News

Hearing on huge LNG plan draws hisses, boos, catcalls

Malibu has become ground zero in the political battle–closely watched in the
state Capitol–over whether to place a huge liquefied natural-gas facility
off the Southern California coast.

More than 300 Malibu residents vented their anger this week at a rowdy,
tempestuous hearing, loudly hissing and interrupting ship captains and
Australian government officials who appeared in support for BHP Billiton’s
proposed liquefied natural-gas terminal 13.8 miles off the Malibu coast. At
one point, jittery State Lands Commission officials asked sheriff’s
deputies–who were providing security for the hearing at Malibu High
School–to bring in backup from the highway patrol.

At least eight deputies and CHP officers were sent to the hearing. One
commission staffer worried aloud that “we’re losing control of the meeting.”
Commission attorney Mark Meir was concerned that having deputies to eject
unruly attendees “would open us up to charges that we’re biased against the
project.”

After eight BHP supporters had their turn at the microphone, a parade of
Malibu residents took turns lambasting the Australian company for deciding
the city’s southwestern ocean horizon is the best place in California to
anchor a ship with a set of three 14-story high round storage tanks that
would re-gasify liquefied natural gas (LNG) imported from around the world.

Some 48 people spoke against the Cabrillo Port project during the four-hour
hearing, according to one count, with 17 favoring it. Officials at the State
Lands Commission, which held the hearing, had played down the
popularity-contest aspect of the hearing, which was officially intended to
take evidence of possible weaknesses in the project’s second
environmental-impact report. If the State Lands Commission cannot get
sufficient explanations from BHP Billiton, these objections may further
delay or block Cabrillo Port, a state official said.

Critics fear that LNG tanks could explode, creating a fireball more than 14
miles wide. They also were concerned that transfer pipes could leak and that
wildlife could be endangered from the use of seawater to cool the ship’s
generators. Tim Riley, an Oxnard attorney who has fought LNG terminals for
three years, noted that “the techniques for transferring this
cryogenically frozen LNG from one ship to another has never been demonstrated anywhere on earth, and we will be the guinea pigs for this grand experiment that they assume will work out of the box.”

Ship captains, who traveled to Malibu from as far as New Jersey and Alaska,
attempted to assure people that the LNG industry’s 40-year record of
engineering and operational safety should end any fears. “I support the
Cabrillo Port project because LNG transportation has been proven to be
safe,” said Doug VanLeuven, a member of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial
Association.
But Malibu resident Valerie Sklarevsky wasn’t convinced.
“We don’t want your poison here, and we don’t want you to make a lot of
money here. If this thing explodes, do you think it will be people from
Australia who come over here to clean it up?” Despite the meeting’s purpose
to discuss the project’s EIR, the evening was largely spent with Malibu
residents voicing their opposition to it. “I don’t want it. It will be
visible from my house and I don’t want it,” insisted resident Tom Grubbs to
the cheers of most of the 300 people in the high-school auditorium.

Pointing at the maritime engineers, he lashed out at “those suits over
there, from all over the country, who flew in to Malibu to say they want it
because they will get checks from it.” A similar viewpoint was voiced by
every Malibu resident who spoke except one: Geoffrey Hunter, a retired
Rocketdyne engineer who lives on Point Dume. “There are no computerized
models, based on computer tests, that show any danger whatsoever to the
mainland,” he said. “There is no danger, and I am in favor of it.”

Much more typical was the comment of retired journalist Sam Hall Kaplan, who
lives in an ocean-view house:
“My view will be ruined, and that’s maybe worth a million dollars,” he said.
“Add up all the ocean views all over Malibu, and that’s a billion dollars
worth of real estate loss.” And just where does Billiton address that? The
feisty tone of the evening may have been set by the first speech, from a
visibly angry Malibu Mayor Andy Stern, who noted that Billiton had spent
millions of dollars lobbying state officials and wooing Ventura County
business interests to support Cabrillo Port.

“We don’t want your pizza, we don’t want your barbeque parties, and we sure
as heck don’t want your LNG terminal in our city!” Stern shouted. “I have
never before seen Malibu with such a feeling of unity on anything, and I
assure you the citizens of Malibu will fight you tooth and nail every single
step of the way,” Stern said. A pair of Australian government officials said
that Australia was a reliable trading partner that would only export natural
gas meeting the very highest environmental standards.

“We don’t care!” yelled one man in the audience, prompting applause and more
admonitions.

Cameron Wellwood, a surfer wearing a T-shirt that said “Kill LNG” on one
side and “Die LNG” on the other said, “I don’t really care about bringing in
natural gas just so the San Fernando Valley can use all your gas,” he said
in a speech laced with surfer terms.

Former city council candidate Ed Gillespie criticized the new
worst-case-scenario study, which expanded the potential size of a fireball
if an explosion from the LNG ship occurred from the original 1.6 miles
estimate to 14.4 miles across. “This is predicated on only 4.5 mile winds,”
he said. “You put some real winds behind that and your explosion is going to
end up in Malibu in a few minutes.”

And a real-estate agent, Natalie Soloway, expressed amazement that the
Billiton proposal had brought Malibu into the position of campaigning
alongside the California Coastal Protection Network (CCPN), which had
bitterly fought Malibu residents on coastal-access issues in years past.
“We’re even on the same side as [CCPN director] Susan Jordan, now, for
crying out loud,” she said.

Deputies remained outside and radioed for backup, and several minutes later
several CHP and sheriff’s cruisers arrived. By that time, Malibu residents
had begun their statements opposing the BHP Billiton proposal, and the crowd
had largely calmed. At the end of the night, even the ship captains seemed
nonplussed by the catcalls, boos and rude behavior exhibited during the
night. “Nah, we expected it, we’d be doing the same thing,” said one as he
left with his group for dinner at a seaside restaurant on a world-famous
Malibu beach.


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