Who's Afraid of LNG?

An MIT professor for one. He fears a terrorist attack. But the gas industry says their tankers are built for safety and that there hasn't been a casualty for 44 years.
by Jessica Resnick-Ault, Providence Sunday Journal, 1/4/2004

If developers have their way, a tanker the length of three football fields will soon chug along the Rhode Island shoreline. Carrying LNG, one of the most profitable and feared fuels in the energy marketplace, the behemoth tanker will be on the last leg of its journey from a distant land, Trinidad, Indonesia, or perhaps Algeria. The tanker, with its cargo of liquefied natural gas, will pass beneath the Pell bridge, heading for one of the three new import terminals in Providence, Fall River or Somerset. One could be open to receive shipments by late next year. By 2007, all three could be ready.

As each LNG vessel passes, two tugboats, sailing in the ship's shadow, will be prepared for the worst. A collision. An unexpected grounding. An attack. Anything that might cause the flammable cargo to be released and burst into a superheated fire. The tugs will likely be equipped with fire hoses, ready to spray a curtain of water. Bristling with armaments, Coast Guard ships will likely accompany the carrier, keeping other boats, or potential attackers, a mile or more away from the ship.
When the tanker approaches the Pell bridge, it is likely that traffic will be halted until it clears the bridge. And once the tanker reaches its terminal, specialized local firefighters will likely oversee the offloading of the gas into a storage tank.

Since last spring, three different energy companies have proposed to spend more than a half-billion dollars on terminals for the reception of LNG tankers at Fields Point in Providence, and at two Massachusetts locations - Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, and the former Shell Oil refinery, just north of the Brightman Street Bridge in Fall River. KeySpan Energy Corp. says it will spend up to $60 million to expand its existing facility, building a new dock to receive shipments at Fields Point. Weaver's Cove Energy estimates it will make a $200 million investment on a new storage tank and pier at the Fall River site. The third developer, Somerset LNG, says it will spend at least $300 million to build a storage tank and a pier on land adjacent to the power plant. In a single week, the three new facilities would receive a total of up to 92 million gallons of LNG.

New England has just one LNG import facility, in Everett, Mass. That terminal, on Boston Harbor, is one of four in the United States that can receive LNG deliveries by ship. The others are in Lake Charles, La.;Elba Island, Ga.; and Cove Point, Md.

The gas, which is mostly methane, is shipped as a liquid, the fuel's most compact state. The gas is chilled to -260 degrees to keep it liquid in the storage tanks at the import sites. The LNG will either be "thawed" to its gaseous form at the terminal and piped to homes and businesses throughout the Northeast, or carried as LNG in refrigerated trucks and converted to gas at remote sites.

The developers cite a 44-year history of casualty-free LNG transport as evidence of the fuel's safety. Nevertheless, a scientific debate rages on, exacerbated by fears of terrorism in the wake of Sept. 11. For that reason, Capt. Mary E. Landry, commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Providence, says the proposals involving LNG tankers will be put through a "very, very rigorous security evaluation."

A potential disaster scenario has been developed by James A. Fay, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fay, a former chairman of the Massachusetts Port Authority and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, has raised concerns about LNG for more than two decades. He produced a six-page report on the potential hazard of having LNG tankers in Boston Harbor en route to the Everett site, which has received shipments since late 1971. That research, along with other reports, is being used by the Department of Energy to evaluate the safety of transporting LNG.

Last August, Fay conducted a study that predicted potential devastation to parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts if LNG tankers used Narragansett Bay and the Taunton River to reach the proposed Fall River site. Fay's disaster scenarios consider the effects of a boat bomb, like the one used against the USS Cole in 2000, on an LNG tanker. If such an attack occurred, he says at least half a cargo hold's worth of LNG - 14,300 cubic meters, - could seep out of the ship and ignite. In just more than three minutes, the fire could spread two-thirds of a mile from the ship, Fay says. For human skin, such a fire would result in "unbearable pain after 13 seconds and second-degree burns after 40 seconds," Fay's report says. Wood exposed to this fire could ignite after 40 seconds. The superheated fire would be so hot and burn so quickly that little could be done, Fay asserts. "There's a risk for people who live in Newport or Jamestown, maybe some other places," he said in an interview. The channel the ships would pass through comes within two-thirds of a mile of the Rhode Island shoreline - placing buildings and residents within the burn zone in Fay's model.

