A study commissioned by the Canadian government concludes that the passage of liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers through the choppy waters of Passamaquoddy Bay, which straddles the US.-Canadian border, would involve a "considerable level of risk," but it said that mitigation measures could significantly lower that risk.

The study, which was conducted by Senes Consultants Ltd. of Ottawa and released last Tuesday, backs up what the Canadian government has been saying all along about LNG tankers using the bay and its entry, Head Harbour Passage, to reach U.S. terminals -- that it's dangerous, very dangerous. For this and other reasons, the Canadian government has threatened to block tankers trying to reach U.S. LNG terminals from using its waters.

"It is important to note that the passage of an LNG tanker...in Passamaquoddy Bay involves a very high level of risk. Risk-mitigation measures should be proposed and carefully analyzed before considering the passage of this type of vessel in this area," the 300-plus page report said.

"Despite the existing difficulties," the report noted that "transit from [a] proposed terminal is possible" if three types of mitigation steps are taken:

"The passage to [a] proposed terminal is difficult and the transit of a vessel transporting hazardous goods creates considerable risk." But the "application of measures to mitigate risk in a risk-management approach could reduce the level of risk considerably," the Canadian report said.

"As in the transportation industry, zero risk does not exist. The object is to manage the risk appropriately so that it is reduced to an acceptable level; however, the notion of acceptable risk has yet to be defined...Consequently, it is extremely difficult to arrive at a compromise to accommodate all of the parties involved," the study noted.

The aim of the study was to assess the potential impacts/risks associated with the development of LNG terminals on the U.S. side of Passamaquoddy Bay. A key focus was the impact that may result from marine traffic through Canadian waters, including approaches to the Head Harbour Passage and the bay itself.

The report zeroed in on two U.S. LNG terminal projects that are seeking to bring their cargoes through Canadian waters -- the Quoddy Bay LNG project in Washington County, ME, and the proposed Downeast LNG terminal in Robbinston, ME.

It noted that tankers traveling to these proposed terminal sites would face intense currents, strong winds, low visibility, as well as ice spray and waves. The vessels passing through Head Harbour Passage would have to deal with an eddy known as Old Sow that is reputedly the largest eddy in the world, according to the report. "It reaches its maximum intensity approximately three hours before high tide and currents of up to six knots have been recorded outside of Deer Point. Consequently, this is a critical area in which vessels are required to change course by approximately 90 degrees."

In addition, "from mid-November to March, the winds blow at an average of 20 knots and, during this period, gale force winds (more than 34 knots) occur 10 to 15% of the time and storm force winds 2% of the time...Winds measuring up to 70 knots have been recorded in Eastport, near the location at which a vessel sailing to Passamaquoddy Bay needs to undertake a major [maneuver]."

And visibility is often reduced to less than 0.5 nautical miles in any season, according to the report. "During the month of July, visibility that is reduced to less than 0.5 miles can be expected 20 to 30% of the time. During the winter, this percentage is less than 10% and is often caused by snow."

Downeast LNG President Dean Girdis said the study did not provide any fodder for the opponents of the terminal proposed for Maine. "If those who oppose our project hope to use this report as justification for their position, it falls way, way short of the mark," he noted. "There is no smoking gun here. In fact, to the contrary, the report contains reassuring statements" for Downeast LNG and other U.S. companies that are seeking to transport LNG cargoes through the treacherous Canadian bay to their proposed terminal sites.

The report found that "by and large, it is possible to transit safely, but it is absolutely necessary to plan the passage in accordance with the tidal cycle," Girdis said. "We have...done just that. We have carefully planned for shipping routes, tides and currents, and we have engaged in highly sophisticated transit simulations with both Canadian and U.S. officials as observers."

He said he found it "curious" that the report only referenced two LNG terminal projects that are on the U.S. side of Passamaquoddy Bay -- the proposed Downeast terminal and the Quoddy Bay LNG project -- but made no mention of any Canadian LNG projects.

"Presumably the Canadian government has already dealt with many of these same issues in approving Canadian projects, so it seems odd that there is no reference to them in this report," Girdis noted.

The report "simply reinforces what we have said all along: that with the careful planning we have undertaken, the safeguards we will employ and the coordination and cooperation of U.S. and Canadian officials, this will be a safe and environmentally sound project."

The Downeast LNG project, which still is awaiting approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, would consist of two storage tanks, a regasification facility and a pier to receive LNG carriers. It also would include a 31-mile pipeline that would connect the terminal to the existing Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline that runs from Nova Scotia through Maine to southern New England. The proposed terminal would have storage capacity of 320,000 cubic meters, with an output capacity of 500 MMcf/d and peaking capacity of 625 MMcf/d.

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