are sparking heated opposition
Steve Urbon, Standard-Times
New Englanders, accustomed
to living at the "end of the pipeline" for almost every
form of energy, are used to paying a high price and suffering
shortages. But when it comes to liquefied natural gas, or LNG,
many people in SouthCoast believe that solving the pipeline problem
might cost much more than it's worth.
Fall River and the towns along Mount Hope and Narragansett bays
are in turmoil over proposals to make the region a hub for the
importation of LNG from abroad.
Today there is a very real prospect of 1,000-foot ships, dwarfing
the USS Massachusetts, weekly carrying millions of gallons of
high-potency LNG into local waterways, and, in Fall River's case,
storing the potentially explosive fuel at a waterfront tank facility
that towers as high as the superstructure of the Braga Bridge.
The Fall River facility, at the former Shell terminal north of
the Brightman Street Bridge, would see hundreds of trucks per
In Providence, there are plans to bring LNG tankers to supply
an existing 600,000-barrel LNG storage facility, which dispatches
the fuel in dozens of tanker trucks each week.
Some see the Fall River proposal as an economic boom, others
as a bomb -- quite literally. The recent catastrophic explosion
at an LNG facility in Algeria jangled the LNG world's nerves.
Initial assurances that the Algerian plant was outdated and unlike
anything here were later debunked by news that it had undergone
a $250 million modernization just five years ago by Vice President
Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton.
Opposition to the Fall River proposal, called Weaver's Cove Energy,
hasn't been universal, by any means, but it has been fierce.
And there is worry that the federal review process for such projects
might be inadequate, incomplete or possibly corrupt and beholden
to energy interests.
The heated atmosphere surrounding the Fall River proposal and
others for Providence and Brayton Point in Somerset reflects
a larger reality: Demand for natural gas is starting to exceed
the supply in North America.
The production of existing wells in the United States is starting
to dwindle. And although new exploration, spurred by higher prices,
ought to help in future years, a "gold rush" to open
port facilities is on, spurred by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan
Greenspan's remarks last year that the impending natural gas
shortage would wreak havoc on America's economy.
Until recent years, an LNG import facility in Everett was the
only one in the nation and America was importing only about 1
percent of its natural gas supply. But demand is up sharply,
spurred by new clean-burning power plants much favored by environmentalists.
Prices are following demand, up 70 percent in three years.
Predictions are that the United States might soon import 20 percent
of its natural gas. Mothballed import facilities in Maryland
and Georgia have reopened. And some 40 new port facilities have
been proposed on the East and West coasts, designed to accommodate
huge triple-hulled LNG tankers from such places as the Middle
East and the Far East.
The problem for government is that there hasn't been one of these
built in almost three decades.
In the late 1970s, Congress, expecting LNG imports in the wake
of the energy crisis, looked at the possibilities and became
worried. Fearing LNG explosions at facilities near populated
areas and accidents with tanker trucks on congested highways,
Congress rewrote some of the rules on LNG for the Department
of Transportation, which bases its regulations on standards set
by the National Fire Protection Association. As it happens, NFPA
isn't nearly as concerned about LNG explosions as was Congress.
Congress implored the DOT to site LNG terminals only in remote
areas, a warning that critics charge is being ignored today.
Fall River's terminal, says Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr., would
be the closest in the nation to heavily populated areas.
But the DOT isn't in charge today. LNG terminals are the purview
of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, one of
whose members was once on the staff of Vice President Cheney's
infamous Energy Task Force. The task force, whose secrecy is
now being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court, is criticized
for being stacked with energy interests and excluding consumers
FERC is regarded as the final authority on energy facilities,
notwithstanding state and local licensing and restrictions. Massachusetts
Attorney General Thomas M. Reilly's spokesman Corey Welford told
The Standard-Times that, at this point, his office would have
little involvement in the LNG matter because FERC has all the
That hands-off stance infuriates Rep. David Sullivan, D-Fall
River, who insists that Mr. Reilly "ought to be involved"
because he is charged with protecting the people of the commonwealth.
Local officials, such as Mayor Lambert and Fall River city councilors,
he said, shouldn't have to battle alone to defend themselves
against the federal government.
