would soon be home to Cabrillo Port, a billion-dollar liquefied natural gas terminal built by Australia’s BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world. However, as the cliche goes, things aren’t always what they seem. After a practically perfect storm of Santa Barbara-led opposition, the controversial Cabrillo Port project was officially terminated on Friday, May 18, with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoing the would-be LNG facility, citing environmental concerns. The governator’s decision, following harsh early-April smackdowns of the project by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) and the California State Lands Commission (SLC), ended more than four years of planning and formidable political posturing by BHP and capped off three-plus years of public resistance to a project that would have generated more than 200 tons of smog-producing pollutants a year.
Furthermore, while southern neighbors like Oxnard, Malibu, and some of the latter’s famous residents have received much of the credit for staving off the latest LNG intrusion-Cabrillo Port would have sat only 14 miles offshore of Oxnard’s beaches-the guts and grit of the plan’s final death knell were the product of tireless Santa Barbara-based work. Make no mistake, this David-versus-Goliath success story, though largely ignored by local media, was made possible by activists, lawyers, and lobbyists who call Santa Barbara home. As Linda Krop, chief counsel for S.B.’s Environmental Defense Center (EDC), sees it, “If it hadn’t been for the California Coastal Protection Network [headed up by Santa Barbara resident Susan Jordan] and the EDC, this project would have sailed to an easy approval in 2005.”
OLD FRIENDS, NEW FIGHT
Saturday morning, basking in the glow of Arnie’s ultimate thumbs down and zooming south on Highway 101, Susan Jordan reflected on the past three years. “People didn’t thinkthis thing was stoppable. When we started, the governor had already made public comments saying Cabrillo Port was, for him, a preferred project : There was just so much money and influence behind it.” But for Jordan, who is State Assemblymember Pedro Nava’s better half and a life-long ocean adovcate, the uphill nature of the battle was a moot point. In 2004, with her eyes on the three separate California-specific LNG projects racing relatively unimpeded through the permitting process, Jordan formed a statewide stakeholders group of agencies and organizations concerned with the sudden proliferation of plans for these foreign fossil-fuel facilities. Thus the resistance was born.
When the first of these proposals hit the Environmental Impacts Review (EIR) step of the approval ladder, Jordan and the California Coastal Protection Network enlisted Santa Barbara’s EDC to help stoke the fires of their fight. Having worked extensively with the EDC and Krop in the past on offshore oil and gas lease issues and the Hearst Ranch, Jordan knew the brand of firepower she was signing up. “EDC really does, in my opinion, do the best oil and gas work in the state if not the country,” explained Jordan. “If they were out in the private sector, they would be bazzillionaires.”
Reputations aside, Krop said that until Jordan came calling, the EDC hadn’t given much thought to the LNG issue since the late 1970s when a project planned for the Point Conception area was defeated by local activists. As a result, as Krop puts it, “Not only did we have to start from scratch but we had to do it fast.” Diving headlong into scientific and legal research, the EDC provided expert analysis during the EIR comment period to such a degree that, when the smoke cleared, the number of identified Class I “unmitigatable” negative impacts associated with the Cabrillo Port project had grown from just eight before the EDC stepped in to more than 20-a number which ultimately forced the governor’s hand in denying the project. Further, in the process of securing experts to comment on the project, the EDC brought forward Colorado-based climate change expert Rick Heede, who determined that the various methods by which the raw fuel would have been extracted in Australia, liquefied, shipped to the United States, and brought ashore via pipes to Los Angeles would have produced up to 25 million tons of greenhouse gases a year globally. A first-of-its-kind analysis in that it examined pollution on a worldwide scale, Heede’s data was specifically referenced by the CCC and the SLC in their respective votes to deny the project and also-thanks to the recently adopted State Assembly Bill 42 which makes greenhouse gas reduction a California priority-sets a strict precedent for the critiquing of all future LNG proposals.
TAKING IT NATIONAL
Not just doing battle on the science front, the EDC also launched an all-out legal campaign that has since led directly to two separate Congressional investigations currently underway in Washington. The unlikely plot twist first took a turn in July 2005, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unexpectedly reversed its opinion on the required air-quality offsets for the Cabrillo Port plan. Noting the aforementioned amount of smog, the EPA had prior to the July flip-flop upheld the Clean Air Act and mandated that BHP acquire “offsets” for the amount of pollution it would have been creating in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. As even the earliest draft of the EIR indicated, after all, the Cabrillo Port would have been the hands-down number-one air polluter in Ventura County had it come to fruition.
However, thanks to the EPA reversal, the project was placed under the jurisdiction of the federally controlled Channel Islands and taken out of the hands of the Ventura County Air Control District-a move enabled by a decades-old military-motivated loophole that would have allowed the Cabrillo plan to move forward without the need for any offsets. To those who had been following the approval process, this substantial shift reeked of corruption. The EDC made a Freedom of Information Act request into the EPA’s line of logic, and after sifting through thousands of pages of emails, what the EDC found was alarming. “It is the perfect example of what the Bush administration has done using politics to trump science,” explained Jordan. “Basically, instead of trying to comply with the law, [BHP] lobbied all the way to the White House and it worked.”
