Shell Seeks Vallejo Foothold For Overseas Gas

A proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on Mare Island in San Pablo Bay would pose major health and safety threats while increasing California’s vulnerability to the natural gas market, say energy consultants.
“Renewables could meet our needs,” said CalPIRG policy analyst Brad Heavner. “This [project] would guarantee further reliance on foreign fossil fuels when we really don’t need it.”
The $1.3 billion LNG facility, proposed by Shell Gas and Power and Bechtel Enterprises, would bring in as many as three tankers of LNG each week under the Golden Gate Bridge. As early as December, Vallejo’s city council will vote whether to go forward with a feasibility study on the plan.
LNG — natural gas cooled to –270°F to drastically reduce its volume — is explosive in contained spaces, and highly flammable when mixed with air. If the 950-foot tanker leaks, LNG can form a ground-hugging plume up to three miles long, according to a US Department of Energy study.
The plume, says San Diego air quality consultant Bill Powers of the Border Power Plant Working Group, “looks just like a low-lying fog.” It ignites at the first spark it meets. “You see the flame traveling back towards the tanker or other LNG source in a matter of seconds,” says Powers, “and there’s no way to stop that. And if there’s anything [flammable] on the ground, it will also ignite.”
The proposed LNG site is a quarter-mile from a planned 1,400-home development scheduled for groundbreaking on Mare Island mid-2004, and less than a mile from Vallejo’s waterfront.
In 1944, an LNG leak at a power plant in Cleveland created a fire that killed 128 people and leveled a square mile of the city.
A 1979 LNG fire in Cove Point, Massachusetts, killed one person. No major accidents have involved LNG tankers, but the ships are, says energy consultant Bill Marcus, “a major terrorist target. You want to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge? Ram an airplane into one of these things as it passes beneath it.”
Due to security concerns, LNG tankers entering Boston Harbor now travel with a two-mile buffer zone, enforced by the Coast Guard. In July, LNG importer El Paso Corporation withdrew its proposal to build an LNG facility on Radio Island in South Carolina, after local residents raised safety concerns.
At the Mare Island facility, which would include a tanker unloading dock and a re-gasification plant to return LNG to its expanded state, Shell would use only 15% of the gas to fuel a 900-megawatt power plant, sending the rest — potentially 5,100 megawatts’ worth — into the state market. That’s about 50% of the entire output of all the new gas-fired plants recently approved for construction statewide. It would provide a foothold in California’s natural gas market to Shell, the world’s largest producer of natural gas from outside the United States. According to industry reports, the company is not a major domestic producer, and owns none of the pipelines that supply natural gas to Californians, nor any of the four LNG terminals on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Asked if the company was banking on higher consumer prices, Shell spokesperson Jimmy Fox said, “We expect California to continue to grow. LNG is a profitable product.” Says CalPIRG’s Heavner: “The only way it will be profitable is if our energy prices go up.”
And that’s exactly what will happen, says Tyson Slocum of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, so long as California fails to diversify its energy sources. “As multiple federal investigations are showing,” says Slocum, “the real problem in the California energy market was not necessarily inadequate power plants. It was the manipulation of natural gas supplies and access to power plants.”
The more Californians rely on a single fuel source, Slocum says, the more vulnerable we are to the companies that control it — and, in Shell’s case, to the countries that produce it: likely Pacific Rim countries such as Indonesia. With increased demand for gas, the Department of Energy projects an increase in LNG imports from overseas sources. “After our traumas in the Middle East,” says Powers, “why would we set up such a tenuous supply line?”
News of the Shell/Bechtel LNG proposal came just as Vallejo earned the local air district’s 2002 Clean Air Champion award for proposed solar and wind projects [see Terrain, Winter 2001]. Both plans are in initial stages, according to city officials.
The LNG proposal surprised Vallejo residents who had been told that part of Mare Island would soon become a regional park. The island provides habitat to a wide range of raptors and songbirds who live on or migrate through it. Mare Island is also home to the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse.
Residents also fear the plant would jeopardize plans to revitalize Vallejo’s beleaguered economy. “This would be an economic kiss of death,” says Vallejo resident Vicki Gray. “It would doom us to being a dirty blue collar town, ad infinitum. There are many more jobs that would be lost than would be gained.”
Solano County, which includes Vallejo, has the highest asthma rate in the Bay Area. Natural gas facilities burn cleaner than coal or oil. “[But] you’ve got high emissions of methane, of CO2,
sulfur dioxide, mercury, PCB, nitrogen oxide,” says Slocum.
“It’s going to be a significant source of emissions.”

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