If Rhode Island were an addict, natural gas would be its drug of choice. RIPTA boasts that its trolleys run on “clean burning natural gas;” half of Rhode Island families use natural gas to heat their homes; nearly all of the state’s electricity comes from the five natural gas-fired plants dispersed throughout the state.
As addictions go, natural gas has proven to be an environmental one. It burns clean, producing 30 percent less CO2 than oil and 45 percent less than coal for the equivalent heat. In part because of its natural gas reliance, Rhode Island has the second lowest CO2 consumption per capita, at 10.5 tons per person.
The proposed Weaver’s Cove Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal, located on the shores of Fall River, MA, would seem to benefit the state. Initially proposed in 2003, the terminal would supply an estimated 0.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to the region, piped from an offloading platform in Mt. Hope Bay where LNG tankers could deliver seventy times a year. Hess Corporation, the company behind the scheme, claims the local price for natural gas—higher in New England than the rest of the country—would drop with the terminal’s completion by creating competition for gas pipelined in from the Gulf Coast.
But instead of receiving public adulation, the proposed terminal has ignited a firestorm of criticism. As the project has cleared regulatory hurdles over last few months, the dissent has grown much louder. Rhode Island politicians, government regulators, and community groups near-unanimously oppose the terminal, citing ecological concerns, the threat of terrorism, and a belief that the need for terminal has become obsolete in the last seven years. But with the terminal, if not its impact, located across the Massachusetts border, and mishandling by the state’s regulatory response, it is unclear whether Rhode Island’s voice will affect the proposal.
Plain old eco-unchic
Save The Bay, a non-profit dedicated to restoring the health of Narragansett Bay, is one major critics of the project. During a February 11 state hearing on the proposed terminal on, Jonathan Stone, Save The Bay’s Chief Executive, called the project “an affront to decades of effort to clean up the Bay and improve public access to Rhode Island’s most valuable resource.”
Weaver’s Cove is part of both the East Coast’s most recreationally intensive bay and an ecologically important spawning ground for economically and culturally relevant species like quahogs, winter flounder, summer flounder, cod, herring, and harbor seals. Working in conjunction with Rhode Island Marine Trades Association and Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers among others, Save the Bay has outlined a slew of harmful environmental impacts that the proposed LNG terminal would cause to both Weaver’s Cove and the Mt. Hope Bay region.
To make the offloading platform accessible to the LNG tankers, the Hess project would require dredging over 3 million cubic yards of sediment from over 191 acres of the Mt. Hope Bay’s floor. In the short term, Save The Bay thinks that dredging—which will stir up a plumb of sediment replete with toxins like mercury dumped from industrial Fall River—will end up polluting Rhode Island waters past federal health standards. In the long term, Save The Bay worries that the dredging and a proposed trench to accommodate the tankers will create hypoxic—meaning a lack of dissolved oxygen within the water—conditions, in effect creating a dead zone, where no fish can survive. Hess’s own figures acknowledge that 73 acres of winter flounder spawning habitat will be permanently destroyed.
Not that type of christmas lights
More than environmental objections, the specter of terrorism haunts the project, as it has done for past LNG plants. When KeySpan energy tried to expand a Providence facility in order to accept weekly LNG tankers in 2005, Richard A. Clarke, former advisor to Presidents Clinton and W. Bush, called the proposed project a “extremely attractive” target, saying, “There are very few things you can attack in urban areas that explode the way this would” at a press conference at Brown University in May 2005.
Working as a consultant for Attorney General—now gubernatorial candidate—Patrick Lynch, Clarke published LNG Facilities in Urban Areas: A Security Risk Management Analysis. Charges of sensationalism are justified by the report’s excesses like the differentiation between small rocket and medium rocket in the list of possible threats to an LNG tanker, but Clarke’s point gets through: LNG tankers traveling in urban zones are slow, large, and combustible targets that could cause catastrophic damage if exploited by terrorists.
In lieu of his long policy initiative to remove the Boston Harbor LNG terminal entirely, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recently raised objection to the travel of Yemeni tankers into the LNG in light of the Christmas Day Bomber. While his proposal failed—Yemeni tankers will start arriving later this month—fear of LNG terrorism is by no means limited to the Weaver’s Cove.
When it comes to the Weaver’s Cove LNG Terminal, former Fall River Mayor Edward Lambert has commented that about 9,000 people live within a one-mile radius of the proposed facility. If an explosion occurred at the terminal, everybody within the one-mile radius would have at least second-degree burns. Anti-LNG activists on the No LNG website describe the terminal as the world’s largest roman candle.
In less morbid terms, the proposed terminal violates multiple points of the LNG Terminal Standards, as published by industry group Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators. With 9,000 people living within a mile of the terminal, the proposed site is not located “where LNG vapors from a spill or release cannot affect civilians.” Weaver’s Cove is a “long, narrow inland waterway to be avoided.” At the mouth of the most intensively used bay on the East Coast, the port cannot be said to “be located where [it does] not conflict with other waterway uses.”
Understanding common sense, but not common laws
While environmental woes anger the green set and terrorists targets cause panic across constituencies, the most convincing objection to the terminal is simply that it has become obsolete since it was proposed nearly seven years ago. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources recently wrote a letter the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the federal regulatory body that approves LNG terminals, stating, “it is unclear to what extent, if any, Weaver’s Cove LNG supply is needed either to meet the region’s gas supply needs or to reduce fossil [fuel] use in the region.”
Save The Bay has noted that since Hess Corps’ initial application, three LNG ports have either become, or are into the process of becoming, operational. At the same time, the amount of natural gas being produced in the United States has made continental LNG pipelines a viable alternative to imported LNG.
Unfortunately for Rhode Island, it has lost its most powerful legal leverage against Hess Corp. The company did submit its proposal to Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), a state regulator, but the CRMC did not respond, stating that they thought the application was incomplete. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed an earlier decision that by failing to respond, CRMC, and the state, lost the right to challenge the project.
Now, opponents of the terminal in Rhode Island are aiming at the Mt. Hope Bridge. Proposed legislation will insist on 25 feet of clearance for boats to pass beneath it; the LNG tankers that would go underneath it to reach the Weaver’s Cover LNG offloading platform only have five. Even if this bill is passed, the law could be trumped by nationally applicable laws because tanker trade involves interstate commerce. So while Rhode Island community groups overwhelmingly oppose the proposed terminal, their objection may end up being a lot of hot air.