Renewables Should Displace LNG in California

January 28, 1969. It was the largest oil spill our nation had seen up until that point – a catastrophic blowout from an oil platform off of Santa Barbara in southern California that spread an 800 square-mile oil slick along a thirty mile coastline. Many of us alive today did not experience the tides of dead seals, dolphins and birds; those who did say the spill stripped them of their innocence and left them with indelible memories of crimes against nature.

Although the players and stage have changed since 1969, the overall story has not. We are faced with the same fundamental problem now as we were then: our dependence on fossil fuels and the risks associated with that dependence. Today, California is exploring an energy option that is no more necessary than drilling offshore (or for that matter, drilling in national forests or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). The latest debate centers around increasing California’s natural gas supplies by importing liquefied natural gas, or LNG. The problem is, we don’t need more natural gas in California because renewable energy and energy efficiency can meet future energy demands. And many other states, all with vast potential for renewable energy, are facing the same intrusion. LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to the point where it becomes a liquid, making it easier to transport. In California, three LNG import terminals are seeking permits, all in Southern California. One is planned for a site about fourteen miles offshore from Oxnard, by BHP Billiton, an Australian energy company. Another has been proposed for Platform Grace, a retired oil rig off Ventura’s coast, by Houston-based Crystal Energy. But the most worrisome is Mitsubishi and Chevron’s proposed plant in the Port of Long Beach – much closer to urban areas than the first two. Anytime you concentrate a fuel and confine it in a small space, concerns about safety and environmental protection arise. Even without those concerns, however, I would argue this: these LNG terminals simply aren’t necessary. The Community Environmental Council, a Santa Barbara-based non-profit, has completed a rigorous examination of natural gas supply and demand and has concluded that there are better, more viable alternatives. Essentially, if California lives up to its own state laws mandating that we get more of our electricity from renewable resources and energy efficiency, we do not need these terminals. Let’s look at some numbers. Right now we need about 6.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day to heat our homes and run our power plants. The California Energy Commission – the state’s official word in this area – projects that by 2016, that number will rise to 6.6 billion cubic feet. So we need to find an additional 400 million cubic feet per day in the next decade. Before we start asking how we’re going to meet that need, let’s look at what we need the natural gas for. In California, about half of our power plants use natural gas to generate electricity – which can be generated by other energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and the rest is used for heating, cooking and industry. Natural gas for electricity generation is the only area expected to grow appreciably. So instead of trying to find a source for 400 million cubic feet per day of natural gas in the next ten years, let’s instead look for its equivalent: about 43,000 gigawatt hours of electricity per year. California law requires that twenty percent of our electricity come from renewable resources by 2010, about 55,000 gigawatt hours per year – more than enough to meet the 43,000 gigawatt hours we’re looking for. (And the amount from renewables will probably be higher, as the state is considering advancing its goal so that thirty-three percent of all electricity would be produced by renewables by 2020.) But that’s not all. We haven’t even yet asked whether we could reduce demand through conservation and more efficient technology. California’s investor-owned utilities recently received $2 billion in state funding to achieve $5 billion in energy efficiency savings, equivalent to more than 10,000 gigawatt hours a year through 2008. The state also has set an achievable goal of saving 23,000 gigawatt hours per year by 2013. Under these existing mandates, we will more than offset future energy demand just by following the path that the state and the utilities already have in place. Even if you wanted to hedge your bets, there are sixteen new LNG import terminals already approved by regulators elsewhere in the U.S. and Baja California, as well as plans for gas pipelines from Canada and Alaska – all of which could funnel more natural gas our way if needed. While natural gas is certainly cleaner and a preferable choice over oil or coal, let us not forget this it is still a non-renewable source of energy and a potentially explosive fuel. It is our belief that opting for LNG may divert attention from renewable energy and energy efficiency – the far more preferable alternatives. Let’s hope that policymakers at the local, state and federal levels give more thought to the necessity of constructing off-shore LNG terminals than they did the construction of oil rigs off our coast. As we pass the anniversary of the January 28 oil spill, we should be asking ourselves: how long do we want to stay beholden to these dinosaur fuels? About the author… Tam Hunt is Energy Program Director at the Community Environmental Council and runs the CEC’s Fossil Free By ’33 campaign ( Please email him at for a copy of CEC’s report on LNG supply and demand issues.
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