A prized energy source, or potent terror target?
Push to build LNG terminals is under fire
In the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, Richard Clarke, then America's top counterterrorism official, rushed to get the US Coast Guard to close Boston Harbor. His main fear: Al Qaeda might attack a huge liquid natural gas tanker as it glided past downtown buildings.
Mr. Clarke professes to know what few did: that Al Qaeda had used LNG tankers to smuggle agents into Boston from Algeria. He also knew that each ship held as much energy as a nuclear weapon. "Had one of the giant tankers blown up..., it would have wiped out downtown Boston," Clarke said in his book "Against All Enemies."
His assertions add a grave new concern to a push to triple the number of LNG terminals in North America. An explosion of just one bulbous tank on an LNG ship could produce a fire half a mile wide, experts say. Along a densely populated shoreline, they add, such an inferno could be disastrous.
The threat puts the Bush administration in a pickle: Its energy policy is running headlong into its efforts to make the nation safe from terrorism. So far, the administration appears to be siding with energy firms, who argue the threat is overblown. But a growing chorus of communities from Maine to California is pressing it to change course.
"If you locate LNG terminals close to residential areas, urban areas, they become a major terrorist target," says Gal Luft, director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, an energy security policy think tank. "It's not just terminals, but the whole LNG infrastructure from tanker, to the terminal, to the truck."
Clarke got the Coast Guard to close Boston Harbor temporarily. But LNG shipments resumed weeks later, even though Boston officials filed suit to ban LNG tankers from local waters. A federal judge ruled there was no evidence of a credible threat.
But those who oppose proposals to site LNG terminals onshore say they are not so sure. Opposition is growing, especially after an explosion at an LNG terminal in Algeria killed 22 and injured 74 in January. Last month proposals to build LNG terminals in Harpswell, Maine, and Humboldt Bay, Calif., were dropped after intense opposition from local residents. In Alabama, opposition by the governor, local officials, and activists may have squelched two proposed facilities near Mobile.
Today there are four LNG terminals in the US: Everett, Mass., near Boston; Cove Point, Md.; Elba Island, Ga.; and Lake Charles, La. Because US supplies of natural gas are in short supply, more than 30 LNG terminals are under consideration, including some near densely populated areas like Fall River, Mass., Long Beach, Calif., Logan Township, N.J., and Providence, R.I.
Leading the charge are big energy companies such as BP and ExxonMobil - along with smaller concerns like Weaver's Cove Energy, which wants to build a terminal in Fall River. They argue that fears of terrorism and even human error in handling the fuel are vastly overblown, and point to strong safety records, tighter post-9/11 security, and robust LNG tankers. Two controversial studies since 9/11, one for the US Department of Energy (DOE) and another for the industry, suggest LNG tanker fires would be a smaller threat than many fear.
"Look at the existing safety record [of LNG tankers] - it's sterling, extremely clean," says Martin Edwards of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade group representing companies with current and proposed LNG terminals. "What we often find is that the safety, and lately the security, issues are a kind of shield" that masks opponents' deeper concerns, such as threats to property values.
A plan to build a terminal at the Port of Long Beach is among the furthest along. "This is going to be the safest LNG receiving terminal in the world," Tom Giles, chief of Sound Energy Solutions, a Mitsubishi subsidiary, told the Los Angeles Times in January when describing the concrete and steel tanks it planned to build.
Energy analysts call LNG the "new prize" on the global energy scene. Japan and other energy-poor nations have long imported large amounts of LNG. The US expansion is part of a global boom, with at least 55 new LNG tankers under construction - a one-third increase in the world fleet to more than 200 vessels.
A nontoxic, highly compressed liquid, cooled to -260 degrees F., LNG is piped from tankers into giant storage tanks on shore. Then it is warmed, expanding to a gaseous state 600 times its previous volume, to be piped to power plants and homes.
The greatest risk from LNG, experts say, would be if the super-cold, compressed liquid were to gush out onto open water during a terrorist attack, spread, and then ignite.
"If even one of the five tanks onboard an LNG ship spilled onto the water, the fire it would produce would be up to a half-mile in diameter," says Jerry Havens, a chemical engineer and former director of the Chemical Hazards Research Center at the University of Arkansas. "The thermal radiation ... could burn people a half mile from the fire's edge," says Dr. Havens, who helped write federal standards for estimating the size and intensity of fires involving LNG.
James Fay, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, who some have called the father of LNG hazard theory, has conducted his own study of the consequences of a single tank release from an LNG tanker in Boston Harbor. His calculations of the size of the fire are nearly identical to Havens's.
"One way to think about it is that, if all the fossil-fuel power plants in the US ran full power for five minutes, that's how much energy would burn in just five minutes here if one of those five tanks on one ship blew," he says. "It would be a lot bigger if the whole ship went up - about five times that big."
Public concern isn't limited to terrorism. While one proposed LNG site in Mobile would be less than a mile from the city, the biggest concern is its potential impact on the economy, says Casi Callaway of Mobile Bay Watch, a citizens group.
"We only have one ship channel, and we just got our first cruise ship to dock here," she says. "Seafood is our No. 1 industry. If we have to close the bay to shrimping and recreation so these facilities won't get blown up, that would be a real disaster, too."
A possible solution is to put LNG facilities offshore. No such facilities exist today, though a number have been proposed. But the construction cost is several times greater than an onshore site. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that an offshore LNG plant exists today off the Louisiana coast.]
As public scrutiny of siting proposals intensifies, the DOE and its regulatory arm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), have moved to assert sole authority to approve new LNG facilities - whether or not state regulators or the public approve of them.
Last week, FERC rebuffed activists and California regulators who had argued that the state controlled siting of the proposed Long Beach LNG facility. California's Public Utilities Commission will appeal FERC's 17-page "declaratory order asserting exclusive jurisdiction."
Opponents say the Long Beach site would be just over a mile away from neighborhoods packed with 9,300 people per square mile and - at the heart of the nation's biggest port with about half of US imports flowing through it - a threat to the entire US economy if it were blown up.
"It would certainly be very close to neighborhoods, but for financial reasons alone we think we're right that this would be a prime terrorist target," says Bry Myown, a local activist.
A FERC spokesman says public fears over the Long Beach facility are being taken into account within the process of a full environmental impact assessment.
Back in Boston, Fire Chief Paul Christian still worries as, nearly every week, another LNG tanker the length of three football fields glides into Boston Harbor and past downtown.
Security is tighter - with the harbor virtually shut to other boat traffic, speedy security vessels buzzing around, and shore security shadowing the tanker on its slow journey. But Chief Christian can't shake a sickening feeling each time he sees one, worried what would happen if LNG were released and caught fire.
"I don't like to think about it," he says. "But that's my job."
Three federally funded studies into LNG hazards are under way - one sponsored by FERC, another by the DOE, and a third by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. FERC's report on LNG tanker safety is expected to fill many gaps in earlier studies - although it will not make public certain portions for security reasons, a spokesman says.
Where is the Department of Homeland Security in all this?
That's what US Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, whose district includes the Everett LNG terminal, wants to know. In a March 23 letter to Secretary Tom Ridge, he asked if the department "assigned any personnel to review these studies," and is working with other jurisdictional agencies to upgrade security. Mr. Markey is awaiting answers to his questions.