The United States Coast Guard’s Security Dilemma In The Port of Savannah

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.

These expansions have been met with concern from local citizens, including the Chatham County based Citizens for Clean Air and Water (CCAW) and its president, Savannah attorney Cletus Bergen.

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.

When this reached the floor of the House, the response from the Coast Guard was clear. Indeed, Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard, swiftly issued a statement:

“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.

9 comments

  1. drjay says:

    i think there has been talk of trying to get elpaso to move the elba island facility “offshore” although i admit to not knowing entirely either what that means or what it would entail–we chose not to buy a house in causton bluff in part b/c of proximity to this facilty…

  2. Icarus says:

    While Spacey was getting a room at the Mayflower, Rogue apparently slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

  3. joe says:

    Clearly the Coast Guard is being handed a much bigger mission, without being given additional assets. We have had our spending priorities ouk of whack for years.

    http://www.gao.gov/cghome/d07226cg.pdf

    It is time that we begin cutting all social programs, and anything else that is not in accordance with the 10th amendment.

  4. SpaceyG says:

    Given the length of this post, Rogue apparently is NOT sleeping at all. Maybe he’s, mercifully, been submerged in that “cryogenic storage tank” by now though! Gotta scoot to the symphony, or I’d hang around here to read yet another paragraph of this thing. Even if I was staying home to watch Masterpiece Theater, I don’t think I could get through all this though. Anyone make it all the way to the bitter end?

  5. Icarus says:

    Spacey,

    Despite it’s lack of details about either an aspiring rapper on Marta or a Bush Twin’s wedding, I made it all the way through. (And with a Georgia Public school education, at that.)

    Amazingly, it’s both about Georgia (funny, there are parts of Georgia that are economically important that aren’t Atlanta – who knew?) and about politics.

    Here’s a quick summary: A bill that passed the house requires the coast guard to protect Liquified Natural Gas assets, and the coast guard doesn’t have the manpower or equipment to do the job.

    This both limits the expansion of these needed facilities, and places lives of Georgian’s at risk.

  6. Dave Bearse says:

    I’d of thought conservative bloggers would be questioning who’ll be footing the bill irregardless of whether the security forces are federal, state, local or private.

    I know little of port taxes in general (and even less about LNG in particular) but this has corporate subsidy written all over it. LNG gas termianl ought to be paying full freight.

    If teh security is subsidized, its subsidization of foreigh dependence on energy. In the words of Mark Twain…”Reader, suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress, but I repeat myself.”
    .

  7. Ms_midtown says:

    I’ve always seen port security as a good way to scare people into pork and earmarks.
    The Coast Guard cannot stop ( nor can they be expected to stop ) all the cocaine coming into this country.
    They will never be able to stop suicidal men who want to blow up a tanker, a port, a terminal, or cruise ship.
    Human intelligence is a better use of money to stop these type of plots.
    Does the Coast Guard need more money? Yes, it is stretched thin like all our armed services.
    More money to focus on target #101 of the 1001 things to blow up in the world? No.

  8. dewberry says:

    The biggest issue I see with the containers is the county mosquito control. They have a twin engine Piper Chieftain which flies below 500 ft over most of the county including Elba and other fuel and chemical storage facilities along the river.

    Don’t think for a minute that the harbor master for the port does not have a good handle on everything coming and going.

    My office is at the approach end of runway 28 at Hunter Army Airfield and I can tell you that we have plenty of airborne assets. The Coast Guard air station at Hunter flies sorties at all hours and they are always flying in the direction of Elba. I can’t ever remember seeing a Coast Guard helicopter coming or going anywhere but north east, towards Elba.

    Beyond the numbers of Coast Guard helicopters based at Hunter, there are hundreds (estimated) of military helicopters based there with full compliment of arms. Hunter is also a repair station for many helicopter war birds from across the country. They fly them in on heavy fixed wing then rebuild, test, and ship out again.

    I am not suggesting that helicopters will do anything to stop a terrorist no more than I am saying that a boat will stop a terrorist.

    The way I see it, the local government is the greatest immediate threat to the storage tanks via the county mosquito control aircraft. Losing an engine on a chemical loaded twin engine at 500 feet leaves too small of a safety margin for operations over any populated area of the county and much less Elba or other storage holding containers along the river.

    I do believe we could use more water borne Coast Guard assets. The Port of Miami has a much larger presence through their large Coast Guard station at Miami Beach.

    The local government has received generous grants from the Department of Homeland Security and the locals have purchased a number of assets to support water patrols so the government committing more resources to protect these containers that are valuable energy assets is certainly in the nation’s best interest.

    Please keep in mind that this is a very profitable company and surely pay millions and millions in taxes.

    Elba is pretty isolated. This is a very hard area to reach as it is close to a mile from the main road and the easiest access would be by air or water. There is no restriction for flying over the tanks excepting the regs concerning clearances which is 500 ft. Even if a further restrictions were defined by the FAA, those still won’t do anything as evidenced by the twin towers.

    Water assets are the best measure for protecting the tanks. I feel that the port traffic is monitored pretty well now and a safety zone currently exists the same as the safety zone for the twin towers.

    Certainly a good call to make would be one to the harbor master for the Port of Savannah. He can give us all a much better idea of what handle they have on the comings and goings along the river.

  9. dewberry says:

    The plant has plenty of ignition sources. I’m pretty sure that they have an open flame that burns 24hours a day as a safety measure to prevent a discharge pool from getting too big. If not, the local government could provide one to reduce any pool from getting too big.

    Most of what I’ve read about this leads me to believe that any attack on such ships or storage facilities sufficient to cause a breach of the containers will in themselves create the source of ignition.

    Elba island is what it is – an island. I believe that most people who give this report a reasonable review will agree that the risk to private citizens or population areas is quite small.

    Find the map on google to look at where the nearest populations are. Look at the satellite images. There is a lot of unnecessary worry mongering going on concerning the risk to the nearby populations which the report you cited makes very clear to me. Reminds me of the same worry mongers who succeeded in having our municipal waste incinerator closed as well as bringing boondoggle curbside recycling to Savannah. I think the biggest problem is people being able to interpret what the data reveals.

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