Although significant steps have been taken both internationally and domestically to protect liquefied natural gas (LNG), refined product and crude oil tankers from terrorist attacks in recent years, major challenges still exist as the LNG tanker traffic into the United States grows, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said last week.

The challenges facing the U.S. Coast Guard include resource constraints (not enough boats and personnel); the need to integrate plans for addressing fuel spills and terrorist attacks on tankers; and the need to redistribute Coast Guard resources to the U.S. ports where LNG shipments are expected to be the greatest, said the GAO report, which was released to the public for the first time last Wednesday. A restricted version of the report containing sensitive information was released to the government in March 2007.

“Overseas, despite international agreements calling for certain protective steps, substantial disparities exist [between ports] in implementation” of security measures, noted the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress. “Our visits to overseas facilities showed that some port facilities have put extensive security measures in place, while at other facilities, we found such problems as unattended gates and downed fences.”

As a result, “the United States faces limitations in helping to increase compliance, as well as limitations in ensuring safe passage on vulnerable transport routes,” the agency said. “There is no mechanism currently in place to verify compliance, and Coast Guard activities abroad are limited by and dependent on conditions set by host nations, including the locations the Coast Guard can visit,” the report noted.

“Domestically, units of the Coast Guard, the lead federal agency for maritime security, report insufficient resources to meet its own self-imposed security standards, such as escorting ships carrying liquefied natural gas. Some units’ workloads are likely to grow as new liquefied natural gas facilities are added. [But] Coast Guard headquarters has not developed plans for shifting resources among units” to respond where the LNG import load will be greatest, the agency said.

LNG imports, which currently account for 3% of natural gas supplies, are projected to grow by nearly 400% to 17% of U.S. gas demand by 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“Multiple-attack response plans are in place to address an attack [on a fuel tanker], but stakeholders face three main challenges in making them work,” the agency said. “First, plans for responding to a spill and to a terrorist threat are generally separate from each other, and ports have rarely exercised these plans simultaneously to see if they work effectively together. Second, ports generally lack plans for dealing with economic issues, such as prioritizing the movement of vessels after a port reopens” following an attack, the GAO noted.

And last, “federal port security grants have generally been directed at preventing attacks, not responding to them, but a more comprehensive risk-based approach is being developed,” the report said.

The report highlights the fact that energy commodity tankers have been targets of recent maritime terrorist attacks, such as the suicide attack on the oil tanker Limberg off the coast of Yemen in 2002 and multiple attacks from explosive-packed vessels against oil terminals in Iraq in 2004. Although the GAO reported no specific threat of attack at U.S. ports, intelligence indicates that domestic ports are targets under consideration by terrorists, according to a press statement by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Tankers are vulnerable to stand-off attacks using rockets; mortar or rocket-propelled grenades; armed assaults; and insider attacks executed through a crew conspiracy, the report said.

The GAO report was requested in January 2005 by several House lawmakers (see NGI, Feb. 7, 2005). They specifically asked the GAO to undertake an investigation of the “vulnerabilities” of tankers bringing LNG and other fuels into U.S. harbors. Among the congressmen making the request were Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican of the committee; Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), an outspoken member of the committee; and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

The lawmakers acknowledged at the time that the federal government has taken a number of steps to avert potential terrorist attacks on LNG and fuel tankers, such as providing Coast Guard escorts to tankers entering U.S. waters, and requiring a 96-hour notice of arrival for all commercial vessels prior to entering U.S. ports with details about the crew, cargo and history of the vessel. But they believe more safeguards are needed.

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