Alert fatigue

The White House wants to develop a national system that ranks the severity of a terrorism threat, US Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told Reuters in a Dec. 14 interview. That's comforting to energy trade associations that represent their members' interests in Washington, DC.

"I know that the long-term use of just a general alert will ultimately create what the president and everyone else is concerned of, and that's called 'alert fatigue,'" Ridge said.

US officials have called on industry and the general public to be on "high alert" against unspecified attacks three times since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Associations scrambled to react to Nov. 26 comments by US Att. Gen. John Ashcroft. He told reporters that the Federal Bureau of Investigation Nov. 17 alerted industry to an "uncorroborated report" regarding a possible threat targeting gas pipelines.

Following Ashcroft's comments, energy trade groups reassured the media they were on "heightened" alert. But, privately, some executives told the White House it needed to rethink the way it disseminates its concerns to the public and industry so companies and their employees can better gauge how seriously they should take a potential terrorist threat.

'Chicken Little'

The fact that Ashcroft's comments came a week after the actual threat and were unsubstantiated "confused the message [that] we are remaining vigilant," one trade association head said earlier this month, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another executive likened the situation to a "Chicken Little " syndrome, where antiterrorism officials routinely warn that the "sky is falling." The real danger occurs when there is a credible threat, but the public ignores the warnings because they've heard it too many times before.

Now the White House may be heeding their criticisms. And industry is suggesting the reason for that is President George W. Bush and Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney have experience in the energy business, a sector that often operates in places far more hostile than Washington.

Cove Point

Although trade groups are grateful the administration plans to be more judicious with its alerts, they all acknowledge security issues will remain a top issue for everyone.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for example, last week reaffirmed its decision to allow the Cove Point, Md., liquefied natural gas terminal to reopen next year.

Williams Cos. Inc. had received FERC approval in October to restart the terminal in May and expand storage capacity to 7.8 bcf from 5 bcf. Local policy-makers' concerns led FERC to hold a closed meeting Nov. 16 with state authorities, US lawmakers, and federal security officials (OGJ Online, Nov. 14, 2001).

Residents and local officials are worried ships carrying LNG could be hijacked and used to damage the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant 4 miles from the LNG terminal. Cove Point was built in 1974 and later closed due to poor economics. It was used as a gas storage site for a period in the 1980s.

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