Washington, activists argue a 'new' energy

Plans to build LNG facilities have raised environmental concerns and questions about who has jurisdiction.

There are shad that use Long Island Sound like a migration expressway, finicky lobsters that hide in its crevices, and delicate oysters that thrive in its muck. Egrets patrol its shoreline, and ospreys soar over the bays. It's a body of water that should defy "industrialization" - at least that's the way Adrienne Esposito, an environmental activist, sees the 1,380-square-mile body of water.

But the waves of the sound lap on two states with some of the nation's highest energy rates. And last year, some 687 commercial vessels navigated its shoals and channels without serious incident. So, as energy executive John Hritcko sees it, the sound is the perfect place to moor a barge that will offload liquefied natural gas (LNG) that may help to solve a regional energy problem.

The two sides represent one of the latest clashes over the environment, as well as states' rights.

With the nation paying dearly for its power consumption, large energy corporations would like to build 30 to 40 LNG terminals in the United States, mostly in coastal communities. But such ideas are meeting with resistance at every step of the way. Any day now, for example, a federal appeals court in California is expected to issue an important ruling on who has jurisdiction over California's waters to site potential LNG terminals. And, both the president in recent speeches and Congress in pending energy legislation are getting involved - at a time when natural gas prices are close to an all-time high.

"This is a debate that needs to happen," says James Hoecker, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) during the Clinton administration and is now a partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins in Washington. "It will be helpful that Congress has decided to express what it believes national policy ought to be."

In testimony before the Senate earlier this year, J. Mark Robinson, a FERC official, said that "timely consideration of LNG projects can be made impossible" because of the complex rules laid down by multiple federal and state agencies. He asked that FERC be made the lead agency for all environmental reviews and that state agencies cooperate with FERC's timetable. If another federal or state agency didn't make a decision within FERC's schedule, it would result in the assumed waiver of that agency's authority.

The energy bill pending before the House does make FERC the lead agency. The legislation also specifies that "FERC would be required to actively consult with the states to consider state and local safety priorities."

So far, there is only one Senate bill on LNG siting, which is sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee. It too makes FERC the lead agency, but it also sets a one-year deadline for making decisions on each project.

Alexia Poe, a spokeswoman for Senator Alexander, says, "He does not want local gridlock but does not want state and local governments to be bulldozed by the federal government. States' rights are very important to him."

Maintaining states' rights is vital to groups around the nation that are opposed to the terminals. "I don't trust the federal government, but I do trust the state," says Jon Cooper, a Suffolk County lawmaker opposed to the LNG terminal on eastern Long Island. His views are echoed from Maine to Oregon, where bloggers worry about the impact of a proposed LNG terminal on sport fishing.

The battle over LNG terminals is not surprising, says Linda Key Breathitt, a former FERC commissioner. "Whether a nuclear facility or a new refinery or a new transmission line or windmills or anything, it seems that anything that has to do with energy has to be heavily scrutinized because there is no perfect location," says Ms. Breathitt, now a senior energy and regulatory consultant at the law firm Thelen Reid & Priest in Washington.

The developers of the Long Island project, called Broadwater Energy, which is a joint venture between Shell and TransCanada Corp., hope they've found something close to the perfect location - about nine miles from Long Island and 11 miles from Connecticut. "We know it's a sensitive area, so that's why we located it midsound, which is much better than either shoreline," says Mr. Hritcko, a senior vice president at Broadwater.

Broadwater has consulted with lobstermen, hired marine biologists, and done sonar and soil surveys. It has hired influential consultants - in this case the former county executive, Bob Gafney, as well as Rudolph Giuliani's firm, which is working on the security aspect. It has held open houses and even met with opponents.

But Broadwater's plan doesn't impress Ms. Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. At a recent public forum here, she raised a host of issues, from the shad to the prospect of flammable vapor clouds. If Broadwater is approved, she wonders if other companies will want a platform as well.

"We can't allow the industrialization of this body of water," she says. "We don't want that barge hanging out in the middle of the sound."

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