A federal agency whose consultation is crucial to moving an Australian energy firm’s proposal to place a floating liquefied natural gas terminal off the coast of Oxnard forward has informed the United States Coast Guard that it cannot yet approve the project due to a lack of information regarding the project’s impact to local marine life.

Under federal law, any agency looking to permit a project with the potential to harm ocean animals must confer with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the department responsible for protecting whales, seals and other creatures, to determine how to limit the possible damage. In a letter written last July, the United States Coast Guard, one of the two agencies with the power to authorize BHP Billiton’s Cabrillo Port project, asked the NMFS to concur with its finding that the project “would not have a significant impact” on species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The NMFS responded by stating that it could not agree with the USCG’s conclusions because of deficiencies in addressing the effect the project could have on marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and invertebrates.

“The NMFS doesn’t have the information to make a determination. On that basis, the project should not be approved,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center.

In its response letter from July 2006, the NMFS wrote that the increase in vessel traffic in the Santa Barbara Channel could cause “adverse reactions” in whales, but that the analysis in the draft environmental impact report does not look at the entire route that transport ships will be traveling to reach the floating terminal. The agency also points out that the current EIR does not state how loud construction noise will be underwater, and that “[s]ounds introduced into the sea by man-made devices could have a deleterious effect on marine mammals.”

The EIR does say, however, that there is a possibility of ships striking marine mammals and/or causing them to migrate around the far side of the Channel Islands rather than swim through the channel. In December, the USCG indicated to the NMFS that it would require Billiton to avoid injuring whales and sea turtles during the building of Cabrillo Port, requiring construction support vessels to carry a monitor to alert ship crews when mammals are present and to remove any material that could ensnare large animals.

Kathi Hann, a spokesperson for BHP Billiton, said the final EIR, which is scheduled to be completed and released to the public in March, “will define the impacts of our project upon fisheries, water, air, et cetera.”