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Gas pipeline approval process delicate

January 20, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Federal Energy Regulatory Commission spokeswoman here said just one Imperial Valley resident could derail the federal approval of a proposed natural gas pipeline.

The pipeline would connect a huge Texas-to-California pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas Co. with an under-construction Mexicali-to-Tijuana pipeline bankrolled by San Diego-based Sempra Energy and its Mexican partners.

The 500-cubic feet of natural gas that would flow through the pipeline would be burned by under-construction power plants in Mexicali. Imperial County officials have publicly complained about the pipeline because emissions from the Mexicali power plants could affect air quality here.

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Wednesday the federal commission tentatively approved construction plans of North Baja Pipeline LLC. The corporation was formed by Sempra Energy and Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. of Bethesda, Md.

North Baja Pipeline wants to bury an 80-mile stretch of 36-inch pipeline under the Colorado River, under the streets of Blythe, under the desert east of Glamis and under Interstate 8 and across the border.

Before construction on the pipeline begins, the California State Lands Commission must approve the project and the federal commission must rule on any appeals of its approval.

This is where the one Imperial Valley resident comes into the picture, according to Tamara Young-Allen of FERC.

She said Friday anyone opposed to the project could file a "motion to intervene." The deadline for filing a motion is Feb. 15.

If only one person files a motion, Allen said FERC commissioners would delay final approval of the pipeline until it ruled on that appeal. She said the commissioners could take more than a month to rule, depending on the number of appeals FERC receives.

While she said it is "highly unusual" for the commission to reverse its preliminary ruling, it "does have that power."

The commissioners are Chairman Pat Wood, William Massey, Linda Breathitt and Nora Mead Brownell..

In Los Angeles, El Paso Natural Gas has come under fire for not providing enough natural gas to consumers there.

When the commission tentatively approved the pipeline on Wednesday, it noted those concerns.

"The commission pointed out, however, that its regulations and El Paso's tariff provide shippers the assurance that they can continue to receive reliable service to satisfy their requirements at just and reasonable rates," according to the text of the federal order issued Wednesday.

Regarding potential use of natural gas by Mexicali power plants, the commission declared, "serving the needs of Mexico is consistent with the public interest in accordance with the North American Free Trade Agreement."

Regarding the potential degradation of land inhabited by the desert tortoise, the commission stated, "(North Baja is required) to construct two routing alternatives that will reduce the impact on the federally listed desert tortoise."

Off-road enthusiasts in the Gold Rock area of east Imperial County have complained about the federal government allowing a pipeline to "impact" the desert tortoise while access to acres of dunes is closed to off-roaders because of environmental concerns.

Regarding the concern of Imperial County officials worried about a potential degradation of air quality, the commission ruled it does not have jurisdiction over Mexican generation facilities.

However, the commission said, "it should be noted" an analysis by federal and state engineers states "Sempra and InterGen (headquartered in Boston) have voluntarily agreed to further limit emissions from the power plants."

Moreover, "The Department of Energy performed a dispersion model analysis in its environmental assessment and determined that emissions from the three Mexican power plants exporting electricity to the U.S. would not increase ambient concentrations in the U.S. above the impact levels defined by the Environmental Protection Agency."

An independent power plant engineer from San Diego and the EPA dispute the Department of Energy findings. The EPA and Imperial County complained about air-quality concerns.

The engineer, Bill Powers of San Diego, said InterGen has not agreed to install U.S.-compliant emission controls on two turbines at its under-construction four-turbine power plant, "La Rosita."

Powers said emissions from that plant alone and future plants in the area could increase Imperial County's air pollution.

The DOE's findings do not take into consideration the emissions of more than three plants.

Meanwhile in Sacramento, Goodyear Walker of the State Lands Commission said Imperial Valley residents opposed to the pipeline can make a trek to the state capitol to voice their opinions during a public meeting of the commission Jan. 30. The three-person commission will rule on the environmental impact statement/review that the federal commission tentatively approved Wednesday.

The three lands commissioners are Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Controller Kathleen Connell and an appointee of Gov. Gray Davis.

The federal commission's order states that no pipeline construction can begin unless the state commission approves the project.

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or claverie7@hotmail.com.

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