Skip to main content

Sempra’s Plan to Import Liquefied Gas Raises Health Concerns



Southern California has some of the dirtiest air in the country. And air quality monitors say if San Diego-based Sempra Energy moves ahead with plans to import liquefied natural gas, the air will be even more polluted. They say public health and the environment are at risk. In the second of KPBS’s four-part series on the effects of Sempra’s push to bring in foreign natural gas, Reporter Amita Sharma has more.


If you live in San Diego, you may not think about it but much of your everyday life is driven by natural gas.


It fuels two thirds of our transit buses.


It powers gas stoves in homes so we can cook, heats our water so we can bathe and warms up our swimming pools.


Natural gas has been used in the Southland for decades because it is cleaner…it creates fewer smog forming and toxic emissions when burned than other fossil fuels. But not all natural gas is created equal.


Next year, Sempra Energy plans to pipe into the region natural gas from Indonesia and the Middle East through its new Mexican terminal called Costa Azul. Here’s how: The gas will be chilled into liquefied natural gas, shipped in on tankers and then be reheated at Costa Azul and moved into the San Diego market.


This foreign natural gas burns hotter and dirtier.

Atwood: Tests already done by the natural gas industry in California have shown the use of this so-called hot gas increases the pollution up to a doubling of the emissions in a variety of appliances in which it’s used.

Sam Atwood is with the Southern California Air Quality Management District. His agency and Sempra’s own experts estimate burning the hotter gas on home appliances alone could release into the air an additional 1-point-two tons of nitrogen oxide each day. Nitrogen oxide is a building block for the region’s two worst air pollutants… ozone and fine particles.

Atwood: They’re associated with increases in respiratory symptoms, increases in hospital and doctor’s visits, and fine particles are associated with slowed lung growth in children.

Jean Ospital is AQMD’s health expert.

Ospital: Asthma symptoms can be worse. You can have premature deaths with fine particles as well as with ozone.

Unlike Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties, all of the natural gas consumed in this county will be the hotter imported Liquefied Natural Gas, according to the California Energy Commission.  That’s because once, the LNG reaches other parts of Southern California, it will be blended with cooler gas coming from sources elsewhere in the United States. Bill Powers is a local consulting engineer.

Powers: San Diego County is ground zero in terms of air quality impacts of hot LNG 100 percent of the gas in our pipelines in San Diego would be this hot LNG and would carry with it additional nitrogen oxide emissions that would come from the hotter gas.

And that is a major setback for clean air here according to Steve Moore at San Diego County Air Pollution Control District. The region has already run afoul of two federal rules on ozone.

Moore: That’s fairly significant -- we’re very close to attaining one of the eight-hour federal ozone standards. In our view any increase is counterproductive.

Not so say Sempra’s own experts. In testimony before state regulators, they didn’t dispute that hotter gas will increase nitrogen oxide… emissions. They just didn’t think the emissions would be significant. Sempra would not agree to a taped interview as others did for this piece. KPBS submitted written questions to the company and received written responses. Sempra PR manager Denise King said any LNG the company imports will have to meet the gas quality specifications established by the California Public Utilities Commission.


Two years ago, the commission decided to allow the hotter gas by changing its rules….despite objections from the agencies that monitor air quality.

Again, the AQMD’s Atwood.

Atwood: We tried long and hard to convince the Public Utility Commissioners without any results that this was not a good direction to go for the public health of millions and millions of Californians.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore how that happened in part III of our series.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.



San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.