Last week-in a mini-victory for enviros-a plan to convert an existing S.B. Channel oil rig (like the one pictured) into an LNG facility was temporarily put on hold by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Paul Wellman (file)

With eyes on more than 400 environmental and safety concerns, the U.S. Coast Guard officially stopped the clock last week on the approval process for the liquefied natural gas (LNG) project planned for the southern stretches of the Santa Barbara Channel. A proposal from Texas-based NorthernStar Energy to convert the Platform Grace oil rig-some 10 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara and directly adjacent to the boundaries of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary-into an LNG facility had been on a fast-tracked review process that could have seen the Clearwater Port project approved as soon as next June-until now, that is.

In a letter sent directly to NorthernStar on October 30, the Coast Guard, in conjunction with the U.S. Maritime Administration, put an indefinite halt to the 240-day approval process, pending additional review of the project. Santa Barbara Channelkeeper Executive Director Kira Redmond, whose organization been leading the charge against the proposal, was pleasantly surprised by the ruling. “It’s great to see this decision-especially after the application was deemed complete,” Redmond explained. “Given the long-term and potentially serious impacts this project poses to the environment, marine life, and the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, I am very glad that the Coast Guard is taking the time to look into things and give a more thorough review.”

The Clearwater Port project comes in the immediate wake of the soundly defeated BHP Billiton Cabrillo Port LNG plan. Shot down by a perfect storm of opposition this past spring and denied by the State Lands Commission, the California Coastal Commission, and Governor Schwarzenegger, the Cabrillo plan-a proposed floating terminal offshore from Oxnard-also had its project clock stopped by the Coast Guard during its approval gauntlet so that similar air quality, water quality, and actual energy demand issues could be addressed.

Contracted by Channelkeeper to do the bulk of the legal and scientific heavy lifting in the fight against Clearwater is the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), which also played a key role in the Cabrillo denial. “Not only are there the same fundamental issues of concern with Clearwater that we had with Cabrillo, but I think there are actually some concerns that are even greater with Clearwater,” said EDC Chief Counsel Linda Krop. Specifically, what concerns Krop is the prospect of Clearwater running massive supertankers-sometimes twice a day-across international shipping lanes, around oil rigs, and through the waters of the marine sanctuary, not to mention fundamentally undermining the purpose of the sanctuary itself. Also of concern to Krop and others is the concept of converting an old oil rig into an LNG facility, a move which would extend the life of the platform by at least 30 years. As Krop put it, “There are certain safety issues that come with using an oil rig for something that it wasn’t even built for.”

For its part, NorthernStar representatives claim their plan, which aims to ship LNG to the rig and then turn it into vapor before sending it ashore via an underwater pipeline to Mandalay Bay in Ventura, is superior to the defunct Cabrillo plan and stands a much better chance of winning approval. Pointing to their planned use of existing structures, project spokesperson Billy Owens explained, “Our plan is geared specifically to adapting to the unique local environmental needs and, as a result, we will have significantly less impact on air emissions.” Calling the Coast Guard’s ruling a “fairly routine and small schedule delay,” Owens speculated that NorthernStar would be able to assuage concerns by early December. Even then, though, he admitted, “This is very much a moving target, and I am sure that as we move along, there will be even more concerns and requests.”


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