Officials at the Port of Los Angeles confirmed they are in talks with a "number of primary customers" interested in building a supertanker terminal that would allow crude to be shipped here from the Persian Gulf.

Saudi crude has become increasingly attractive to California refiners as the supply of Alaskan crude has dwindled. But to make Saudi crude economically feasible, huge amounts must be shipped at a time requiring the use of supertankers, which the Port of Los Angeles cannot currently accommodate.

"We have had discussions with GATX," said port spokeswoman Barbara Yamamoto, "but these discussions have been general and there is nothing agreed upon."

Chicago-based GATX Corp. is one of six major oil-handling companies with operations at the Port of L.A., Yamamoto said, and the port is negotiating with "several" of those "primary customers" about building the supertanker terminal as part of the so-called Pier 400 project.

Officials of two of the six primary customers Yamamoto named Ultramar Inc. and Mobil Corp. said they have no interest in building a deep-water terminal at Pier 400. However, the officials each said their respective companies would be interested in using such a terminal if one is built.

Officials from the other three primary customers Wilmington Liquid Bulk Terminals, Westway Terminal Co. and Shell Oil Products either did not return phone calls or declined to comment.

Specifications for Pier 400 have not been finalized, but the site located in the outer harbor area, south of Terminal Island is planned for container, liquid bulk and rail facilities. The project is slated for completion in early 2000.

The Pier 400 plans also call for deepening the port channel to accommodate very large crude carriers, or VLCCs. Currently, smaller tankers (mostly from Alaska) enter the harbor and about 400 VLCCs unload each year about a mile off the Los Angeles shore via pipelines.

GATX spokesman George Lowman said the company has an ongoing interest in Pier 400, but that its communications with the Port of L.A. are only preliminary. He also said that an Aug. 18 report in The Wall Street Journal that GATX is exploring a joint venture with Tosco Corp. a Stamford, Conn.-based oil refiner and marketer was erroneous.

"When I read that article, I asked some officials here about it, but they said there was nothing to the report," Lowman said.

A Tosco official declined to comment on the article or on anything regarding Pier 400.

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