|ENSENADA, Mexico - For years, Cristina Imana has gazed out from her clifftop porch near the Mexican resort town of Ensenada and watched migrating gray whales roll around with their babies in the glistening surf below.|
Now, with US oil executives busy laying the foundations for a huge gas import terminal on the shoreline beneath her home, she fears those days are numbered.
"It breaks my heart," she said of Sempra Energy's project to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal.
ChevronTexaco plans an offshore terminal nearby.
In a classic spat between big business and environmentalists, major oil companies and Mexico's government say LNG could be the solution to North America's power shortage. They say Mexico will benefit from a new and potentially more economical source of gas than US imports.
But locals in Ensenada, just south of the border town of Tijuana, are seething that foreign-owned gas plants will be plonked in their sparkling, unspoiled bays -- home to rare fish, seals and sea birds and a key whale migration route.
A ragtag group of protesters gathers once a week near the Sempra site and is routinely ignored by oil executives driving by. Local newspapers are filled with angry editorials.
Many locals refuse to believe the gas will benefit Mexico, convinced the bulk will be piped north to energy-guzzling California, which imports around 85 percent of its gas.
"This will not benefit Mexico as they would have us believe, and we were never asked if we wanted it. We are worried about safety too. One fear is accidents, another is terrorism," Imana said.
A bustling fishing town on the northwestern edge of the little-developed Baja California peninsula, Ensenada -- strategically located near the US-Mexico border -- is nurturing a growing tourism industry that locals say will be shattered if the area turns industrial.
Eco-tourists come to see whales, paddle canoes next to dolphins or scuba dive in pristine waters that team with fish.
"One issue is the environment, the other is sovereignty," said conservationist Alfonso Aguirre who works preserving endangered species on Baja's islands, like the Coronado Islands where ChevronTexaco plans an offshore gas terminal.
"In terms of size, our islands are twice as rich in biodiversity as the Galapagos," Aguirre said.
"The area is a jewel. Its vocation is small-scale fishing and tourism. To industrialize it is madness and these aren't even Mexican companies so they won't bring us any benefits."
ISLAND REFUGE TO BE BREAKWATER
The terminals will ship in super-cooled LNG from as far off as Asia, restore it to a gas and pipe it to power plants and factories in Mexico and the United States, where demand for power is soaring beyond what local producers can supply.
ChevronTexaco and Sempra say the environment will not be hurt and the gas will supply Mexico before the United States.
"This facility will be built to the highest recognized international standards for health, safety and environmental compliance," says Sempra Energy President and Chief Operating Officer Donald Felsinger on the company's Web site, adding that half the imported gas will stay in Baja California.
"We will sell Baja every molecule it can buy," Carl Attah, ChevronTexaco's Mexico vice president, said recently.
Supporters say that not only is gas cleaner and more efficient than other fuels, but that without LNG, Mexico will grow ever more dependent on costly US gas imports.
"These plants will help Mexico diversify its energy supply," energy undersecretary Carlos Garza told Reuters.
But opponents say that with nothing in writing to guarantee where the gas goes, wildlife is being sacrificed for corporate profits.
They say noise from ships unloading LNG will disturb wildlife and floodlights will upset nocturnal birds. They also fear contamination of the seawater used to warm up the LNG.
Locals say fishermen will be hit by exclusion zones, and the Sempra project, in which Royal Dutch/Shell is a partner, will trample on archeological remains.
Mexico's CRE energy regulator has given Sempra permits to start construction and will soon decide if ChevronTexaco can build a plant using the tiny Coronado Islands, a refuge for seals and a dozen species of sea bird, as a breakwater.
That has also upset conservationists. "It costs $10 million to build an artificial breakwater. Is that all the Coronado Islands are worth?" Aguirre said.
Most Ensenada locals are already resigned to losing the battle over the proposed terminal.
"Every year from the porch we watch the whales come by frolicking with their babies. And at night you can see stars," said Imana. "The noise and lights will ruin everything. No more whales. No more starry nights."
Story by Catherine Bremer
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE