Before Excelerate Energy LLC begins construction on its Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port (Northeast Port) to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) it will begin deploying two marine mammal acoustic detection systems. The $16 million project is designed primarily to protect resources of the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and surrounding areas. This includes marine mammals, particularly endangered Right whales, that frequent Massachusetts Bay.

Excelerate received its deepwater port license from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) for the port last month (see Daily GPI, Feb. 9). Excelerate noted that the MARAD decision was the result of nearly three years of working with communities in Massachusetts, and a "rigorous and thorough" permitting process at the federal, state and local levels. In December, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney approved the Northeast Gateway LNG project, as well as the competing offshore port proposed by Neptune LNG (see Daily GPI, Dec. 20, 2006).

Excelerate entered into a sponsored program agreement with Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to develop the system during the licensing process for the port, which will be located 13 miles south-southeast of Gloucester and about 2.5 miles from the sanctuary's western border.

Cornell's BRP has been a pioneer in the development and application of acoustic wildlife monitoring systems and WHOI is known for its expertise in marine environmental research. Excelerate is in the final permitting process for the port with construction slated for May through November 2007, and operation scheduled for late December. The cost of the entire whale monitoring project, including its purchase, installation and maintenance over the expected 40-year life of the port is about $47 million.

"We're going to be here for the long haul, and this system is another example of our ability and willingness to help with problems above and beyond the impacts our port will create," said Rob Bryngelson, COO of Texas-based Excelerate. "Every cargo, fishing and commercial vessel in the area of the buoys will be able to receive this information and adjust course, speed or both to help avoid collisions with whales.

The ship-strike mitigation portion of the project, which will be active throughout the life of the port, consists of 10 near-real time acoustic buoys located along the shipping lanes that pass through the sanctuary. These buoys will be able to detect calling whales and transmit their presence to ships entering the area.

The design and use of these buoy arrays was recommended by the U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program as part of formal consultations to limit the impacts of this project under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

During operation of the port, Excelerate could average one ship per week calling on the port. However, when the acoustic buoy system becomes operational, every ship transiting Massachusetts Bay will have the opportunity to receive and utilize near-real-time data on whale presence. According to data from the Boston Harbor Pilots, large, deep draft ships make about 2,300 trips a year in and out of Boston Harbor.

That figure does not include ships that simply pass thorough Massachusetts Bay via the Cape Cod Canal. The canal itself records about 2,200 trips in both directions each year by vessels of all kinds. Some of these trips are Boston Harbor-bound and are included in the pilots' figures, but many simply cross the bay and through the sanctuary to points north or south.

A second part of the project deals with the port construction phase of Excelerate's operation and consists of a two-tiered approach. Prior to the start of port construction, Excelerate will install an array of 19 autonomous recording units (ARU) developed by Cornell. The ARUs, each about the size of a large beach ball, will be placed on the ocean floor at strategic locations to record sounds in Massachusetts Bay. The ARU data will provide researchers with an unprecedented audio record of the bay and portions of the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary. The goal is to help scientists understand how much noise is created during the port construction and whether that noise could be detrimental to marine life. The ARUs will be programmed to record 90-100 days of data and will be retrieved three or four times per year to allow researchers to analyze the recorded data.

NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program, during its consultation with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration, suggested that these ARUs be left in place for a period of three to five years to allow for a full evaluation of the noise field generated by the port and examine the potential for behavioral or distributional changes to marine mammals. To maximize the benefits these data can provide to researchers, Excelerate Energy has committed to provide funding for the installation and maintenance of this system for the full five-year period. This amount of data will also assist NOAA in evaluating the affects of LNG port related noise on the marine environment as they have never been able to do before.

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