updated 7/26/2008 11:14:47 PM ET 2008-07-27T03:14:47

The vast Point Mugu Sea Range off southern California is an oceanic no man's land, an ideal spot in international waters for the U.S. and its allies to test equipment and train forces.

The 36,000-square-mile expanse about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles is where the Navy honed its skill in firing precision-guided missiles, including the Tomahawk cruise missile. But the Navy now fears those testing grounds could be irreparably compromised with a tough new regulation approved this week by California air regulators.

State officials have ordered cargo ships to use cleaner-burning but more expensive fuel within 24 nautical miles of the coast, something the military fears could entice them to cut through its training ground.

At issue is the sea lane used by cargo ships entering and exiting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The lane now runs along the coast from Los Angeles to northwest of Santa Barbara, a 183-mile voyage that takes ships between the coast and the eastern boundary of the Navy's testing range.

With the new air regulation, shipping companies looking to save money by burning less of the cleaner fuel could take a more direct path between the ports and international waters. That would put them on course for the Navy's training ground.

Down playing concerns
The trip would lengthen the distance to get ships on the main channel to Asia by about 42 miles, but the ships would reach international waters faster. At that point, they could switch to cheaper — and more polluting — bunker fuel.

Freight traffic in that range would force the military to restrict its training and testing schedule, said Randal Friedman, California government affairs officer for the Navy's southwest region.

The California Air Resources Board downplayed the Navy's concerns to the rules it passed Thursday — the toughest such regulations in the United States — but pledged to perform an environmental analysis. The Navy said overall nitrogen oxide emissions could increase by as much as 5 tons a day if enough ships opt to use the Navy testing ground.

Shippers say it's too early to know whether they would take the detour but acknowledge it could be attractive. The new fuel regulation goes into effect July 1, 2009.

"Is it possible? Absolutely," said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. "Those are international waters. If a vessel decides to transit international waters, it is beyond any state to deny them access."

Massive range
The sea range is the Department of Defense's largest and most extensively instrumented over-water range. More than 17,000 operations are conducted each year on the range by the U.S. and allies including Britain, Japan and Australia.

The military performs warfare maneuvers with submarines, ships and aircraft to prepare for overseas deployments. It fires missiles from ships to targets on shore and from shore to the ocean, according to the Navy's southwest region.

"It's really a one-of-a-kind asset," Friedman said of the sea range. "You have the ability to track a missile all the way through the air to inland ranges. You can go as far as Utah. You just don't have anything like that elsewhere."

The California emission rule is just the latest clash between the military and environmental regulators over the testing range.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to steer ships to the military range as a way to reduce ship pollution. At the time, the Navy estimated a large vessel would cross its 100-mile sea range every two hours. The agency concluded that reducing ship speed was more effective than rerouting the channel.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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