Those in the LNG industry say Fay's scenario is unlikely and preventable. The damage to the tanker that Fay bases his fire model on is far too large, says Frank Katulak, senior vice president of operations for Distrigas - the company that brings LNG through Boston Harbor. He contends that LNG tankers are stronger than other vessels. The same quality of explosives used on the Cole would do less damage to an LNG tanker. Katulak says,"The LNG carriers are, for good reason, built alot stronger than a naval vessel," he says. The typical LNG ship has four levels of protection around the cargo, according to the industry officials. A quarter-inch membrane surrounds the cargo, coated by 10 inches of insulation. Another quarter-inch metal layer is protected by another membrane. A foot of insulation guards that layer. An inch-thick plate forms the inner hull, guarding the cargo. An eight-foot ballast tank alongside the tanker provides additional insulation before the inch-thick steel outer hull. "This is not an easy target, because it's a double-hulled vessel," Landry agrees. But still, she says it's impossible to guarantee that a tanker would not draw fire. Katulak says even if a fire did occur, Fay's scenario overestimates its likely impact. By throwing lots of water on an LNG fire within seconds, the tugboat escort could reduce a fire's effects, Katulak says. He agrees that water could not extinguish the fire.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the Coast Guard required Distrigas to conduct a study assessing the potential damage of an attack. The company would not release the study, conducted by United Kingdom-based Lloyd's Register of Shipping. However, The Journal obtained a copy. The 95-page Lloyd's study considers the history of LNG accidents and several possible scenarios for terrorist attacks. The report disagrees with Fay's disaster formula, challenging his estimation of ship damage and, therefore, the extent of the burn zone. The report was used by the Coast Guard in approving a safety plan for the Everett site. The Coast Guard requires Distrigas to have a Coast Guard and state police escort as well as fire fighting tugboats for each shipment. The escorts ensure that all other vessels remain at least a mile away from the tankers. Local police departments also step up security while the ships are in the harbor.

When LNG tankers pass below the Tobin Bridge in Boston, the bridge is closed to pedestrian and vehicle traffic for about 20 minutes. Distrigas says it pays the City of Everett about $8500 each time a tanker arrives. That security alone now costs Distrigas nearly $500,000 a year.

The Coast Guard says it's too early to predict what measures will be required for the proposed terminals in Providence, Fall River and Somerset. Nor is it clear whether bridge closures will be required. The Pell Bridge alone could have LNG ships traveling beneath it as many as six times a week. The Mount Hope Bridge, Braga Bridge and Brightman Street Bridge could all be affected to a lesser degree.

Increasing LNG imports got a big push from the federal government during the last year. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress in May that demand for natural gas is outstripping import capabilities. New uses for natural gas have increased demand for the fuel in the past two decades, Greenspan said. Greenspan also focused attention on dwindling imports from Canada. By 2020, Canada, now a major source of natural gas, will no longer have sufficient supplies to export to the United States, one industry-funded study says. Just 6% to 8% of the world's natural gas reserves are in North America.

The environmental advantages of the fuel are as alluring as its economic benefits, according to Carmen Fields, a spokeswoman for KeySpan LNG, the company bringing LNG to Providence."It's clean. It does not foul the water or the air, in the same way that other fuels do," she said in a recent interview. Heating a home with natural gas rather than oil is better for the neighborhood, and the world at large, particularly with the concerns over asthma and other lung diseases, she said. Unlike oil or other fuels, LNG does not pool on the surface in case of spills; instead, it evaporates into the atmosphere. However, some environmental activists doubt the long-term viability of the fuel."If you say to me, do I want a coal plant or a natural gas plant in my neighborhood, the answer is natural gas," says Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group Energy advocate Frank Gorke. But, he says, natural gas is less desirable than renewable energy, such as solar or wind energy. Gorke says in the short run, LNG may be acceptable as a transitional fuel that will allow a change from coal to cleaner, renewable energy sources.

