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Monday, April 7, 2008 | The developers of the planned Carlsbad desalination plant offer an alluring pitch: They’ll harness the limitless ocean and produce enough drinking water to satiate the needs of more than 100,000 San Diego County families.

Those who have opposed Poseidon Resources Corp.’s desalination plant have long pointed to its effect on marine life. The pumps that draw in 100 million gallons of seawater each day can trap and crush eggs, larvae and small fish.

But as the county’s awareness of climate change has dawned, the plant’s opponents have seized on its sizeable carbon footprint, a byproduct of the energy-intensive process of sucking in seawater and filtering it through membranes that remove salt.

Poseidon has attempted to diffuse that argument by volunteering to offset some of its carbon dioxide emissions. Though the plant itself will not generate carbon dioxide, the power plants that provide its electricity will. So Poseidon has drafted a climate action plan, which details the steps it will take to offset greenhouse gas emissions, such as planting $1 million worth of trees in wildfire-affected areas of the county and investing $4.1 million in rooftop solar panels at the facility. Its efforts led Forbes magazine to recently name Poseidon one of the top 100 companies “going green.”

In news releases, the company claims the plant will be “the first major infrastructure project in the state to voluntarily eliminate its carbon footprint.”

But Poseidon will not eliminate the desalination plant’s entire footprint, and as the proposal winds through its final permitting steps, the gap has become a central focus for regulators. When the California Coastal Commission approved Poseidon’s proposal in November — the final hurdle before the plant could advance — it did so contingent on a more formal assessment of the company’s plan to offset its carbon dioxide emissions. The commission’s staff and Poseidon have differing views of how far the company must go to claim that the plant’s energy use will not impact climate change. The project returns to the commission for review in July.

Poseidon has not agreed to make the plant carbon neutral, a step that would require the company to zero out the emissions generated by its energy use. Peter MacLaggan, a Poseidon senior vice president, said doing so would render the $300 million project financially infeasible. Instead, Poseidon says the plant will be “net carbon neutral.”

Importing water from Northern California consumes vast amounts of energy, because the water must be pumped over mountains before reaching aquifers that feed Southern California. Poseidon says its desalinated water — a new source — will reduce demand for that imported water and therefore subtracts the energy that would be used to pump water to this region.

Poseidon estimates the plant will release 68,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of what’s released by 11,000 cars in a year or by burning 7 million gallons of gasoline. It then deducts 47,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which it says will be saved because water imports will drop.

The Coastal Commission’s staff disputes that the desalination plant’s water production will cut imports, which are already constrained. A court order has limited the amount of water that can be pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a supply also commonly called the State Water Project. With fish stocks in the delta on the brink of collapse, limits are expected to be in place for years to come. Southern California will likely draw as much water from the delta as it can to meet demand in dry years or fill storage reservoirs in wet years.

“Poseidon’s proposed project does not ensure a decrease in imported water supplies to the San Diego Region,” a commission staff report states. “Poseidon acknowledges that the State Water Project would continue to pump available water to Southern California users, but then argues that it should still be credited for what would then be a non-existent reduction in emissions.”

MacLaggan called the gallon-for-gallon offset “very straightforward,” pointing to a subsidy expected from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, the wholesaler that provides Southern California with most of its supply. The district is offering to subsidize desalinated water on the condition that the new supply offsets demand.

“Our commitment is to render [the plant] carbon neutral over the status quo,” MacLaggan said. “We’re not proposing to render its gross energy use carbon neutral. The project wouldn’t be viable if we did. People recognize that, and they’re trying to load it up with enough mitigation that it’s not feasible, so we fall under our own weight.”

Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental group opposed to the desalination plant, said Poseidon’s inability to completely offset its emissions indicates that the technology is not yet financially viable.

If the plant could completely mitigate its energy and marine-life impacts, “we could get behind that,” Reznik said. “But there’s no way they can do that in a cost-effective manner right now. If we jump to desal, and that’s going to be the strategy, we need to make it more eco-friendly.”

While Poseidon says its voluntary offsets will cost the company $66.4 million, it will recoup much of that investment over the project’s 30-year life. The bulk of the cost, $52 million, comes from installing the most efficient pumps and motors available. Poseidon will recover those costs over the life of the project, though MacLaggan said the company would not otherwise have invested in some upgrades.

“Purely from a business perspective, it may or may not be a good investment to put the motors in,” he said. “Some [upgrades] may be justified, others clearly aren’t.”

Energy experts question whether the company has underestimated the total emissions resulting from its energy use. Poseidon based its estimates on figures San Diego Gas & Electric voluntarily submitted to the California Climate Action Registry, which maintains a statewide inventory of carbon dioxide emissions. SDG&E’s totals were about one-third what the California Air Resources Board estimates are generated by power producers in the Southwest.

“Poseidon is using a very low number,” said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego. “I don’t see how that’s possible, given what we know about emissions in the region and statewide.”

MacLaggan said the current figure is irrelevant, because the plant isn’t online yet and the emissions estimate will change as the climate registry continues to develop. But the company is committed to using the registry’s figures, he said.

“Because we’re the first entity to make this voluntary commitment, everyone’s throwing rocks at the process,” he said. “Nobody’s done this before. It’s not going to be perfect the first time through, but it will be fairly refined by the time we need to do the calculation for real.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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