Union Tribune

April 10, 2002

Pipeline study for border area faulted by EPA

By TOBY ECKERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON – An environmental study that preceded the
approval of a natural gas pipeline that will fuel new power plants in Mexicali did not fully assess the plants' impact on air quality in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

The study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission "is
inconclusive" and "does not demonstrate that the impacts will be insignificant," the EPA said in a letter to a FERC staff member.

Critics of the power plants, which are being built by San
Diego-based Sempra Energy and InterGen of Boston, have asked
FERC to reconsider its approval of the North Baja Pipeline
project. The approval included a presidential permit required to
extend the 215-mile pipeline across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The critics argue that the power plants to be fueled by the
pipeline will aggravate air pollution problems in the Imperial
Valley-Mexicali region. The plants will supply electricity to
customers on both sides of the border.

Sempra and InterGen deny the claims. Sempra says its plant will
meet California air emission standards.

Plant foes have lodged similar complaints, and filed a lawsuit,
over the Department of Energy's decision to grant presidential
permits for the construction of electrical transmission lines from
the plants.

A cursory environmental assessment of the transmission-line
projects did include the impact of the power plants. The EPA
submitted comments regarding that application, saying the
Energy Department needed to conduct a more thorough impact
study.

When FERC gave final approval to the pipeline in January, it said
"the commission lacks jurisdiction over the transmission lines
and the Mexican generation facilities," viewing the pipeline as a
separate project.

However, it cited the limited environmental assessment that
concluded the plants would not increase pollution "above the
EPA-defined significant impact levels" on the American side of
the border.

The EPA disagreed with that conclusion, saying the Energy
Department did not analyze nitrogen oxide, which can cause
ozone or smog, and did not consider emissions from two of
InterGen's units that will not be equipped with a pollution
control device known as Selective Catalytic Reduction.

"These units will emit approximately six times the amount of
(nitrogen oxide) emissions than the export units and 12 times
the amount from the (Sempra) plant," said the letter from EPA's
Region IX in San Francisco, which was dated in February.

"The U.S. air basins along the border are in non-attainment
under the Clean Air Act for ozone, and EPA considers any major
new source of (nitrogen oxide) in these areas significant," it
added.

The EPA also questioned the conclusion that air quality in the
border region will be improved because construction of the
pipeline will encourage oil-burning power plants and other
industries to convert to cleaner-burning natural gas. The
environmental study did not provide enough evidence to back
that claim, the agency said.

However, the EPA also said it was "encouraged by the potential
net reduction in emissions that could occur in the border
region." It asked for further documentation of the potential
benefits.

A FERC spokeswoman declined to comment on the EPA letter,
saying the commission might address the issue at its regular
meeting today. 

The pipeline is a joint venture of Sempra, PG&E Corp. of San
Francisco and Mexico's Próxima Gas.

Sandra McDonough, a spokeswoman for the consortium, said,
"We feel that the environmental study was thorough and sound."

When it took office at the height of California's power crisis, the
Bush administration vowed to expedite cross-border energy
projects as a way of alleviating the problem.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, a critic of the Mexicali plants, said
the questions raised by the EPA highlights the fragmented
jurisdiction over the international projects.

"There's another dozen plants coming down the pipeline," he
said. "This (project) is a precedent. We have to make the point
that even though they're being done in another country, they
affect us. We have completely inadequate mechanisms to deal
with these issues."

Staff writer Diane Lindquist contributed to this report.