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Regulators Resist Environmental Review of Importing LNG

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San Diego and most of Southern California already violate federal clean air standards. Agencies responsible for monitoring air quality fear Sempra’s plan to import liquefied natural gas from overseas will increase pollution and jeopardize public health. They want an environmental review but so far regulators have resisted. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

Next spring, Sempra Energy plans to import foreign liquefied natural gas   through its new Mexican terminal in Baja California. The gas could be piped north to San Diego. This LNG from overseas tends to burn hotter on residential and commercial appliances like water heaters and large boilers.

Atwood: We’re still basically the most polluted region in the United States for ozone and for fine particulates.

Sam Atwood is with the Southern California Air Quality Management District. 

Atwood: The bottom line is this higher heat content means is that it results in more air pollution when it is burned. It can exacerbate existing heart and lung conditions and then there are many long-term effects that include a greatly increased number of premature deaths.

So how did Sempra get the green light from state regulators to import hotter burning natural gas when air quality agencies worry about the health hazard?

 

Environmentalists say the answer lies in part with the mindset at the California Public Utilities Commission two years ago. That’s when commissioners voted to allow the hotter gas by getting rid of a rule that required new gas entering California pipelines to have the same heat value as existing gas in the system. San Diego consulting engineer Bill Powers says at the time, the commission’s main focus was to reduce the state’s dependence on coal power.

Powers: It’s almost as if the PUC is frozen in time back when if it’s not coal it’s good and once you embrace that philosophy, it puts you in a defensive posture from then on out if it turns out there are some downsides to LNG that really weren’t perceived to be relevant at the time.

Air quality agencies were concerned about exactly those downsides and wanted more study. But the PUC refused. PUC engineer Belinda Gatti says an environmental review was unnecessary. Rather than an independent evaluation, the PUC appears to have relied on research done by Sempra subsidiary SoCal Gas. Gatti says the company’s trial run of liquefied natural gas from Qatar in May showed no major increase in emissions.

Gatti: Everything seems to have been working fine and as far as the information that we’ve been getting, there have been no changes.

Gatti refused to provide a copy of those test results saying they were confidential. She referred the request to a Sempra lobbyist in San Francisco who did not calls. Sempra PR manager Denise King says the field verification testing in May makes clear that previous concerns over likely emission impacts are vastly overstated…but again doesn’t say what the results were. A SoCal gas representative said the tests were still being evaluated.

 

One person who is familiar with those tests is Steve Moore at the San Diego County’s Air Pollution Control District.

Moore : I don’t think that those results are necessarily representative of the full extent of the potential emission impacts from the use of LNG as a fuel in San Diego County.

The Air Quality Management District and the city of San Diego sued the PUC to force an environmental review. The California Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Now the AQMD has filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking it to do an environmental report. The AQMD’s Atwood says if such a review finds the effects of LNG to be detrimental, Sempra should have to treat the gas before allowing it to flow into Southern California.

Atwood: We’re not proposing that natural gas be required to be much cleaner than it is. It’s already a clean fuel. All that we’re asking is that natural gas not become a dirtier fuel than it is today.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

 

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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.

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