New FERC Study May Blow Onshore LNG Out of the Water

By Published On: May 15, 2004

A terrorist attack on a liquefied natural gas tanker ship calling on the Port of Long Beach could cause a fireball that would fatally burn citizens up to almost a mile downwind, according to a report released May 14 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission following much public pressure. The ABS Consulting study shows that in less than a minute, people exposed to a gas explosion burning at 1,600 Btu per square foot could be burnt to death or sustain severe injuries. If the LNG did not immediately ignite, according to the study, it could cause a flammable cloud of gas that would spread more than two miles downwind. That cloud could suddenly ignite and burn nearly everything it encompassed. “I hope FERC will realize the significant risks involved and I believe that the [California Public Utilities Commission] and other state agencies are well suited to evaluate them,” said CPUC member Loretta Lynch, who had not seen the study. Federal and state regulators are locked in a jurisdictional battle over LNG facilities, with FERC claiming exclusive jurisdiction. Although the turf fight is about the law, “technical data can underscore why California needs to make those decisions about safety,” Lynch added. The studys findings will not boost the prospects of Sound Energy Solutions’ (SES) proposed Long Beach LNG facility. “Thermal radiation levels of concern” must take into account “the potentially exposed population” and “fire events,” states the report, Consequence Assessment Methods for Incidents Involving Releases of Liquefied Natural Gas. The severity of the structural impacts of an LNG-related fire vary with heat flux, exposure time, and material of the structure. The report examined the consequences of punching a 16-foot-diameter hole at the waterline of a double-hulled LNG tanker ship. The scenario is similar to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000 in which terrorists used an explosive-laden small craft to ram the ship at the waterline, creating a 40-foot-diameter hole in the single-hulled vessel and killing 17 of its crew. Despite the similarity to the Cole incident, the modeling study remains silent on the cause of such a potential LNG shipping disaster and does not assess whether a spill and possible explosion would be caused by an attack or accident, nor “their probability of occurrence.” FERC considered restricting access to ABS’s risk assessment under rules promulgated after September 11, 2001. LNG ships are considered “critical infrastructure” as defined by the USA Patriot Act, and this category of information could aid “enemies” (see <i>Circuit</i>, March 19, 2004). Included among documents considered secret are numerous submissions by SES. Companies submitting applications and documents to FERC ask to have materials restricted under the Critical Energy Infrastructure Information (CEII) rules, and FERC automatically keeps them from the public. Federal regulators put under wraps tens of thousands of documents that could contain critical energy infrastructure information. No specific number was provided because the agency has not counted how many documents have been put off limits, according to FERC spokesperson Tamara Young Allen. FERC’s CEII rule is considered “an alternative” to the Freedom of Information Act because it allows potentially sensitive material to be accessed if an applicant files a request and agrees not to disclose the released information. From April 2002 to late January of this year, 126 requests for 2,230 documents were made and 119 granted, Young Allen said. Requests were denied because the material involved attorney-client issues or deliberations or because the applicant did not agree to the “appropriate” nondisclosure. FERC has cast its secrecy net far too widely, according to Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at OMB [Office of Management and Budget] Watch. “They shouldn’t restrict a 100-page report because it contains a one-page schematic,” he said. There should be some way to redact material in reports containing critical energy information, he added. In some instances, FERC agreed to release materials, including those dealing with hydroelectric facilities, after realizing that recategorizing the information was unwarranted. Compounding the secrecy problem is that those who want information about a project know little about documents that have been restricted, creating a catch-22. All they have access to is the document’s title, which includes whether it is a letter, information pursuant to a given subsection of an act, or a resume. To date, FERC’s CEII rules have not been challenged. The Port of Long Beach, which is the lead agency working on environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act for the SES project, reiterated it will make its report publicly available when it is completed this summer. Bob Kanter, director of planning, said that the analysis at issue does not involve highly sensitive information, release of which could jeopardize public safety. <8>William Kelly also contributed to this report.</i>

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