Home About Us Contact Us Subscribe Archives Calendar Resources

Despite rejections, LNG proposals move up the coast

Passamaquoddy Bay is no place for terminals, say opponents
Printer Friendly Page

By Maureen Kelly

THE DEBATE over the siting of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals has reached the northernmost shores of Maine with three proposals to build terminals for offloading LNG from ships in the deepwater ports of Passamaquoddy Bay. While the projects could provide a new source of energy for New England and bring jobs to Maine's Washington County, opponents argue that an LNG terminal, and the huge tankers that service it, will pose a threat to a vibrant coastal ecosystem and destroy the region's tourist trade by industrializing small coastal communities, tribal lands and resort towns. LNG terminals and their land-based facilities could also make the area vulnerable to terrorism or an accidental spill, opponents say.

The proposals follow several attempts by other developers to site LNG terminals in coastal Maine. Over the past two years, Maine residents have rebuffed proposals in Harpswell, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Gouldsboro and Searsport.

If approved in the Passamaquoddy region, the LNG facilities would be located on the U.S. shoreline of the bay, which straddles the U.S./Canadian border. But since tankers making deliveries would have to traverse Canadian waters to reach port, the Canadian government may ultimately determine whether the American terminals are built.

Proposals in Maine and elsewhere

Oklahoma-based Quoddy Bay LLC was the first to announce plans for a terminal on Passamaquoddy tribal land that would include a pier with berths for two tankers and an eight-mile pipeline to storage tanks in Robbinston, Maine. After residents in nearby Perry voted against the company's proposal to site the facility at Gleason Cove last March, the company and tribal leaders reached a controversial agreement in May for the lease of a site at Split Rock on the Pleasant Point reservation.

Washington D.C.-based Downeast LNG wants to build a terminal, including a pier and storage tank, at Mill Cove in Robbinston. And Washington County-St. Croix Development, a locally-owned concern founded by two Maine state representatives - one of whom represents the Passamaquoddy tribe - became the third entity to propose a terminal in the bay, at the Red Beach section of Calais.

Elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine, other energy companies are vying for approval to build terminals. In Massachusetts, AES Corporation has proposed to build a facility in Boston Harbor on Outer Brewster Island, part of a state and national park. Excelerate Energy and Neptune LNG are each planning offshore terminals in federal waters off Massachusetts's North Shore.

Irving Oil and Repsol received approval from the Canadian government to jointly construct a terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick, 60 miles from the U.S. border. The so-called Canaport terminal will be operational by 2008 to serve the Canadian and U.S. markets. Canadian officials consider Saint John a good location for the terminal since the city, home to an oil refinery, is already industrialized, has infrastructure in place to minimize pollution and is on established shipping routes.

Presently, the Distrigas terminal in Everett, Massachusetts, is the only LNG terminal in the region, one of six in the United States.

Increased demand

Natural gas is contributing an ever larger share to New England's energy mix for heating homes and generating electricity. Industry experts and public energy officials predict that demand will soon outpace domestic supply and the region will need new sources of the fuel by the end of this decade to reliably deliver during peak winter months. Liquid natural gas - imported from overseas, gasified then shipped by pipeline to regional markets - is seen as one of the most viable options for increasing supply. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet opponents of the proposed projects believe that LNG's benefits are outweighed by the potential for ecological and economic damage, and harm to humans that ships full of hazardous cargo could present in the bay.

Hundreds of area residents participated in anti-LNG rallies and thousands signed petitions that went to the government of Maine and the U.S. and Canadian federal governments, said Linda Godfrey, coordinator of a cross-border grassroots organization, Save Passamaquoddy Bay. Several Canadian politicians voiced opposition as well. In August, New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord announced that he wanted the Canadian federal government to reject the American proposals. Canada could deny tankers access to its waters, blocking their route to port, as the nation did thirty years ago when it barred oil tankers from those same waters because of the high ecological value of the area and navigational risk.

