Deadline looms for decision on LNG port

With two state panel rejections already on the books, all focus is on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has until Monday to decide his official stance on BHP Billiton’s proposed liquefied natural gas facility off the coast of Malibu.

Even if the governor approves the project, it might not be relevant, as the Australian energy and mining giant still will need to get the State Lands Commission and California Coastal Commission votes overturned by the courts. But project opponents say the governor’s decision is still important because it will give an indication on how Schwarzenegger stands on the LNG issue.

Last month’s U.S. Coast Guard hearing on the proposal, which would anchor a 1,000-foot terminal 14 miles off the Malibu coast, triggered a 45-day review period for Schwarzenegger. A spokesperson for the governor’s office gave no insight into which way Schwarzenegger is leaning.

“A determination will be made at the end of the 45-day review period,” said Schwarzenegger spokesperson Bill Maile.

Susan Jordan, who heads the California Coastal Protection Network and who has been fighting against the development of Cabrillo Port for nearly four years, said she expects Schwarzenegger to make a decision as soon as Friday.

The governor has three options: He could reject the project, which would essentially kill it outside of some sort of federal-government intervention; he could also approve it, giving BHP Billiton a glimmer of hope; or he could do nothing, which would be the same thing as an approval.

“I think it’s a big deal in the sense it’s an important signal,” Jordan said. “I think it’s important for him to clarify his position on this project, and it would give us further insight on how he’s viewing LNG in California.”

Both state panels slammed BHP Billiton’s proposal for what they said were various environmental problems it presented, including air pollution. The State Lands Commission, which ruled against the project 2-1 (the lone “yes” vote coming from a Schwarzenegger staff member), can only be reversed through a lawsuit. The Coastal Commission’s unanimous vote against Cabrillo Port can be appealed to U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Guitierrez, and that decision could be sent to a judge as well. What BHP Billiton will do is not clear.
“We’ll have to assess what we do once the governor makes his decision,” company spokesperson Patrick Cassidy said this week.

Schwarzenegger has made statements in support of LNG as an energy source, but he has never commented on Cabrillo Port specifically, except to say he will review all the information.

Jordan said she has briefed the governor’s staff on why she believes the project is a bad idea. The mayor of Oxnard also traveled to Sacramento on a separate trip with a City Council member from that city to voice opposition to Cabrillo Port. Malibu City Council member Andy Stern said he had planned to go with them, but he had a schedule conflict.

However, Stern said, “The governor is well aware of the city of Malibu’s view on this issue.

“I would hope that he would listen to the State Lands Commission and the Coastal Commission, and go along with their decisions,” Stern said. “[The governor’s office has] heard from hundreds of people who testified, read thousands of documents. I hope that he would respect their dedication and knowledge.”

Malibu City Council member Pamela Conley Ulich said this week that she had been trying to get in touch with the governor’s staff, but was not successful. She said she does not take that as indication he supports the project.

“I’m going to be optimist,” Ulich said. “He’s going to do the right thing.”
Jordan, who would not speculate how Schwarzenegger will vote, said if he were to support the project, the governor would send a bad message.

“It encourages [BHP Billiton] to sue the State Lands Commission and appeal the California Coastal Commission decision, which I don’t think they have a very good chance at succeeding on anyhow. [What the company should do] is come up with a different design, something that meets the letter of the law and which is better suited for California. Really, in terms of their best interest, they would be well advised to move quickly in that direction, instead of wasting time with lawsuits.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton has until July 3 to weigh in on the project. He could issue a federal license with conditions, but that would require the state commissions’ decisions to be overturned and for the governor to support the terminal.

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