This is the LNG (liquid natural gas) facility located on Elba Island, Georgia, in Chatham County, five miles downstream from Savannah. This facility is one of eight such facilities located in the United States, and the only one in the southeast. Owned by Southern Natural Gas, a subsidiary of El Paso Corporation, the facility is now part of a little-known dispute in Washington. This dispute is receiving scant attention but directly affects the safety and security of Chatham County, the Port of Savannah and the ability of the United States Coast Guard to be adaptively flexible in maintaining homeland security in light of a dismally small budget and continuing problems with its Deepwater Program.
On April 10, 2003, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order authorizing the expansion of the facility, which included adding a second and third docking berth, a fourth cryogenic storage tank, and associated facilities. The expansion enabled an increase of working gas capacity and has been followed by additional expansions which have been announced in recent months.
But why the concern?
Separate from the CCAWs concerns about standard industrial pollution, the real problem is the potential impact on local populations in the event of a breech and resulting explosion at the Elba Island LNG facility or from one of the dozens of LNG carriers that enter the shipping lane just north of Tybee Island.
First, though, what is liquid natural gas and why is it important?
When natural gas is cooled to -260˚F, it condenses into a liquid. In this liquid state, natural gas can be shipped and stored in large quantities via refrigerated tankers before being converted back into gas and distributed through pipelines. In the absence of a pipeline, the only way natural gas can be shipped is in this liquid form. Such shipments are likely to increase: According to the Energy Information Administration, global natural gas consumption is expected to increase 70 percent from 2002 to 2025. Over the same time frame, natural-gas consumption in China is expected to more than quintuple. Today nearly a quarter of U.S. energy comes from natural gas, and within twenty years it could be responsible for as much as one third of American energy consumption. The percentage of liquefied gas imports to the United States is expected to rise sharply in that period.
[Source: Eben Kaplan, Council on Foreign Relations]
But what if LNG does explode? According to a 2004 study prepared by the Sandia National Laboratories, a division of the Department of Energy, it has been suggested that at the very least such a fire would be hot enough to melt steel at distances of 1,200 feet, and could result in second-degree burns on exposed skin a mile away. Other studies have suggested that an exploding tanker or large LNG facility could totally flatten all structures within a one-mile radius of such an explosion. Of course, such an explosion would also cripple the Port of Savannah as the primary shipping lane into same would be closed for a significant period of time, causing dramatic economic ripple effects across Georgia and the region.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when H.R. 2830 (The Alien Smuggling and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2008 and Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2008) reached the floor of the House of Representatives. One particular portion of this bill which caused a significant amount of consternation in the Executive Branch was Section 328 (Waterside Security Around Liquefied Natural Gas Terminals And Liquefied Natural Gas Tankers). It requires:
(a) IN GENERAL.—The Commandant of the Coast Guard shall be responsible for providing waterside security services around liquefied natural gas terminals and around tankers transporting liquefied natural gas in security zones established by the Coast Guard.
(b) LIMITATION ON RELIANCE ON STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT.—Security arrangements approved as part of the facility security plan approved under section 70103 of title 46, United States Code, for an onshore liquefied natural gas terminal may not be based upon the provision of security by a State or local government unless the State or local government has entered into a contract, cooperative agreement, or other arrangement with the terminal operator to provide such services and the Secretary certifies that the waterborne patrols operated by State or local governments have the training, resources, personnel, equipment, and experience necessary to successfully deter all transportation security incidents (as that term is defined in section 70101 of title 46, United States Code).
(c) ENFORCEMENT OF SECURITY ZONES.—Security zones established by the Coast Guard around tankers transporting liquefied natural gas shall be enforced by the Coast Guard.
(d) CERTIFICATION REQUIRED FOR NEW LNG TERMINALS.—The Secretary of the department in which the Coast Guard is operating may not approve a facility security plan under section 70103 of title 46, United States Code, for a liquefied natural gas terminal the construction of which is begun after the date of enactment of this Act unless the Secretary certifies that the Coast Guard sector in which the terminal is located has all of the assets it needs to provide waterside security around the terminal and to provide security around tankers transporting liquefied natural gas in security zones established by the Coast Guard.
