What follows is nothing more than a statement of my beliefs; any correspondence between my beliefs and the truth is purely coincidental. In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I represent an organization fighting liquified natural gas in California.
I love KPBS, but I get nauseous every time I hear its announcers promote Sempra Energy and liquified natural gas (LNG). KPBS gives Sempra an air of credibility that it definitely does not deserve. Under pseudo regulation by the California Public Utilities Commission – real regulation presupposes that the regulators are not beholden to the firms they regulate – Sempra is working hard to screw ratepayers and the Earth…legally. It’s an environmental/economic double-whammy. (Other energy companies are lock-step with Sempra in working over their ratepayers. I’m picking on Sempra today because it’s a San Diego company that doesn’t give a damn about what’s in the best interests of San Diegans.)
To understand the double-whammy, first you must understand what Sempra has in store for us. It has built an LNG facility on what used to be a cherished surfing spot in Baja California, where even generous estimates don’t show enough Mexican natural-gas demand to sustain the facility for at least 20 years. Even though North America has plenty of natural gas to meet future demand – and that’s according to the energy-company-friendly U.S. government – Sempra succeeded in persuading investors to believe that the West Coast must import natural gas in order to meet Sempra’s doomsday projections, and thus to finance the Baja California project.
The only reason investors signed onto the project is that Sempra managed to persuade the CPUC – with offerings no more compelling than candies and roses – that it is OK for California utilities, two of which Sempra owns, to enter into long-term, high-priced contracts for natural gas from Mexico as a way of promoting “supply diversity.” (Think about it: diversity through incest.)
Of course, supplying LNG is not as simple as building a goliath facility on a pristine beach a few miles south of the border or co-opting a powerful regulatory agency. There’s much, much more to it than saddling the public with greater energy dependence on fossil fuels. First, you have to extract the gas (usually from developing countries that have few if any laws to protect the environment from the inevitable destruction that accompanies natural-gas extraction), then cool it substantially so that it turns from gas to a liquid (hence, “liquified” natural gas), then pump it into a super-sized super-tanker that carries it across the ocean (smoking on the ship is typically prohibited, for fear of causing an explosion akin to the detonation of a small nuclear warhead), then unload it at a transfer facility built on a beautiful shoreline or close to it (just like Sempra did in Baja), and then pump the gas from the transfer facility into the distribution infrastructure for delivery to end-users.
So how does Sempra benefit in San Diego from LNG in Baja California? That’s where the Sunrise PowerStink proposal comes into play. (I know it’s called “PowerLink,” but the project stinks so much that I’m taking some poetic license.) Sunrise is supposed to transmit electricity through the very beautiful Anza-Borrego State Park to San Diego from renewable energy sources in the Imperial Valley. Meanwhile – and this is a key point – Sunrise will also be connected to natural-gas-burning power plants outside California (e.g., in Arizona and Mexico).
(Now I know that the pieces are starting to fit together, but don’t spoil my fun with this blog. I’m an amateur and have been looking forward to delivering a good punch line ever since I agreed to host Café San Diego.)
Guess where the gas-burning power plants outside California are going to get their fuel? That’s right! From Sempra’s Baja California facility! Sempra is going to send its natural gas to those power plants through a pipeline from Baja California, and those power plants are going to burn the gas to make electricity that they will send (along with a little bit of renewable energy) to San Diego.
Ordinarily I’d say that there’s nothing wrong with this sort of creative business model, but in this case, the ratepayers, the public, and the planet are getting a raw deal. Let me spell out just a little bit of it…
First, you and I will be forced to pay for yet another energy scam. Sempra will be seeking the CPUC’s approval to pass on the costs of Sunrise to ratepayers. The CPUC is essentially Sempra’s lap dog and will do whatever Sempra asks, with only token oversight at best, and is sure to fall all over itself trying to approve Sunrise as quickly as possible. I would not mind paying for a project that is truly necessary to advance San Diego’s consumption of renewable energy, but that minuscule aspect of the Sunrise project is on the table solely so that Sunrise can be touted as a “renewable-energy project.”
Calling Sunrise a renewable-energy project is like calling me Russell Crowe back in the days of “Master and Commander”: We’re both men with pony tails, but that’s as far as the similarities go. (He’s famous, good-looking, wealthy, plays the violin…)
Second, natural gas is a hydrocarbon and contributes to global warming. Doesn’t anyone at Sempra or the CPUC read the newspaper? The world is going to be in deep water (pun intended!) if we do not put an end to our addiction to natural gas and other petroleum-based energy products now! Sure, burning natural gas generally is easier on the environment than burning coal is, but the benefits of burning natural gas instead of coal pale in comparison to the benefits of renewable fuels over natural gas.
Third, burning imported LNG poses a grave threat to air quality and safety, and not just global warming. In a proceeding now before the CPUC, in which the Commissioners predictably rubber-stamped Sempra’s proposal, Southern California Edison offered expert testimony that the quality of imported LNG could cause consumers’ gas-burning appliances to fail (i.e., explode) because certain contaminants in the imported gas eat away at the seals and fittings in our gas plumbing; and the South Coast Air Quality Management District offered expert testimony that air pollution will increase due to certain chemical and physical properties of the imported gas. The SCE, SCAQMD, and my client all urged the CPUC to conduct an environmental review before approving LNG, but the CPUC said that Sempra and other companies would miss too many money-making opportunities if there were a study of the potential harm to the public and the environment. (Actually, the CPUC agreed that more study is needed but concluded that now is not the time for it, which basically amounts to the same thing I just said.)
Fourth, multinational corporations have mastered the art of destroying the environment and indigenous cultures in developing countries when they extract natural resources like natural gas. Read Joe Kane’s “Savages” for a wonderful account of yet another disgusting chapter in the life of energy companies that couldn’t care less about the social and environmental havoc they wreak around the world. (To be balanced, I should mention that corporations have mastered the art of raping and pillaging ecosystems and communities in developed countries, too.)
Fifth, we don’t need more natural-gas-burning power plants in order to meet our energy needs and achieve energy independence. Several years ago, the CPUC, the California Energy Commission, and one other state agency adopted the Energy Action Plan; they don’t follow it, but they adopted it. The EAP urges the pursuit of conservation measures and the development of renewable-energy sources before creating more hydrocarbon-slurping power plants. In the LNG proceeding I mentioned above, the CPUC likes to cite to the EAP when it helps to make a point in favor of LNG. Not surprisingly, the Commissioners hate when anyone else cites the EAP to make the point that they’re ignoring it and that they’ve have got their heads up their you-know-whats. We need conservation and renewable-energy development, not more of the same dirty, destructive energy.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
In sum, the Sunrise PowerStink project is a scam designed to help Sempra generate revenues to pay for an LNG facility in Baja California that otherwise could not pay for itself. You and I will have to pay for it through higher natural-gas rates and through enormous, potentially irreversible environmental destruction.