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Sempra’s LNG Plant Fuels Controversy

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Mexico's President and the CEO of the San Diego energy company Sempra tout Sempra's new liquified natural gas plant as a new clean energy source for Baja and Southern California. The plant sits just north of Ensenada, on what was the last stretch of pristine coastline between that city and Los Angeles. The plant has fueled concern that Mexico and Sempra have gambled on LNG to the detriment of the region. KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson brings us the first report of four on liquefied natural gas.

Hundreds of guests stood just a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

They were there to inaugurate Sempra's new liquefied natural gas plant .

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon told the crowd, "Today we are sowing the seeds that will allow our children to see a better Mexico."

Sempra spent a billion dollars on its liquefied natural gas or LNG plant.

Tankers from places like Indonesia and the Middle East will bring the LNG. That's natural gas cooled into a liquid.

Natural gas from those countries is dirtier than the natural gas that Baja and California currently use.

Sempra will sell a fraction of the fuel to Mexico's power company .

Sempra plans to sell the rest across the border. (View PDF map of Sempra's gas supply ) Though, it doesn't have any customers yet.

Donald Felsinger - he's Sempra's CEO - told guests the facility is good for the region.

Donald Felsinger: So today, not only is the air cleaner, but the future is brighter.

Lawyers and environmentalists on both sides of the border fought Sempra's plant for years.

They lost. But lawsuits are pending.

For 25 years, the land where Sempra built was zoned for tourism and homes.

But, when Sempra filed for permits, the Mexican government changed the rules.

Carla Garcia is an environmental attorney in Tijuana.

She says, what's more, until Sempra's proposal, Mexico didn't have any LNG laws.

She imagines the conversation.

Carla Garcia: I think it was something like, you don't have a law? You need standards? We have these. And, suddenly, magically, there was a law that was approved. It was one of the fastest Mexican official norms ever passed.

In California, strict rules have blocked LNG terminals from being built.

So has community opposition. People worry about safety. And they don't want the country to become dependent on yet another foreign fossil fuel.

Critics of Sempra's plant share those concerns.

They say a spill at the plant could create a highly flammable gas cloud. They say computer models show it could spread to a residential community a few miles away.

Sempra refused to discuss its emergency measures. The nearest fire department is 14 miles.

Daniel Martinez boils water over his morning campfire. He guards a ranch next to Sempra.

For forty years, he lived on the beach were the company built its plant.

Daniel Martinez: (Translated from Spanish) We used to fish for sea urchins, mussels, lobster. We used to make our living doing that. Sempra kicked us off our land.

Martinez says Sempra promised job for everyone in the area. It hired 3000 people.

But, the jobs disappeared when construction finished.

Daniel Martinez: (Translated from Spanish) They fired everyone, the brought in their own personnel.

From people's well being to the ocean's health…Marine biologist are concerned about sea life near Sempra's plant.

The facility will suck in one-hundred million gallons of seawater everyday to warm the LNG back to gas.

Pete Raimondi: When that pipe goes on, everything comes in there. Tuna larvae, lobster larvae.

Pete Raimondi is a marine biologist at the University of California Santa Cruz.

He says California banned new power plants from using the practice because it's destructive.

He likens it to someone with pneumonia catching strep throat.

Pete Raimondi: For these types of coastal systems, they're like these compromised immune systems and, at some point, you just can't fight off any more insults to the system.

Sempra officials refused to explain why they chose to use seawater. Nor will they say how they'll mitigate any damage.

Bill Powers is an environmental engineer in San Diego. He says what Sempra did in Baja California, could not have been done north of the border.

Bill Powers: Cheaper, simpler less oversight in Mexico. It does nothing for Baja California.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and air quality monitors on both sides of the border worry air pollution will worsen if LNG from Sempra's plant starts flowing to Baja and Southern California.

Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

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