“I am deeply concerned about a number of provisions contained in H.R. 2830 (Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2008) that I believe would have a detrimental effect on the Coast Guard’s ability to carry out our many vital maritime safety, security and environmental protection missions. As the commandant, I have an obligation to the public and our Coast Guard men and women to ensure the Coast Guard retains the necessary discretion and flexibility to meet our mission demands in an often-changing, dangerous operating environment. This bill, in its current form, does not do that.”
Further, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget issued a Statement of Administration Policy where additional objections were laid out:
First, the section of the bill that would require the Coast Guard to provide security around liquefied natural gas terminals and vessels should be eliminated because it provides an unwarranted and unnecessary subsidy to the owners of private infrastructure that is contrary to the existing assistance framework and would divert finite Coast Guard assets from other high priority missions, as determined by the Commandant. If H.R. 2830 were presented to the President with this provision, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.
Ultimately, H.R. 2830 passed the House of Representatives by a 395-7 vote – effectively making it veto proof there. Shortly thereafter, the Coast Guard Press Secretary, CDR Brendan McPherson, released another statement expressing concern over the legislation.
So why is this a big deal? This matters to Georgia because H.R. 2830 mandates the establishment of security zones that are going to have to be manned around-the-clock with surface assets. That is going to, as one online expert stated recently, result in “some busy stations out there.” It also means that needed USCG resources are going to be diverted from other important tasks which the Captain of the Port of Savannah, in this case, CDR David Murk of Marine Safety Unit Savannah, may feel are more pressing areas of security concern. This is the crux of the problem: no one disagrees that these LNG facilities and tankers pose a clear terrorist target that could cause significant destruction of both life and property if successfully attacked, but to limit the ability of the Coast Guard to utilize their limited resources in an adaptive manner ultimately diminishes their overall effectiveness and ability to combat future, unseen threats.
Also, additional LNG facilities and terminals under this legislation cannot be built unless USCG personnel resources are already in the appropriate CG Sector. Is that ever going to be likely to have personnel pre-positioned as a facility is built or modified? In a word: no. A last minute amendment permitted the presence of state and local law enforcement officers to be taken into consideration with assessing security manpower, but it is unclear if that even comes close to resolving the outstanding veto threat.
Winston & Strawn, LLP has prepared an excellent summary of H.R. 2830 and its effect on maritime security.
The key here is understanding the total Coast Guard footprint. It comes as a shock to many to learn that there are more New York City Police Officers on the job than there are active and reserve Coast Guardsmen and women (the USCG has only 48K active and reserve personnel). Keeping a focus on the Peach State, there are only two small boat stations in Georgia (Station Tybee Island, adjacent to the Elba Island LNG terminal, and Station Brunswick). These stations have total staffs of less than 75 men and women each. In addition, the only air facility in the State is Air Station Savannah, located at Hunter Army Airfield. Combined, Station Tybee and Air Station Savannah do not have the manpower to maintain a vigilant presence in a security zone around-the-clock at Elba Island and maintain their normal security patrols and ability to respond to developing situations. The need for on-scene personnel is clear because if a LNG security zone is mandated under the pending legislation and if the alarm is sounded on Elba Island, it will already be too late for any credible response to be mounted from either of these stations without personnel already there.
The only other significant USCG assets in Georgia are Marine Safety Unit Savannah (which is for accident/pollution response and investigation) and Marine Safety and Security Team 91108, stationed at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Camden County. MSSTs are the perfect asset for an LNG security mission as they are trained to defend critical waterside facilities in strategic ports, interdict illegal activities and provide a modest level of shore-side force protection. Georgia’s MSST, however, is currently dedicated to maintaining security of our submarine force based at the facility.
Thus, the problem that presents itself is clear:
1. The LNG facilities do need a higher level of protection.
2. The USCG does not have the needed assets to provide said protection.
3. With the legislation making its way to the Senate, the USCG in the Port of Savannah is going to be stretched even thinner than it currently is which ultimately puts lives at risk.
What is needed is a reassessment of the needs of the United States Coast Guard and a plan for dramatic growth of this fifth branch of the Armed Forces of the United States. Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Chairman of the Committee which handles the USCG’s budget, has already expressed a keen openness to a large expansion of manpower and assets for the USCG…all that is needed is direction from Commandant Allen, President Bush and the Georgia Delegation to the House and Senate. It is time for someone to stand up and help the Port of Savannah (and the Port of Brunswick) to achieve the security levels that they desperately need.