Cutting across the Atlantic Ocean, a converted World War II freighter carried the first cargo of LNG in 1959. The ship, called the Methane Pioneer, transported the highly flammable gas in tanks supported by balsa wood and lined with plywood and urethane. Since 1959, LNG has been transported overseas more than 33,000 times, on voyages spanning more than 60 million miles. There have been no major accidents or safety problems, according to a University of Houston study funded by the industry. There have been eight gas spills. The earliest spill was aboard the Jules Verne in 1965. According to the Lloyd's report, an inadequately trained cargo-handling officer was responsible. The most recent recorded spill was in 1989. It occurred when the LNG carrier Tellier broke from its moorings while being loaded at Skikda, Algeria. the spill caused the deck to crack, the Lloyd's report says.

In other instances, LNG ships sustained serious damage, but did not spill their cargo, according to both the Houston and Lloyd studies. In October 1984, during the Iran-Iraq War, three missiles hit a liquefied petroleum carrier, according to Distrigas spokeswoman. That ship, similar to an LNG carrier, did not explode; the fire was contained, and the crew was uninjured, she says.

The only LNG fatalities have occurred on land. The most serious occurred in a 1944 fire outside an LNG storage facility in Cleveland. A total of 128 people in nearby residential areas were killed. LNG escaped from a faulty tank, forming a vapor cloud that filled surrounding streets and the sewer system before igniting. The accident was attributed to a flaw in the tank, built in the midst of World War II, when a materials shortage compromised tank design, according to the Houston study. Thirty five years later, an LNG leak triggered an explosion at the Cove Point Md., terminal. The gas seeped into an electrical substation, where it ignited, killing one operator, injuring a second, and causing $3 million in damage, the Houston study says. For 30 years, an LNG tank has stood safely at Fields Point in Providence. The 600,000 barrel tank accepts deliveries by truck, and has never had an accident, according to Robert B, Catelli, CEO of KeySpan Energy Corp., the tank's owner.

The developers proposing the three new import facilities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts claim that the terminals will bring jobs and tax revenue. And increases in natural gas supplies could reduce heating costs across New England, they say. The three terminals could be up and running by 2007, if they gain approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a host of state and local agencies.

The demand for gas in this area is great, says Gordon Shearer, CEO of Weaver's Cove Energy, the developer of the Fall River facility. "Southern Massachusetts lies at the end of the nation's gas-transmission system, and hosts several very large gas-fired power plants," he explains. LNG terminals could be built in other places than Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Shearer says. But gas would then need to be delivered here, making such distant facilities less economically desirable.

The Fall River site has sparked the only active opposition. The project could bring a $200 million development to the struggling city. Still, Mayor Edward M. Lambert, Jr. has repeatedly said it is not worth the potential environmental problems, traffic congestion and public safety risk to the 9,000 residents living within a mile of the facility. The terminal, he says, will bring only 40 permanent jobs to Fall River, while taking up 63 acres of waterfront land. In addition, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have opposed dredging required for the terminal. Still, Shearer says Fall River is an ideal site. This area is vulnerable to potential supply interruptions and thus attractive for increased gas supplies, he told the Fall River City Council.

While Fall River politicians and community groups like Green Futures, oppose the proposed development, the Somerset and Providence terminals have received support from the public officials. The Somerset project, with its estimated $300 million price tag, claims some positive environmental impact. The project will rely on hot water from the Brayton Point Power Station to warm the LNG, bringing it into its gas form for distribution. Using excess heat from Brayton Point would help reduce its hot water discharge into Mount Hope Bay. The Environmental Protection Agency blames the plant's waste-water for reduced fish levels in the bay.

The Providence developers, KeySpan LNG, and its gas supplier, BG LNG, say their terminal will receive ships half the size of those planned in Fall River. The KeySpan project is much smaller, in part because the facility already has a storage tank that has been used since 1973. It receives truckloads of LNG and then distributes gas by pipeline.

KeySpan's import terminal could be ready by late next year. KeySpan plans to import LNG from Trinidad, a comparatively safe port without some of the security risks that Algeria, Indonesia and other LNG exporters pose, according to project officials. With issues of terrorism in the forefront of most public safety discussions these days, Captain Landry acknowledges that the Coast Guard will have to prepare for every eventuality whether one, two or all three new LNG terminals are built. "I don't think anyone can guarantee 100% about anything these days," she says."No one can guarantee that a terrorist incident can't happen. Nobody can."

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