Friday, March 21, 2008

Exposed: Little Demand, Little Supply for Broadwater LNG

The lead came to me from a sailor. I was looking for information about what it would be like to have a massive Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Long Island Sound, so I called Tom Cox up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to ask what happened to boaters when 1,000-foot LNG tankers pass through Boston Harbor.

Cox is a frost-biter, one of those addicted sailors who risk their skin every winter by racing around the harbor in small boats. He told me that the tankers regularly disrupt the races. He and the other sailors have to steer away from the safety zone imposed by patrol boats trying to protect the tankers against a terrorist attack. More about that later.

But Cox really got my attention when he told me that he trades in stocks and commodities, including natural gas. “The really irksome thing to me,” he said, “is that natural gas is very abundant in the U.S.”

What’s that? You mean we don’t really need the natural gas that backers of the Broadwater LNG terminal in the Sound say we do? The backers have claimed—and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has just agreed-- that our region needs the terminal to meet our growing needs.
But if there’s plenty of gas in the U.S., why do we need to:
  • become newly dependent on foreign supplies?
  • give up public property, a piece of precious Long Island Sound?
  • allow 1,000-foot ships to risk disaster entering the Sound the through its perilous mouth, the narrow, rocky channel known as The Race? (These tankers, by the way, run on one of the most polluting forms of petroleum and will be traveling thousands of miles across the oceans.)
These questions sent me on an information dig, and what I’ve found out boggles the mind: not only is the predicted growth in demand for natural gas over the next 20 years quite modest, but the supply of gas for the Broadwater terminal—and the others proposed for the East Coast—will be so low that they won't be able to operate at even 50 percent capacity.

These predictions come from the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA), whose job is to develop this sort of information to help guide lawmakers and regulators. On March 4, the administrator of the EIA, Guy Caruso, testified (click on the link to a pdf of his testimony) before a U.S. Senate Committee that natural gas consumption is expected to rise 10 percent from 2006 levels by 2016, and then to decline. By 2030, the agency predicts, consumption will be up less than 5 percent over 2006 levels.

What about specifically in New York? The state’s energy plan does predict growth in demand of about 1.5 percent a year, particularly if electric utilities switch to gas from oil to cut pollution and greenhouse gases. But it also says this growth can be met by increased capacity of the pipelines which supply our area. In fact, much of the pipeline expansion predicted in the 2002 plan (which has not been completely updated) has already occurred or is in process.

As for supply, Caruso gave an assessment for the six new LNG terminals in the U.S. already under construction (four along the Gulf Coast and two near Gloucester, Massachusetts). Without even considering the additional supply needed for Broadwater should it be built, Caruso said that “given global LNG supply constraints” LNG import facilities in the U.S. will function at “below 50 percent” capacity through 2030.

To my knowledge, Broadwater officials have never addressed this stunning conclusion, choosing instead to bash opponents for—how predictable—unnecessarily exploiting and inflaming public fears.

Obviously, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which yesterday gave approval for Broadwater, is not on the same page as the EIA. Other entities, however, have considered these basic questions of supply and demand in opposing Broadwater. Among these is the LNG Task Force created by Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell. This bipartisan group has charged that FERC “irresponsibly” concluded that Broadwater is the only option for supplying additional natural gas to New York and Connecticut. As Tom Cox had inferred, and the task force made explicit in a letter to New York’s new governor, David Paterson on March 13:

There are viable alternatives to provide New York with the natural gas it needs and these alternatives will be up and running well before Broadwater is scheduled to be on line…FERC disregarded any actual or any potential increase in the natural gas supply resulting from upgrades to the existing pipeline system and/or from the other new LNG facilities.

You’d think this information, plus the EIA’s predictions of slow demand growth, would have given FERC good reason to be very dubious about Broadwater’s effort to take over public waters of Long Island Sound. But when looking at alternatives, the agency made sure its finding would favor the project by considering only other options that could also deliver a billion cubic feet of new gas to the region. Thus, the readiness of the Iroquois Pipeline company to add 400 million cubic feet of supply wasn’t taken into account. (The Iroquois Pipeline terminates on Long Island and supplies Keyspan and Con Edison.)

Why not? Because, once again the Bush Administration and its minions in the federal agencies are allowing the big energy companies to set U.S. energy policy. Even though the market for oil and gas is dominated by a handful of enormous companies, the Bushies act as if true competition were at work, and that the imaginary free market can magically make better policy than we actual humans.

As for the perils of LNG terminals, Richard Clarke, the former anti-terrorism adviser to Bush, has said that the mammoth tankers might as well have targets painted on their sides as they traverse narrow inlets like Boston Harbor and the mouth of Long Island Sound. An October, 2005 article in a local Massachusetts newspaper, SouthCoast Today, reported that “Boston officials cross their fingers when the 1,000 foot tankers pass through the harbors, fearing an accident or a terrorist attack on a loaded vessel could produce a conflagration that incinerates businesses and residents alike up to one mile away.”

Broadwater backers point out correctly that LNG does not explode and that even if it should spill and burn, the Broadwater terminal would be about 10 miles off both the Connecticut and Long Island shores. Of course, any boaters or fishers who might be nearby at the time would be toast. But the tankers will be less than a mile from Fishers Island when they enter the Sound through the Race, which takes its name from the turbulent rush of water that spills in and out of the Sound with every tide.

If a tanker were simply to lose steerage—as happened not long ago in Boston Harbor—or run aground in the Race—it would block all sizable commercial vessels from entering the Sound. (The only other way in, at Plum Gut, is too narrow for such large vessels.)

The next step forward for Broadwater would be approval by New York Governor Paterson, but no matter what he decides, litigation will tie up this project for a long time to come.

I can only hope that he will understand that what is at stake here. Otherwise, the Bush Administration, this time in the guise of FERC, will again have thumbed its nose at the public while ignoring the best supply and demand predictions of its own sister agency. Broadwater Energy is a partnership of TransCanada, a pipeline company, and Shell Oil. Their fingerprints are all over FERC’s biased decision to grant the project a permit. ##

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