A yet-to-be-published federal report that is unfavorable to liquefied natural gas (LNG) is causing quite a stir in Massachusetts, prompting Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to renew his call for a ban on LNG tanker traffic in Boston Harbor, and the mayor of Fall River, MA, to claim the report adds fuel to his campaign to block a proposed LNG facility from being sited in his city.
The report, which was written by two researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), compares the “likely similarities and differences” between large accidental releases of refined petroleum products and LNG, their subsequent spreading in water, and their possible “pool-fire” behavior near a vessel.
“Unlike the typical oil spill, the LNG will evaporate rapidly, creating a flammable atmosphere above the slick, and stop spreading while the LNG slick is relatively thick. [But] oil will spread thinner and is not likely to create a fire hazard,” according to the report that was obtained by NGI.
Moreover, “fuel oil fires typically produce enough smoke to reduce the radiation effects from the fire,” the NOAA researchers said. However, “an LNG pool-fire will likely have a somewhat smaller area and burner quicker, cleaner, and with considerably more thermal radiation.”
Ironically, while the researchers found that an LNG spill is likely to pose a greater fire hazard and emit more radiation in the event of a fire, they had to concede that “case histories for liquefied natural gas vessel accidents are more rare” than spills involving refined petroleum products, which they called a “relatively common occurrence over the past few decades.”
In fact, “there has never been an uncontrolled release of gas from [an] LNG tanker, nor has there ever been a catastrophic failure of penetration of a tanker’s containment system,” according to an official with the Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators (SIGTTO). But terrorists have added a new dimension.
Because of the rarity of LNG transportation accidents, the NOAA researcher entitled their 16-page report, “Comparison of Hypothetical LNG and Fuel Oil Fires on Water.”
Nevertheless, Menino said the NOAA report confirmed the findings of a previous report that was commissioned by Boston and conducted by ICF Consulting Services LLC, which predicted dire consequences for the city in the event of an LNG tanker attack or accident in Boston Harbor, according to a published account in the Boston Herald. The Boston mayor said the city didn’t have enough fire equipment or manpower to handle a massive LNG blaze.
But Douglas Beck, senior vice president with ICF Consulting in Fairfax, VA, said the objectives of the two studies were entirely different. The NOAA report “appears not to be a parallel study because it is predicting consequences that could result from an attack” on an LNG tanker. The ICF Consulting study, which was undertaken in July 2002, sought to “better understand what improvements should be made” to Boston’s fire departments to deal with potential hazards of LNG tankers in Boston Harbor in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he noted.
“We haven’t received any request [from Menino] to stop deliveries especially as we head into winter,” said Julie Vitek, a spokeswoman for Distrigas of Massachusetts LLC’s LNG facility in Everett, MA, which provides about 35% of New England’s natural gas supplies during the winter.
She noted that Distrigas has taken a “very critical” view of the NOAA report. Vitek cited a key disclaimer in the report, which she believes raises questions about the findings. “The conclusions…are those of the authors and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”
She said Distrigas has worked closely with the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston to ensure the safe transportation of LNG tankers. “Our work with the Coast Guard to bring the LNG [through the harbor] has become a model nationwide.” Last month, Vitek said Distrigas, the state, local fire departments and the Coast Guard participated in a drill to test response plans.
The Coast Guard conducted an “extensive analysis” of the safety and security risks associated with LNG shipments in Boston Harbor in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and found that the concerns had been met. The Coast Guard imposed a nearly three-week embargo on LNG shipments in the busy harbor in the fall of 2001 while it conducted the safety/security review.
Fall River Mayor Edward Lambert believes the conclusions of the NOAA report further bolster his campaign against Weaver’s Cove Energy LLC’s proposal to site a $250 million LNG facility in his city.
“The study is not favorable to [LNG] or at least raises questions as far as the appropriate location for such a facility,” said Eric M. Poulin, a spokesman for the mayor.
“Our main objection [to the project] is the location,” he said, noting that approximately 9,000 people would be located within a one-mile radius of the proposed LNG facility. One LNG tanker would arrive every 5-7 days, prompting the shutdown of two bridges in the city — the Braga Bridge and the Brightman Street Bridge, Poulin noted.
Fall River is located just south of Boston on the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay. It has a population of nearly 92,000, making it the eighth largest city in Massachusetts.
The city already has taken steps at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and at the state level to try to block the Weaver’s Cove Energy project, which seeks to have a storage capacity of 4.4 Bcf and sendout capability of 400 MMcf/d when it begins operation in 2007. Fall River also has enlisted the support of Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and James McGovern (D-MA) to help delay any dredging associated with the project.
The NOAA report, which is in the preliminary stages, is just “one more piece of [Mayor Lambert’s] arsenal,” Poulin said.
LNG projects also are being proposed in the neighboring town of Somerset, MA, near the Brayton Point Power Plant and in Providence, RI. The Providence LNG project is backed by KeySpan Corp.
The worst LNG fire on record did not involve shipping, but rather the leaking of onshore storage tanks in Cleveland in 1944. More than one square mile of the city’s east side burned, killing 130 people and destroying 79 homes and two factories.
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