As FERC's motives have been questioned, its methods have been
U.S. Reps. Barney Frank and James P. McGovern, both of whom represent
parts of Fall River, wrote to FERC Chairman Patrick Henry Wood
last week, backing up Mayor Lambert's objection to any "fast
track" approval process for Weaver's Cove.
The mayor brandished a Dec. 19, 2003, letter from Weaver's Cove's
attorney to FERC, asking for a "preliminary determination"
on all non-environmental issues by the end of this month. That,
the mayor objected, runs contrary to assurances he obtained last
fall that the FERC process would be deliberate and take at least
one year. Weaver's Cove also asked for a final decision by September,
less than a year after its application, while at the same time
asking city councilors to be slow and deliberate in their reaction
to the project.
Mayor Lambert described that contradictory approach as a "fast
ball behind your head."
The March 31 deadline requested by Weaver's Cove is, perhaps
coincidentally, the same date that FERC is expecting the results
of a new study on the potential dangers of LNG, which can be
LNG is potent stuff. It is supercooled (minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit)
natural gas, more than 90 percent methane. The liquid takes up
one six-hundredth the volume of the gas, and weighs less than
half of the same volume of water.
LNG is stored and shipped in heavily insulated low-pressure tanks,
usually spherical on the huge tankers. It is referred to as a
"boiling cryogen," which means that it is at its boiling
point for the pressure under which it is stored. It stays cold
through evaporation if the LNG that boils off is removed from
The million-dollar question is: How safe is all of this, especially
now that we have to worry about terrorism and sabotage? What
happens if the LNG gets loose from a ruptured pipe or, worse,
from a terrorist act that blows a hole in a ship, the way it
did with the USS Cole in Yemen? Are people being protected against
the chance that an immense cloud of natural gas might spread
for miles before being detonated, as it did in Cleveland in 1944,
incinerating an entire square mile of the city and killing more
than 100 people?
Critics such as Congressman Ed Markey say FERC is basing its
judgment on a faulty study it commissioned about the Everett
facility, a study renounced by the people who did it, saying
it underestimates the true risks.
U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has commissioned yet another
study of the potential dangers of LNG and the Congressional Research
Service, an arm of the Library of Congress, earlier this year
released a survey of the LNG issues that raised dozens of questions
about the adequacy of existing regulations and policy.
"Although LNG has had a record of relative safety for the
last 40 years, and no LNG tanker or land-based facility has been
attacked by terrorists, experts have questioned the adequacy
of key LNG siting regulations related to safety zones, marine
hazards and remote siting," the report said. "Experts
have also questioned the validity of LNG hazard studies used
by federal regulatory agencies which suggest that LNG terminal
risks, while significant, are not as serious as is popularly
Meanwhile, as these questions swirl, the Weaver's Cove review
proceeds, possibly on an accelerated basis. Concerned Rhode Island
lawmakers are threatening to fight back with a ban on water traffic
of LNG in Narragansett and Mount Hope bays, which would shut
the door on shipments to Fall River or Somerset. Mayor Lambert
said that the disregard of Congress' call for remote sites might
be the hook for a lawsuit if FERC approves Weaver's Cove.
Yet Weaver's Cove has its backers, and there are many who are
undecided so far.
The roughly $3 million in annual property taxes is a plus, they
say, not to mention the jobs and the improved energy supply.
The risks, many claim, are overstated and extremely remote. Fall
River should make use of its waterfront business potential, and
this fits the bill.
But there are unanswered questions about costs and benefits.
Who pays to escort these huge vessels? Everett Castro of the
local environmental group Green Futures questioned whether the
route into Fall River would be as closely guarded as is Boston
Harbor when the ships arrive in Everett. It's a 26-mile trip
inland, compared to eight miles in Boston, he said.
And who pays for the security? Who pays for additional fire and
police protection, the Coast Guard escorts, the patrols to keep
other vessel traffic at a considerable distance? Will the four
bridges on the route be closed, as is the one bridge in Boston?
Green Futures attracted an estimated 125 people to an organizational
meeting over the LNG issue last Wednesday. The Fall River City
Council has voted to oppose the project as well.
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