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Bill bans exports of gas if plants not up to par

June 05, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. — California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, introduced legislation today in the Senate and the House that would make it illegal for U.S. companies to export natural gas to new Mexican power plants within 50 miles of the border that aren't equipped with U.S.-compliant air-quality control equipment.

Passage of such legislation could greatly hinder the plans of Boston-based InterGen.

The global power-generation firm, a joint venture of international conglomerates Shell Oil and Bechtel, is building a $748 million, 1,000-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant on the outskirts of Mexicali. The two turbines at the plant that will produce electricity for Mexican consumers won't be equipped with U.S.-compliant emissions controls.

If the Feinstein/Hunter legislation passes Congress and is signed by the president, which is anything but assured, U.S. companies would face penalties under the Export Administration Act for exporting natural gas to InterGen's La Rosita plant in Mexciali.

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Imperial County air-quality control officers have said La Rosita's two Mexico-compliant turbines will spew around 10 times more pollution into the conjoined airshed of the Imperial and Mexicali valleys than they would if they were equipped with U.S.-compliant controls.

InterGen officials have told Hunter and Imperial Valley-based officials that the company can't spend the $20 million or so to install U.S.-compliant emission controls on two of the four turbines because the cost would violate the international bid they submitted to Mexican energy officials.

Hunter said Tuesday, "(InterGen) didn't have any guarantees that they would have these gas lines hooked up when they made those bids. We're not changing the status quo as much as we're enforcing it."

The gas lines are the North Baja Pipeline and the Gasoconducto Bajanorte. North Baja Pipeline is a joint venture of San Diego-based Sempra Energy and San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Energy Group.

In the last month or so, construction workers employed by North Baja Pipeline have buried pipe from Ehrenberg, Ariz., through east Imperial County land to the border.

The 80-mile U.S. stretch of pipeline will connect an El Paso-to-Los Angeles pipeline with the under-construction Gasoconducto Bajanorte, a pipeline running from Mexicali to Tijuana. Sempra Energy Mexico is building the Bajanorte.

Sempra spokesman Michael Clark said Tuesday the Bajanorte stretch is 95 percent complete.

Once the pipelines are operational, InterGen plans on securing contracts with U.S.-based natural gas companies.

Clark said Sempra wouldn't be affected by the legislation because its power plant in Mexicali will be equipped with California-compliant controls and its role with the pipeline is of a transporter, not an exporter.

Hunter said of his legislation, "This is a reasonable result. Treating the air basin in a truly binational manner, we should use common sense to build an energy infrastructure that accommodates both sides of the border air quality as well as electricity generation."

Critics of the Hunter/Feinstein legislation think it could actually make border air quality worse if Mexican power plants decide to use diesel fuel instead of natural gas. Clark said natural gas is two and a half times cleaner than diesel fuel.

Hunter said, "That's the threat that these people make.

"I don't think they are going to win a constituency in the U.S. by threatening to pollute us if we don't acquiesce to their moderately polluting plant.

"Any attempt to extort the Valley pursuant to a diesel plant is not going to be a winner for the Imperial Valley."

This morning InterGen released a statement in response to the Feinstein/Hunter legislation. It reads in part, "InterGen fully supports the harmonization of environmental regulations in the border area to resolve the different and conflicting standards that exist between the two countries."

On that sentiment the power company and Hunter can agree.

He said, "It doesn't make sense for us to have clean air laws if our corporate citizens are able to flout those laws south of the border."

Hunter was asked if it would be tough to pass his bill considering the clout of some Texas-based lawmakers, including President George Bush, that have ties to the natural gas production lobby.

Hunter said: "The leadership needs to accept the fact that they need to comply with American laws if they are going to use gas supplies from the American market."

Bottom line?

Hunter said, "(InterGen) needs to bite the bullet and come up with the $19-20 million to put on the scrubbers (hi-tech emission controls.)"

In this morning's statement, InterGen said, "The plant will comply with or exceed recognized World Bank and Mexican environmental regulations."

Imperial County air-quality control experts contend those regulations would be insufficient to effectively prevent the plant from polluting the Imperial Valley.

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

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