Terrorist attacks on tankers carrying liquefied natural gas into a U.S. port could trigger a fire that could burn the skin of people a mile away and cause "major injuries and significant structural damage" within about a third of a mile, according to a government study released yesterday.
The report, prepared by an Energy Department laboratory, said that terrorists could use rocket-propelled grenades, missiles, planes or boats to break open the tankers.
A liquefied natural gas tanker gets a Coast Guard escort as it prepares to unload its cargo at the Cove Point terminal in Calvert County.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
However, the report said such risks "can be significantly reduced with appropriate security, planning, prevention and mitigation." Federal officials said strong security measures already are in place, and that they would review the report to see whether any changes are needed.
The report by the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico seeks to provide the most comprehensive assessment of threats posed by attacks on liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers. Some other studies have provided conflicting results.
With tight domestic supplies of natural gas, energy officials have said the United States needs to import more. Government projections say that natural gas imports will more than double during the next two decades, and nearly all of that increase is expected to come through LNG.
Industry officials say more terminals need to be built to keep up with demand, which has increased with the construction of more natural gas-fired power plants. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering proposals for a number of new terminals.
Natural gas is commonly transported in its liquid form by tanker, and comes into four U.S. terminals, including one at Cove Point in Southern Maryland. The others are located in Everett, Mass.; Elba Island, Ga.; and Lake Charles, La. FERC has approved applications to construct three new terminals.
The report does not single out any existing terminal as being more risky than another. At Cove Point, in Calvert County, tankers dock more than a mile offshore, reducing the risk, according to a spokesman for Dominion Resources Inc., the Richmond company that operates the facility.
David F. Hale, president of the Calvert County Board of Commissioners, said the report does not raise any new concern. "Our whole public safety infrastructure is sensitive to that facility," Hale said. "It's something we've been watching closely."
Officials have raised concerns about the facility in Massachusetts, which tankers access by passing through the Boston Harbor -- several hundred yards from the heavily populated shore. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has said the shipments should not continue. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called the report's findings "very sobering" and said more security is needed around the tankers.
Coast Guard officials said they had increased security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Coast Guard escorts tankers into port and reviews information about the ship's itinerary, cargo and crew, said spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet.
In a statement, Rear Adm. Thomas H. Gilmour, the Coast Guard's assistant commandant for marine safety, security and environmental protection, said a separate classified version of the report provided more detailed information that "will assist the Coast Guard in further refining our risk reduction efforts to prevent the types of attack that have the highest potential for a major loss of cargo."
Analysts said assessing the vulnerability of LNG tankers under current security is difficult. However, they said the report was valuable because it would help federal officials to decide where to approve new terminals.
"If there were a successful attack, then the consequences can be very severe," said James A. Fay, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied LNG safety for 35 years. "I think this report has done a lot to get the science of this consequence analysis out on the table where everyone can see it."
The report also assesses threats from accidental spills, which it says would be less severe.
It describes a range of impacts of a terrorist attack on one of the ships, which typically haul about 30 million gallons of LNG. The report said the "most significant impacts on public safety and property" from an attack would be for those within 1,640 feet and that "lower impacts" would be felt at distances beyond 5,249 feet.
The report does not recommend where new LNG terminals should be built. Bryan Lee, a spokesman for FERC, said that "it's probably not possible to build one of these without it being near some populated area. . . . We need to assure the risks are assessed and minimized."