Plans to convert an offshore oil platform into a liquefied natural gas terminal are drawing the attention of local environmental groups concerned about the future of the Santa Barbara Channel.

“We view the placement of an LNG terminal in the channel to be a significant and potentially devastating development for the channel’s long-term future,” said Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, whose group is teaming up with the Environmental Defense Center to review the project proposal.

The project, called Clearwater Port, aims to purchase and convert Venoco Inc.-owned Platform Grace, an active oil-drilling platform about 10 miles west of the Oxnard coast, into an LNG berthing facility. Houston-based NorthernStar Natural Gas Inc. intends to construct floating docks for LNG supertankers, and a subsea LNG pipeline to connect the tankers to Platform Grace, which will then pump out up to 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas a day through a high-pressure subsea natural gas pipeline to the Mandalay generating station near Oxnard. Sixty-three miles of new high-pressure gas pipeline also will be built from Oxnard to Santa Clarita.

“An offshore project of this magnitude could affect nearly every facet of the region’s on- and offshore environments,” said EDC chief counsel Linda Krop, who added that increased tanker traffic could result in more air and underwater noise pollution. The construction, she said, could jeopardize fish and marine mammals and disturb toxic debris left over from existing oil production activities. Furthermore, Krop said, wildlife and people could be in danger as a result of LNG or oil spills.

The processing of the liquid form of natural gas back into its gaseous state is where the greatest safety risk is, said Redmond, pointing out a recent Government Accountability Office assessment that LNG terminals are potential terrorist targets.

Adding to their concern is the fact that the proposed project is only a few miles from the protected waters of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The tankers will be passing though Sanctuary waters, said Redmond, heightening the chances of collisions with whales, two of which died last month in confirmed accidents with ships. An estimated 140 LNG tankers will be traveling through the channel each year.

NorthernStar vice president and Clearwater Port project manager Billy Owens, however, maintains that the choice of Platform Grace for an LNG facility was made as a result of considerable assessment.

“We selected (the site) with great care,” Owens said. “We’ll be using existing structures, and the whole environmental footprint will be smaller than the one for BHP,” a reference to Cabrillo Port, an earlier LNG project proposed in the area by BHP Billiton that was ultimately rejected by state officials.

“We’re not introducing a large number of new ships; we’ll be adding less than 2 percent of total traffic. All ships pass through sanctuary waters,” he said; the shipping lanes are established there.

“We’ll certainly be operating within guidelines established by the Coast Guard,” said Owens. Furthermore, he said, a detailed inspection of the platform was conducted, and verified that the 28-year-old rig was structurally sound. The conversion process will include removing the top of the original platform and redesigning and rebuilding the structure specifically for LNG operations, as well as recertifying the structure to current federal standards.

“There’s always potential for pollution but we’re taking measures in the design of facilities to mitigate air and marine impacts,” he said.

Currently NorthernStar is engaged in the initial stages of the Environmental Impact Review process, setting up the project to be approved as early as next summer. The Environmental Defense Center has already submitted comments on the project and is intent on taking up the EIR due out in a few months. The project is under the jurisdiction of several agencies, including the California State Lands Commission, the Coast Guard, as well as the city of Oxnard and Ventura County.