IT IS TRAVERSED by earthquake faults, buffeted by ocean gales and strafed by Air Force missiles launched nearby. That doesn't make Point Conception, Calif., your ideal site for a highly explosive liquefied natural gas terminal. If you add the fact that Point Conception is also sacred Indian ground and an environmentally fragile wildlife sancturary, you have to wonder how Californians could have even considered the spot for an LNG port -- or how Washington could have approved the location.
The answer lies in California's two-year-old experiment with "fast-track" energy legislation, the Terminal Siting Act of 1977, which sped the Point Conception plan past the decision-making safeguards designed to prevent such a blunder.
How this happened should be instructive to those in Congress who are wrestling with how much, if any, power a national Energy Mobilization Board should have to trample on other federal laws. Despite administration opposition, the House voted last week to let the planned board ignore antitrust, water rights, environmental, labor, civil rights and other considerations in order to hurry up "priority" energy projects. The California experience should produce some serious second thoughts when conferees meet to reconcile the House measure with a more limited Senate version.
The theory behind California's Terminal Siting Act, like that behind the federal fast-tract bill, is that winning the energy war requires sacrificing procedures that were affordable before the foreign oil stranglehold was upon us. But the reality, the California case shows, is that more than red tape is cut in the name of deadlines and efficiency.
Critical seismic and other data for the proposed Point Conception terminal, for example, could not be collected within the 10 months required by the Siting Act. If it has been, the site would have been eliminated as an option; the information ultimately revealed that the proposed terminal would sit directly atop one active earthquake fault, be surrounded by at least four others and be exposed to the "potential effects" of 36 faults in all.
The "existence of an active earthquake fault on a proposed LNG terminal site is absolutely disqualifying under the criteria we employ for judging LNG sites and would eliminate any such site from further consideration," said the staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency with federal jurisdiction over the proposed site, in a May, 1978 letter to California officials.
That same month, the California Coastal Commission submitted its evaluation of four possible sites to the state's Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the final arbiter.
The Coastal Commission ranked Point Conception third, and warned that its ranking "does not take into account the recently confirmed presence of a potentially active earthquake fault, because this fact would have caused the [Coastal] Commission to eliminate the site from consideration."
Point Conception was not eliminated because the Siting Act specifically required the Coastal Commission to rank whatever site was advocated by the party seeking a permit, and that site was Point Conception.
The Coastal Commission's "rankings" were only a formality for another reason: the Siting Act gave exclusive state authority to approve the LNG port to the California Public Utilities Commission. During "energy peacetime," the Coastal Commission, the state Energy Commission and county and district governments would have shared jurisdiction over the LNG terminal. Those agencies unanimously objected to Point Conception, but they had no power to block the project.
Despite all this opposition, the utilities commission approved Point Conception on July 31, 1978. The decision, however, was made contingent on completion of further seismic studies, including one which Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus ordered the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct. That earthquake data has still not been issued today -- 13 months after the state agreed to Point Conception and a month after the federal government concurred with that decision.
For its part, Western Lng aSsociates, a subsidiary of Pacific Lighting and Pacific Gas & Electric that was organized to build and operate the terminal, claims additional earthquake studies are necessary only to determine design needs. The federal Transportation Department's office of pipeline safety, however, has said that seismologists cannot determine the potential destructiveness of earthquake faults. The Western LNG design has not been tested. California's "Cape Horn";
Even if one assumes that Californians are inured to earthquake dangers by now, there are other eyebrow-raising environmental considerations. Point Conception is a fragile area, harboring 19 species whose existence is touch-and-go. It also offers one of California's most scenic coastlines, with renowned commercial fishing and surfing.
Winds and waves off the point, which marks the intersection of northern and southern currents, have buried dozens of ships and earned it the nickname "the Cape Horn of California." Gales of 70 knots are not uncommon, according to testimony before the state utilities commission.
The liquefied natural gas, frozen to 260 degrees below zero and concentrated to one-600th its natural volume, would arrive in an estimated 190 supertankers annually. It would be unloaded at an offshore pier, then be moved through underwater pipes to four storage tanks, each 13 stories high and containing 550,000 barrels of liquid gas.
If tankers or storage tanks should rupture, a cloud of gas could be released to float as far as 50 miles. It would take just one spark to ignite the sky into a 3,000-degree inferno. Numerous fatal LNG explosions have, in fact, already occurred, the most recent at a Cove Point, Md., terminal.
The Air Force has also thrown its hat into the ring. Point Conception is six miles south of Vandenberg Air Force Base, home of the U.S. Space and Missile Test Center. On Aug. 30, Air Force Systems Command asked to present evidence to FERC about the national security effects of an LNG port at Point Conception. The proposed terminal, the Air Force said, is within an area where launch debris could reasonably be expected to fall, and placing a terminal within the base's "safety footprint" would be a threat to human safety.
Three weeks later the Air Force abruptly withdrew its petition. In the interim, Air Force officials and Western LNG "resolved" the military concerns.
Western LNG consented to a "hold-harmless" pact that would void Air Force responsibility for injury or death caused by launch debris falling on the terminal. No mention was made of how such an agreement would protect the terminal if it were struck by launch debris. Western LNG also consented to build shelters and to design evacuation routes from the terminal, for use when the Air Force launches missiles in Point Conception's direction. The "Western Gate";
Point Conception is the gateway to the heavens not only for modern missiles but for American Indian tribes in the area as well. Known by the local Chumash Indians as the "Western Gate," Point Conception is their sacred land, their Wailing Wall or St. Peter's Basilica.