Thanks to the inquiry, a paper and email trail linking EPA offices in San Francisco, headquarters in Washington, the White House, Bush’s energy appointees, and BHP lobbyists was discovered, and though the specifics are still unknown, this much is clear: The idea to put the Cabrillo plan under the Channel Islands jurisdiction did not come from the San Francisco EPA office that was overseeing the project but rather was the direct result of questionably motivated Washington influence. Spurred by the EDC’s discovery, the head of the House Oversight Committee, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), is formally investigating the EPA and has recently expanded his detective work to include looks at the White House and BHP Billiton. Further, moved by the same info, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Lois Capps have recently revved up their own investigations into the matter.
HUNTER BECOMES THE HUNTED
Perhaps the biggest turning point in the campaign against the Cabrillo Port came during an early April State Lands Commission hearing on the subject in Oxnard. While the governor’s veto was the official nail in the coffin, the State Lands Commission’s narrow 2-to-1 vote against it was the real knockout blow. In what Sierra Club lawyer Mark Massara called the “single largest local coastal hearing in decades,” hundreds of anti-LNG activists packed the marathon 12-hour hearing. And while the hours of public testimony were emotional and informative, it was the hard line of questioning from Commissioners John Chiang and John Garamendi that provided the true TNT of the explosive proceeding.
Armed with an obviously deep breadth of knowledge on the subject, Garamendi peppered his own staff and BHP spokesperson Craig Meyer-who is also an attorney for Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver-with no-nonsense, to-the-point questions about the various environmental effects of the project and, most importantly, whether California actually needs the influx of such a “bridge” fuel on its way to more renewable energy sources. For LNG detractors in the crowd, the show put on by Garamendi and Chiang was, at times, better articulated and more heavy-hitting than if they had been asking the questions themselves. As Krop, who has seen her fair share of public hearings over the years, summed it up, “Gosh, it was just so impressive. To see elected officials really grasp the big issues like that was incredible.”
While it certainly was impressive, perhaps Krop should not have been so surprised. After all, she was part of a three-person Santa Barbara team that met with Garamendi and his staff just a few days before the hearing. Joined by Jordan and the CEC’s energy specialist Tam Hunt, the trio traveled to Los Angeles to get some face time with Garamendi. Knowing the degree to which BHP had been lobbying-even Australian Prime Minister John Howard had called Arnie-Hunt, Krop, and Jordan had their work cut out for them. “He [Garamendi] put us through the paces and asked some really, really tough questions,” Jordan recalls. That being said, when it came time for Garamendi to ask questions of BHP and his own staff-who were recommending approval of the project-he at times seemed to be reading out of the trio’s playbook. In a letter to colleagues the morning after the hearing, Hunt wrote, “It’s not often we can paint a direct line from our actions to official governmental actions. However, in the case of the State Lands Commission : we can point directly to our work in this area and the denial of this project.”
What Hunt is referring to is a CEC article that looked to answer the question “does California need LNG?” While older data cited in the EIR touted the need for LNG, Hunt had speculated in the article that increased energy efficiency on a statewide level coupled with the emergence of renewable energy sources would more than satisfy that need. Further, the increased use of LNG-though not nearly as dirty as more traditional fossil fuels-might actually stunt the speed by which we achieve a more renewable reality. Then, adding even more weight to his argument, Hunt informed Garamendi of an even more recent document-this one generated by the California utilities companies themselves-that as recently as 2006 projected a decade-long decline in California’s thirst for liquefied natural gas. It was the latter that particularly concerned Garamendi as the Cabrillo Port project was being pitched as a solution to an immediate problem. In the end, before casting their decisive votes, both Chiang and Garamendi specifically mentioned the question of need as being penultimate after taking into account the pollution such a facility could generate.
While BHP spokespeople remain hopeful of finding an alternative avenue into California for their LNG, the Cabrillo Port project as presently proposed is dead in the water. That being said, three other LNG facilities are creeping along the road toward approval in California. Though he rebuked the BHP plan for environmental shortcomings, Schwarzenegger also reaffirmed his belief that LNG has a place in the state and wrote as much in his veto statement, “Liquefied Natural Gas can and must be an important addition to California’s energy portfolio.” He went on to throw down a challenge of sorts to the companies currently seeking approval, essentially telling them that from here on out it is a competition and only the most eco-savvy of the bunch will get his thumbs-up.
“Any LNG import facility must meet the strict environmental standards California demands to continue to improve our air quality, protect our coast, and preserve our marine environment.” Schwarzenegger wrote. Susan Jordan has now turned her immediate efforts to just such an end. Hoping to ride the momentum of the Cabrillo Port decision, Jordan is trying to convince Sacramento-after unsucessful attempts for the past two years-of the need for an official state-certified LNG needs assessment and established criteria for judging all future projects. “People think these things are like power plants, but they’re not. They’re worse. And once they’re built they never go away,” Jordan said. “I like to think we really raised the bar with this victory, and my hope is we can keep it that way.”