Safe Harbor?

Ships bringing liquefied natural gas from the Middle East pass regularly through Boston Harbor. Experts say there’s little chance of an LNG tanker going up in a fireball. Then why are city officials so worried? Should you be?

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

LNG 101
What is LNG?

Natural gas that’s been turned to liquid by chilling it to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit. As a liquid, the gas occupies 600 times less space, making it easier to Illustration by Joe McKendryship. In addition to coal and oil, natural gas is one of the world’s most prized fossil fuels and is found in large deposits in North America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Why is natural gas important?
Besides firing up your stove, natural gas heats about half the homes in Massachusetts and generates 40 percent of New England’s electricity.

Why do we import LNG?
North America has plenty of natural gas, but not enough New England pipeline. The LNG that comes into Everett provides 20 percent of the region’s annual supply — double on the coldest days, when demand spikes. The Mystic power station, next to the Everett terminal, runs on LNG and fuels 30 percent of Greater Boston’s power supply.

Where do the shipments originate?
Yemen, Egypt, and Trinidad. Distrigas declined to give exact numbers, but Frank Katulak, president and COO, says he’ll get about 60 shipments a year: 10 from Yemen, 5 to 7 from Egypt, and the rest from Trinidad.

Why is Boston the only major city with an LNG terminal?
Because nobody else wants one. When the Everett terminal was built in 1971, many viewed it as a step toward the future — an important energy source at the hub of a region. Since then, environmental and security concerns have scared off other cities, including Providence and Long Beach, California. Offshore LNG facilities are more palatable to many critics (we have two terminals off the New England coast), but they’re not as convenient as land-based terminals because they can’t directly fuel power plants.

Why do we import from Yemen now?
Until February, Distrigas received all its shipments from Trinidad, but relatively low U.S. natural-gas prices caused some Trinidadian suppliers to seek out customers willing to pay more, Katulak says. To replace inventory, in 2005 Distrigas signed a 20-year deal to begin importing LNG from Yemen.

Who’s on the ships from Yemen?
Distrigas is using the same ships and crews it’s always used, and has hired no Yemeni nationals, Katulak says. Some critics have warned about the possibility of stowaways. Former U.S. counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke asserted in his 2004 book, Against All Enemies, that Al Qaeda stowaways had infiltrated Boston via LNG tankers from Algeria, a claim the FBI disputes. Katulak rejects the stowaway concern, arguing that it would be extremely difficult for someone to hide undetected on a ship for 18 days. Today, even Clarke is less concerned than before about stowaways. “There are easier ways” to get into the country, he says.

Shouldn’t the 1977 risk-assessment study be updated?
Yes. Boston Deputy Fire Chief Jay Fleming has been agitating for this type of update for years. Menino says the Department of Homeland Security in February promised him an assessment of how to get LNG out of the harbor, but has yet to deliver a report. The DHS declined to comment.

How would the city respond to an LNG fire?
The worst kind of fire would be an event so large and unprecedented, it’s near impossible to prepare for. The Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stow has an LNG training program, but it focuses on fighting fires from smaller-scale leaks, such as from pipelines or transport trucks. Pool fires (see page 91) are just too big. “We’re not training for that type of an incident,” says State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan, “and I don’t think that you can train for that type of an incident” on a large scale. Still, Boston city officials, Distrigas, and the Coast Guard say they regularly collaborate on joint emergency drills.

What does Menino want?
The mayor wants tankers to stop coming, which would happen only if the region found other ways to get natural gas: via offshore facilities, for instance, or more pipeline, says Donald McGough, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. City officials have said each shipment costs $25,000 in public-safety measures.

  • Robert

    Skikda, Algeria, had a catastrophic LNG accident in 2004, that killed 26 workers and injured 74.

  • Robert

    LNG storage tanks contain vapor (called “boil off”) at the top, above the liquid. It does not require pouring onto land or water to vaporize — it simply needs a slight rise in heat.

    The statement about a lit cigarette and LNG vapor flammability give a false impression of safety. Liquid gasoline will not burn until it vaporizes, either.

    LNG vapor is 3.7% more flammable than gasoline vapor. Methane (LNG) has a fuel-to-air flammability range of 5% to 15% (a 10% range), while gasoline has a flammability range of 1.4% to 7.6% (a 6.2% range). Neither will burn or explode outside those ranges.

    The Federal Government has defined LNG ship Hazard Zones that extend 2.2-miles from the ship. The hazards within those zones include cryogenic burns, asphyxiation, fire, thermal-radiation burns, and explosion.