When Western LNG decided to tear up the land in search of seismic clues, it neglected to consult with, or even inform, the Chumash. "I hated to pick up a newspaper and find out my grandmother was being dug up," said Archie Fire Lame Deer, a medicine man working with the Chumash.
This issue goes back to 1977. In July of that year, the Native American Heritage Commission, a state agency, asked the Santa Barbara Indian Center to participate in an information-gathering trip to Point Conception. The trip confirmed Indian interest in the area.
The following February, an archeological examination verified the existence of former Indian villages at the location. The Heritage Commission held hearings, reaffirming the Chumash's spiritual and historic relationship to Point Conception. But the Heritage Commission, like other agencies, was overruled by the utilities commission, thanks to the fast-track Siting Act.
In May 1978 the utilities commission held its own hearings on the Indian issue. The same day the Chumash were scheduled to testify, Western LNG began digging trenches at Point Conception to measure the faults. Infuriated, 40 Chumash occupied the area. Six weeks later, they called off the occupation when Western LNG agreed to discontinue trenching, other than the work already begun. But two months later Western LNG announced plans to recommence digging. Shortly after that there began a nine-month occupation that drew more that 100 Indians, many from other states.
The native American Rights Fund has taken the Indians' case to court, arguing that both the National Historic Preservation Act and the Indian Religious Freedom Act have been violated by the decision to put an LNG terminal at Point Conception.
The fast-track bill has, in fact, legislated Californians into a LNG terminal corner.
Because LNG is a relatively unknown and therefore unpredictable commodity, the law requires any storage facility to be as far as possible from populated areas. Only Point Conception, of an original slate of 82 proposed sites, met the act's remoteness criteria.
Before the bill was passed in September 1977, Western LNG's choice for a terminal was Oxnard, 50 miles southeast of Point Conception and not on top of earthquakes or Indian holy land. A FERC administrative law judge had approved Oxnard and the California utilities commission had agreed with that decision months before the Terminal Siting Act was law. But when word leaked that August from Sacramento that the state legislature was ready to pass a siting bill with remoteness criteria that would eliminate Oxnard, Western LNG and the utilities commission suddenly said they preferred Point Conception.
Federal and state officials agree that only Point Conception would meet the act's remoteness criteria -- without additional evaluation of alternate sites. But here is where the fast-track bill backs Californians into a corner: The utilities commission would violate the act's 10-month deadline if it conducted such additional site evaluation.
Left with a decision that never offered a choice, the utilities commissioners "chose" to insist on the suitability of Point Conception, totally ignoring their own staff's opposition to the site. A dubious premise
The premise behind the accelerated decision-makng in California was that a liquefied natural gas terminal is crucial to avoid gas shortages predicted for the state. That premise, however, has become increasingly dubious with the growth of projected gas production from Alaska and the Southwest and with the recent agreement to import Mexican natural gas.
Gov. Brown and California's two largest gas companies, Southern California Gas and Pacific Electric & Gas, still insist that the LNG terminal will save the state from massive unemployment and energy shortages in the 1980s. The predicted natural gas crunch, after all, was the reason Brown disappointed many of his environmentalist backers by actively supporting the Siting Act to "expedite" a hazard-ridden, capital-intensive receiving terminal for LNG tankers carrying largely Indonesian gas.
Those environmentalists who supported Brown's LNG decision contend the tanker terminal is a trade-off to the energy firms and labor unions for a virtual moratorium on nuclear power in the state. But, if so, it may be more compromising for Jerry Brown than meets the eye. For questions have been raised, at least, about whether the governor could have other reasons for signing the Sitting Act.
Brown's father, former Gov. Pat Brown, and the Brown family have a controlling interest in the holding company which owns Perta Oil Marketing Co., the U.S. marketing agent for Indonesia's state-owned oil and gas firm, Pertamina. Pat Brown's Beverly Hills law firm also helped draft the LNG fast-track bill and lobbied extensively to win approval for the Point Conception terminal.
Jerry Brown received campaign contributions from Perta Oil Marketing Co. and from Southern California Gas, one of the utilities that will use the imported LNG. In addition, two top aides in Brown's 1974 gubernatorial campaign, Chuck Winner and Eathan Wagner, are now public relations and lobbying agents for the utilities' LNG terminal proposal.
A Brown spokesman dismisses all suggestions of a conflict of interest as "absolutely not true." The governor, he says, "probably looks more harshly on that company [Perta Oil Marketing Co.] to avoid even the possibility of a conflict of interest."
What happens now to this entire "fast-track" dispute, at least in California? There is an alternative there to Point Conception.
In September, the federal Economic Regulatory Administration (ERA) released a document clearing the way to use Oxnard. Reaffirming the congressional mandate for exclusive federal responsibility for LNG sites, the agency said that federal regulators -- including FERC -- are not compelled to comply with California's Terminal Siting Act or with its remote siting criteria.
But while one branch of the Energy Department -- the ERA -- was challenging the Siting Act's applicability to federal actions, another branch -- FERC -- was bending over backwards to comply with the state statute. On Oct. 12, FERC commissioners approved Point Conception, despite the recommendation of their staff counsel, who asked: "Will federal . . . decision-makers reject the overwhelming record superiority of one site [Oxnard] to accept an arbitrary state legislative directive [the 1977 Terminal Sitting Act] for a completely unacceptable other site?"
If there is indeed no reconsideration of the Oxnard site or a reversal on appeal of the FERC decision, the star-crossed child of California's fast-track legislation will be born among winds, earthquake faults, missile debris and spirits at Point Conception.