Banned in Boston, LNG tanker will unload in Savannah

Sam Fletcher
OGJ Online

HOUSTON, Oct. 3 -- A tanker loaded with liquefied natural gas, banned from Boston harbor as a potential target for terrorists, will become the first vessel to offload at El Paso Corp.'s newly reactivated LNG import terminal at Elba Island near Savannah, Ga., officials said Wednesday.

Distrigas of Massachusetts LLC rerouted the LNG tanker Matthew to the Southern LNG Inc. facility at Elba Island after the US Coast Guard refused to let the vessel unload as scheduled last week at the Distrigas marine terminal in Everett, Mass., outside of Boston.

Company officials told OGJ Online they've already agreed to "certain permanent changes" in security for the Everett terminal and the operation of LNG vessels in Boston's harbor that are not being imposed at the other three US LNG ports.

Yet there was no indication from Coast Guard officials Wednesday as to when the ban against LNG imports through that terminal may be lifted. "I think they're still discussing it," a spokeswoman at Coast Guard headquarters in Boston told OGJ Online.

Distrigas officials describe their Everett terminal as the oldest and longest operating of four LNG terminals in the US. Since 1971, it has taken delivery of 438 LNG cargoes, accounting for more than half of all the LNG imported into the US.

The LNG tanker was denied access to Boston harbor "because we need to be sure we've done everything we can to provide a safe environment for this vessel's transit through the port and during its product transfer operation at the dock," said Coast Guard Capt. Brian Salerno, captain of the Boston port and commanding officer of the USGS Marine Safety Office there.

In that statement issued Sept. 26, Salerno said, "My job as captain of the Port of Boston is to take actions to prevent injury or damage to waterway users, vessels, waterfront facilities, and ports in my area of responsibility. ... Since Sept 11, the dynamics of that role have changed."

He did not say why only the LNG tanker was banned, however. Industry sources confirmed that other tankers are being permitted to enter Boston harbor and to unload cargoes of gasoline and fuel oil (OGJ Online, Sept. 14, 2001). Coast Guard officials said Wednesday they had nothing to add to Salerno's original statement.

"Boston does have some unique safety factors. It is a real risk," said Mary Menino, manager of the natural gas practice at Energy Security Analysis Inc. in Wakefield, Mass.

LNG tankers entering that harbor can only come in at low tide so that they can squeeze under a bridge spanning those waters, she said. Moreover, their passageway is through the inner city, "right past the financial district."

Unlike tankers that carry oil or refined products, no LNG tanker or terminal anywhere in the world has ever suffered an explosion or major fire, said LNG industry officials. LNG tankers were being built with double hulls and bottoms to minimize accidental impact on cargo tanks long before those safety features were required for oil tankers.

Natural gas cannot burn in its liquid state, which is achieved by chilling it to -260° F. Moreover, natural gas itself has a narrow range for flammability and will not burn in concentrations of less than 5% or more than 15% mixed with air, said Distrigas officials. And it can't explode if not confined.

However, liquefying natural gas reduces it to 1/600th of its original volume, cramming a greater amount within a smaller space in the tanker or storage facility. If the gas aboard an LNG tanker could be ignited or exploded "it would be a fireball," Menino said.

Boston news media reported estimates that such an explosion could obliterate a 4-mile area, destroying most of downtown Boston.

Salerno was among the participants in a 2-day LNG safety-training seminar in Boston in June that was jointly sponsored by the Coast Guard, Lloyd's Register Americas Inc., and Cabot LNG LLC, which owns Distrigas and the Distrigas Marine LNG import terminal in Everett. An internet report of that seminar said, "Boston is recognized as the USCG's center of excellence with regards to LNG vessels in the Unites States." It also praised Distrigas' "stellar, blemish-free safety record."

Distrigas officials say they're now trying to get that message across to Boston residents. "We recognize the impact of the events of Sept. 11. However, we also recognize the importance of LNG to the New England energy supply, particularly as we approach the winter heating season. We look forward to working with the Coast Guard, the mayors of Boston and Everett, and with the governor to resume safe transportation of LNG into New England as soon as possible," company officials said.

Southern LNG, a subsidiary of El Paso Corp., began an open season in September to expand its Elba Island terminal by 80% (OGJ Online, Sept. 11, 2001). The planned in-service date for the $145 million expansion is 2005, subject to receiving adequate firm subscriptions and necessary regulatory approvals.

The Elba Island facility had been inactive since 1982 but was scheduled to begin receiving LNG shipments in late September. Officials said volumes would reach the design sendout of 440 MMcfd in 2003.

Contact Sam Fletcher at samf@ogjonline.com

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