LNG tankers as long as three football fields will have to navigate through the Bay of Fundy - renowned for its extreme tides and strong winds and currents - to Head Harbour Passage where tugboats would escort the tankers for a two-hour inland voyage. The passage is deep but narrow, which would require tankers to run close to the shoreline. The ships would also have to avoid a natural hazard called the Old Sow Whirlpool, the second largest whirlpool in the world.

The Head Harbour area is a rich feeding ground for birds and wildlife drawn to the clusters of plankton and krill that are abundant there. Harbor porpoises, basking sharks, seals and finback, humpback and minke whales inhabit the area. Endangered North Atlantic right whales migrate to the Bay of Fundy in the summer and near proposed routes and tend to concentrate in protected zones east of Grand Manan Island.

The impacts of LNG tanker traffic on wildlife will be investigated as the companies move forward with their environmental impact statements. The Canadian government will also conduct a comprehensive study that will look at the biological, social and economic impacts of the projects on Canada, said Greg Peacock, executive director of Provincial Relations at Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Impact on local economies

Concerns over the projects' impact on the local economy have surfaced on both sides of the border. The bay's natural resources are the backbone of a $1 billion “eco-economy” that employs thousands in the tourism, aquaculture and fishing industries, said Art MacKay, executive director of the St. Croix Estuary Project in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. He believes the exclusion zones that would surround tankers en route to the terminals would disrupt commerce in the bay and that local business could lose million of dollars due to these downtimes.

On the American side, others worry about the cost local communities would have to bear to enhance emergency response and infrastructure to support an influx of workers.

“It's going to be a huge burden on towns,” Godfrey said. Opponents also point out that looking to the LNG industry for economic development seems shortsighted to some who expect few jobs will be available to locals after construction.

If the terminals are built, the U.S. Coast Guard and Transport Canada would have to coordinate security for tankers transiting between the two nations' waters.

Security measures requiring lights, gunboats, surveillance and citizen refuge areas would “take away from everything this place is,” said Godfrey, who believes that LNG terminals should be sited in already industrialized areas.

Within the next few months, Godfrey and others on both sides of the issue will find out if the U.S. and Canadian federal governments agree with them.

© 2005 The Gulf of Maine Times

Is LNG safe?

LNG - natural gas cooled to its liquid state at -260o F (-162.2o C) - has been transported across the world's oceans for over four decades. After delivery, LNG is either stored or heated to turn it back into gas for delivery to homes and businesses.

The U.S. LNG industry boasts a safety record with no major accidents in more than 25 years and no spills from tankers, which are double-hulled to protect against collisions. Storage facilities on land also have double-walls to prevent gas escaping. Safety and security measures require tankers approaching U.S. ports to give the U.S. Coast Guard a four-day advance notice of arrival. The ships are subject to at-sea boardings by marine safety inspectors and the Coast Guard, crews undergo background checks, and the ships receive a Coast Guard escort into port with security zones around the vessel.

In December 2004, Sandia National Laboratories released a report, prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy, on the risks and consequences of a potential LNG spill over water.

“Risks from accidental LNG spills, such as from collisions and groundings, are small and manageable with current safety policies and practices,” the report authors concluded. A spill caused intentionally, such as by a terrorist attack, would present the worst-case scenario. The authors stated that such risks “can be significantly reduced with appropriate security, planning, prevention and mitigation.”

In the event of a spill, hazards could include cryogenic burns to the ship's crew or emergency workers who come into contact with the super-cold fluid. Once a spill occurs, the liquid gas would begin to vaporize. Mostly comprised of methane, the vapor becomes flammable if there are concentrations of it in the air of 5 to 15 percent. Under these circumstances, if the gas is confined and ignited, an explosion could occur. If released into the air, a vapor cloud could form. If ignited at the spill site, the cloud would burn as a pool fire. A fireball could result if the cloud wafts over a distance before catching fire. In that case, the vapor would burn back to its source.

The danger posed by a spill would depend on the size of it and environmental conditions - such as wind, tides, currents, and waves - that could influence the spread of the gas. The most significant impacts to public safety would be within 500 meters (0.31 miles) of a spill, and lesser impacts would exist beyond 1600 meters (about one mile), according to the Sandia report.

- Maureen Kelly