Tanker protection is stretching USCG thin, GAO warns

Jan. 21, 2007
The US Coast Guard’s resources are being stretched thin as it assumes the lead role in protecting energy commodity tankers from possible terrorist attacks in or near US ports, the Government Accountability Office said Jan. 9.

The US Coast Guard’s resources are being stretched thin as it assumes the lead role in protecting energy commodity tankers from possible terrorist attacks in or near US ports, the Government Accountability Office said Jan. 9.

The situation could become more critical, GAO warned in a newly released study, as LNG imports grow and more US terminals open. “Despite considerable efforts to protect ports and the energy traffic in them, the level of protection is not where the Coast Guard believes it should be. At some ports, Coast Guard units are not meeting their own levels of required security activities,” it said.

The congressional watchdog service urged the US Department of Homeland Security to develop a national resource allocation plan that would balance the need to meet new LNG security responsibilities with other security needs and USCG missions. It also said DHS should develop federal-level guidance for ports to use in planning to help mitigate economic consequences, particularly when ports are closed.

The study also found that in several ports and regions, antispill and antiterrorist exercises occur separately and often do not include the same participants. Consequently, GAO recommended that the US homeland security secretary and the attorney general direct USCG and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, respectively, to develop coordinated national and local responses.

GAO originally prepared the report in March 2007, but released it publicly on Jan. 9 after removing sensitive security information, including details regarding security conditions and operations at specific ports and specific findings related to response plans and the results of exercises. It did not perform additional audit work for the public version and generally did not change the March 2007 report’s conclusions.

‘Significant consequences’

The report’s release produced some immediate congressional reactions. “If there was an attack on an energy tanker or terminal in a US port, there could be significant economic, environmental, and public safety consequences, which would result in even higher gasoline and heating oil prices,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who requested the report last year with Ranking Minority Member Joe Barton (D-Tex.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a committee member whose district includes the nation’s only urban LNG import terminal.

Congress increased USCG’s fiscal 2008 port security appropriation to $58.8 million from the $45 million that President George W. Bush requested, according to the committee. Dingell said he plans to review the White House’s fiscal 2009 budget request to determine whether it has provided the necessary resources to protect energy tankers and ports, as identified in the report. “GAO’s analysis reminds us of the urgent need to reduce energy imports and spur the growth of renewable and nonpolluting energy supplies,” he said.

“Given the fact that LNG is being transported into Boston every several days on the way to the Everett LNG terminal, an attack on one of these tankers could be devastating,” Markey said. “I will be working with my colleagues to ensure that DHS responds to the vulnerabilities exposed in this report and that their efforts are not hampered by a lack of resources. We cannot skimp when it comes to public safety.”

Barton agreed that vessels delivering imported energy need to be protected, but added, “It also seems plain that simply accepting the inevitability of soaring natural gas imports is hardly a good idea, much less necessary, when America has vast reserves of energy available within our own boundaries. Yes, we’ll need to protect the tankers, but we’ll require far fewer of them if we can summon the political will to produce our own energy from our own reserves.”

The latest report is the second by GAO in response to the three lawmakers’ request, Barton said. The first, which came out in March, recommended continued research on technical safety issues, “and that makes perfect sense,” Barton said. GAO also sent the most recent report to House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Ranking Minority Member Peter T. King (R-NY).

Risks, responses

In that report, it noted that USCG has been assessing risks associated with certain dangerous cargo (CDC). “The results of that study, and of any comparative analysis that includes hazardous materials not on the CDC list, will be important in a careful and dispassionate analysis for ensuring that available resources are deployed in such a way that commodities receive protection commensurate with the relative risks involved. This is especially important with expected growth in LNG imports,” GAO said.

It suggested that results of analyses from use of the Maritime Security Risk Assessment Model will be of similar importance in determining how field units can make the best use of security resources at their ports. “With the ability to compare different targets and different levels of protection offered by security stakeholders, the model should allow the Coast Guard to take a more complete accounting for the various risks at US ports,” it said.

It said local USCG units have actively prepared for the coming growth in LNG shipments by working with local law enforcement agencies to augment resources. Such assistance is vital as the federal service tries to meet security requirements with limited resources, according to GAO. But it added that USCG’s headquarters needs to help such local efforts more by beginning centralized planning for how to address resource shortages across several locations.

“As LNG facilities continue to multiply, the resulting increase in work load will affect some Coast Guard units but not others, necessitating a centralized response as well as a port-specific one,” GAO said, adding, “It is important for the Coast Guard to begin this centralized planning soon, when attention can also be paid to assessing the options for partnering with state or local law enforcement agencies to ensure appropriate security.”

Ports would need to provide an effective, integrated response to protect public safety and the environment, conduct a terrorism investigation, and restore operations quickly in the event of a successful attack on an energy commodity tanker, the report said. “Consequently, clearly defined and understood roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders who would need to respond are needed to ensure an effective response. Operational plans for the response, among the various levels of government involved, should be explicitly linked,” it said.

The report conceded that ports may have exercise priorities other than responding to a terrorist attack on a tanker. But it also suggested that combined spill and terrorism response exercises should be considered and pursued in ports that are generally considered to be at risk.

Energy imports by tanker are concentrated in different regions, according to GAO. It said that in 2004 (the most recent representative year because hurricanes disrupted imports in 2005) Gulf Coast ports accounted for 62% of the oil arriving by tanker from abroad, East Coast ports handled 95% of the gasoline and 75% of the LNG, and ports on the West Coast received 60% of the jet fuel.