The Public Policy

Who’s Afraid of Liquified Natural Gas?

California environmentalists keep winning -- so why are they in the dumps?

By 3.8.07

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California's environmental community has a Dickensian feel to it these days. These are truly the best of times and the worst of times.

On the upside, eco-lovin' interests hold the upper hand in Sacramento and, for that matter, in most every other corner of the state where politicians smell good PR. A lawsuit against polluting automakers filed by outgoing State Attorney General Bill Lockyer is endorsed by his successor, the always enigmatic Jerry Brown. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and self-described free-marketer, has gotten in on the act by signing a law mandating a reduction in greenhouse gases. You can now call him the jolly green giant of California politics.

Think about the eco-friendly posture America has widely embraced: Recycling, open space, water purification, the increasing market for hybrid cars, the ban on offshore oil drilling along the Florida and California coasts. This is truly a sea change (the oceans have benefited as well), so it's truly a cause for celebration, no? Well, to hear leading environmentalists tell it, the answer is an emphatic "no." And if they keep up the gloom and doom, it could mean real trouble for the larger issues they claim to care about most.

Case in point: The increasingly hysterical posture by environmentalists towards a clean energy source that can have a lasting positive impact for California: liquefied natural gas (LNG).

No one argues that California needs natural gas -- and is in a losing game to match the state's appetite for said product. Natural gas is a popular choice for both industry and activist because it's a clean-burning fuel, and green pressure has severely restricted nuclear fuel and the use of coal. The problem is, California generates less than one-seventh the total amount of natural gas that it needs to meet consumer demand.

What are the alternatives? Wind and solar are attractive concepts, but neither offers a realistic solution in the short-term. So in order to keep the lights on, we are confronted with a bright and shining dose of reality.

But leave it to celebrities to lead us in the wrong direction. In the star chamber that is Malibu, the issue of whether to allow an LNG facility by Australian energy giant BHP Billiton many miles north in Ventura County's Cabrillo Port has sparked a public display that is equal parts bad politics and bad public policy. Malibu resident Keeley Shaye, the wife of actor Pierce Brosnan, took to the editorial pages to inform us that we are one re-gasification plant away from true planetary harm. In addition, she saved special scorn for Robert Kennedy, Jr., who is something of a hero within the environmental community for his efforts to clean up New York's Hudson River.

Specifically, Ms. Shaye wrote, "Perhaps Mr. Kennedy is unaware of the trail of environmental degradation that BHP Billiton has left around the world. International newspaper reports have well-documented the devastation." Who can say for sure if this is true? Surely not Ms. Shaye. If the wife of television's Remington Steele were herself a better sleuth, she'd have better evidence than "international newspaper reports."

This amounts to the kind of demagoguery that eco-activists routinely accuse energy interests of using to avoid real discussion and thwart their purported good works. And with friends like Ms. Shaye, what environmentalist needs enemies?

As with many matters, the spotlight is trained on Gov. Schwarzenegger and the celebrity element -- and not just because the governor is an extended member of the Kennedy Clan. It's common knowledge that our governor -- who works in Sacramento but resides in the Southland -- still moves easily in star-driven circles. And many have concluded that if you want to influence a policy decision, you might have just as good a chance at hiring a lobbyist in the state capital as you do picking the right time and place to dine at The Ivy. But it's a sad day for California when star power is influencing energy needs.

In the final analysis, the LNG proposal for Cabrillo Port is a significant and complicated idea, and deserves the support and even opposition of people who will learn something about the issue and not let their knee-jerk ideology guide reckless words. The reality is we need accessible, affordable energy and we need it to be as clean as possible.

California's energy crisis seems a distant memory now. Californians might remember where they were when the "rolling blackouts" began, but few are familiar with the dynamics of constrained interstate natural gas transportation capacities. What the energy crisis did do was unleash a shock wave that not only undermined confidence in public institutions, but rewrote state regulations on energy use and development, bankrupted the state's largest utility, and prompted Californians to replace a recently re-elected governor with a film legend.

If there's one thing every movie star knows, it's the back story of the characters they portray. As for California's immediate energy needs, time will tell if California's Governator is especially mindful of this emerging story arc -- and does what is necessary to avoid the way that Gray Davis got written out of his own script.

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About the Author

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.