Congress Holds Hearings on LNG Safety
Members Tell Coast Guard It
Doesn’t Have Enough Ships or Crew to Guard Terminals
BY HANS LAETZ
Some members of Congress from both sides of
the aisle are unhappy with Coast Guard answers about the
agency’s ability to prevent terrorism at the
nation’s planned 30 or so liquefied natural gas
terminals. And at a Washington hearing Wednesday, March
21, that unhappiness went public.
The congressional hearing was three weeks
before regulators in California are to take a key vote on the
BHP Billiton proposal to build an LNG terminal near
Malibu. Some coastal residents oppose the project,
and the possibility of a terrorist attack or accident at the
floating gas terminal is a major objection to them.
A General Accounting Office report issued a
week ago said not enough research has been done on the effects
of a leak, spill or sabotage on LNG ships.
The Congressional hearing last week gave
representatives an opportunity to ask federal agencies about
the safety of the rapidly expanding LNG import industry. It was
accompanied by a closed-door session on terrorism and LNG
facilities that included secret briefing materials.
“Coast Guard assets are aging by the
day, and I am concerned about whether or not the Coast Guard
has the assets to meet this growing mission,” said
Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Louisiana.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut
Republican whose district might play host to a floating
offshore LNG terminal, asked a Coast Guard rear admiral if the
Coast Guard has enough people and ships to guard LNG vessels,
which federal officials say are possible terrorism targets.
At the hearing, which was webcast, Rear
Admiral Brian Salerno told Shays “the question of
resources is being looked at carefully.”
“Isn’t the honest answer to
that question ‘no’?” Shays asked.
Salerno paused, looked at his notes, and
replied, “That’s on the table.”
“I think that’s a punt,”
Coast Guard officials in New York have said
they would need one ship and 70 additional crewmembers for
security at Broadwater, a floating LNG terminal very
similar in concept to the BHP Billiton proposal for an
unloading, processing and storage tank facility 13.8 miles
off the Malibu coast.
Coast Guard officials have not prepared a
similar Waterways Suitability Assessment for Cabrillo
Port, the BHP Billiton project proposed for coastal Malibu,
because it is not within a harbor or bay, like the Broadwater
The Coast Guard air and sea fleet is in a
state of distress right now, with a half dozen ships showing
hull cracks after a modernization program failed, leaving the
ships and cutters unsafe and unusable. New helicopters are
behind schedule and over budget, and the new GAO report
warns that the Coast Guard may not be equipped to handle the
task of guarding five existing LNG terminals, 15 LNG terminals
in the permitting process, and another 25 or so proposed.
Thompson said he realized Coast Guard
officials are attempting to fix the problems, “but I want
to know if this course correction will occur before the
additional LNG facilities come on line.”
Thompson said he was puzzled by the Coast
Guard’s inability to say right now if it has enough
staff. “Very rarely do I find a (Congressional)
committee offering to help, and the offer is declined,”
Some California decision-makers in
behind-the-scenes meetings with anti-LNG activists have
reportedly raised the possibility of an LNG tanker being
hijacked “and rammed into Santa Monica.”
At last Wednesday’s hearing, an
official with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
downplayed the dangers of a terrorist attack, saying the
worst-case scenario imaginable is a “pool fire” of
spilled LNG that would burn for a half hour. “If you read
the popular press, it (the danger) is overblown,” said J.
Mark Robinson, FERC’s director of energy projects.
“What they are talking about is
second degree burns on exposed skin one mile away if you hold
your arm out for a minute,” he told the committee.
“If you just move away within 20-to-30 seconds, you
won’t have a burn.”
In a 2005 report, the institute said the
hijacking and destruction of an LNG tanker was unimaginable in
a pre-9/11 world. “The attack on the U.S.S. Cole (in
2002) by al-Qaeda operatives in the harbor in Aden, Yemen
changed all that.”
Using a small inflatable boat loaded with
explosives, the attackers were able to blow a 40x60-foot hole
in the side of the armored ship, inflicting heavy damage both
above and largely below the waterline.
“Seventeen Navy personnel were killed
and 36 injured in the attack,” the report continued.
“Shortly thereafter, a small boat laden with explosives
attacked the French tanker Limburg at Ash Shihr,
In that attack, both the inner and outer
hulls of the double-hulled ship were penetrated, and damage
extended, according to the captain, seven or eight meters into
the cargo hold, which was filled with crude oil.