At minus 260 degrees, liquid natural gas, known as “LNG,” is so cold that a rubber ball that’s been dipped in it would shatter like glass instead of bounce. It’s 600 times more concentrated than gas. Vapors from a gallon of it could blow up your house.
Now imagine close to 200 thousand tons of LNG stored on a ship that’s four football fields long—about as big as the Queen Mary II. Picture that ship on a permanent mooring in the middle of Long Island Sound.
Huge. Everything about Broadwater is huge, including the size of the rhetoric used by true believers on both sides. Some of the warnings sound almost apocalyptic: Opponents see possible clouds of suffocating vapor, fireballs that can burn you from a mile away. Pro-Broadwater forces conjure images of a region starving for energy and beset with fumes from dirtier oil fuel.
The facts about the project have a magnitude that’s almost too hard to grasp. The Broadwater “FSRU” (short for Floating Storage and Regasification Unit) is 1,200 feet long, 200 feet wide and about 8 stories high. It would store 350 thousand cubic meters of LNG, fed by ocean-going tankers that would slide up to the vessel two or three times per week. Systems on board the FSRU would warm the ultra-frigid liquid, converting it back to gas. Each day, one billion cubic feet, enough to satisfy 25% of the gas needs for the entire metropolitan area, would be pumped through a 30 inch pipe that would snake along the bottom of the Sound until it joins an existing cross-Sound pipeline 22 miles west, north of Smithtown.
The sticker price on this venture is also huge: About 700 million dollars. It’s the work of a partnership between the Dutch/British oil conglomerate Shell and TransCanada pipelines. They are betting that the New York area will need more natural gas than it’s likely to get from the Gulf of Mexico or Canada. But a lot of people want that bet to go bad. Maybe it’s the specter of foreign-owned companies attempting to monopolize a piece of the beloved Sound. Maybe it’s mistrust of Big Oil and the federal government, or fear of terrorist attacks. But one thing is certain: Not since the campaign to shut down the Shoreham nuclear power plant has any issue touched off such a firestorm of grass roots protest. One civic leader even called it “the second battle for Long Island.”
The Theory of The Big Bang
On a wet summer morning, the grayish Sound murmurs peacefully at the edge of the public beach in the hamlet of Wading River. When it’s clear, you can see the shore of Connecticut 22 miles away. An elevated lookout platform at this spot is a favorite among wedding photographers. This is the beach Mary Gardner learned to love as a child and it is now a romping ground for her two grandchildren when they visit. Gardner is petite, lively and sharp-tongued—a veteran civic leader who was on the front line of the Shoreham fight back in the 1980’s. As we walk the beach, the defunct barrel-shaped reactor she helped defeat rises ghostlike just to the west across a creek. For Gardner, today’s Shoreham is a fuel-filled mega barge anchored off the coast. And she doesn’t want it there, even if it’s a just a smudge on the horizon. “The Sound is an incredibly priceless resource that must be protected,” she said, adding, “the waters belong to everyone.”
Wading River is the epicenter of the battle over Broadwater. It is the closest point on land to the planned barge site, which is 9 miles to the north. (It’s 11 miles south of Connecticut.) So what would happen if something goes wrong, terribly wrong, with that huge cargo of LNG?
LNG’s safety history is not without its flaws. In 1944, 128 people perished in Cleveland, Ohio, when LNG from a burst storage tank poured into the sewers, vaporized and exploded. LNG technology is drastically better now, but not foolproof. Two years ago, a blast at an LNG plant in Algeria killed 27 workers. But the industry stands on its record. According to federal regulators, there have been no significant accidents or spills involving an LNG tanker in 33,000 shipments over four decades. There are 40 LNG land terminals around the world, but only four fatal accidents in the past 60 years, including the ones in Ohio and Algeria.
LNG opponents say there’s a reason for that: Luck. And they point to a chilling litany of dangers.
Physical fact: LNG does not explode, but it quickly returns to a gaseous state when it’s released by a leak. And the gas cloud burns fast and hot if ignited after mixing with the right amount of air. A full-blown LNG inferno can melt steel at 1,300 feet and cause second degree skin burns from a mile away. One of the scariest scenarios is a tanker leak that spills out a huge cloud of gas that drifts downwind, possibly over other boats or nearby land, and finds a spark. That could generate a mammoth fireball. A 2004 Department of Energy sponsored study pegged the minimum safe distance from a worst-case tanker accident at 21/4 miles. Just this year, an update of that study based on a proposed LNG barge plan off the coast of California expanded the danger radius to about 7 miles.
At 9 miles away, Wading River would theoretically be safe. But Mary Gardner isn’t buying in. “I can’t imagine that you would go to sleep nights thinking, ‘oh gee, it’s not too windy tonight, so if there’s an accident my kids are safe by maybe a mile and a half.’”
And then there’s the issue of how the LNG gets to Broadwater. Tankers carrying millions of gallons would have to slip through The Race, a busy stretch between Orient Point and Fisher’s Island that is just 31/2 miles wide. They would also come within a mile of parts of the North Fork. “You’re certainly in a zone where the flammable vapor cloud could migrate towards land,” says Adrienne Esposito, executive director of L.I. Citizens Campaign, and an organizer for the Anti-Broadwater Coalition.
“You’ve got to go past the hype and hyperbole about what these facilities are, the scare tactics,” says John Hritcko, Jr., Broadwater’s Senior VP and project manager.
Hritcko is the point man for one of the most hated corporate projects in the history of Long Island. A clean-cut, genial upstate New Yorker, he greets me in an open pinstriped shirt and a pair of slacks, wearing his class ring. He certainly doesn’t look like a guy in the crosshairs. Hritcko and project adviser Amy Kelley have spent years getting out the Broadwater message to whoever will take time to listen, from lawmakers to schools to senior citizens groups.
Over complimentary Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee, they tag teamed me on the major pro-Broadwater points. For one thing, they pointed out, LNG evaporates instantly when it’s spilled, so it doesn’t leave slicks like oil. “I like to tell people: You’ll never see a picture of anyone wiping natural gas off the back of a duck,” says Hritcko. LNG is cleaner than other fossil fuels…with a fraction of the pollutants and particulates of oil or coal. The Broadwater FSRU and the tankers that supply it have double steel hulls, state-of-the-art safety systems and highly trained crews. Only one shipment at a time will come through the Sound, the ships will be manned with certified “pilots” who know LI waters, and the Coast Guard will enforce security zones around the swift-moving tankers and the barge itself.
A drifting vapor cloud that ignites over land is improbable, Hritcko says, because any event violent enough to punch through the skin of a tanker is likely to set off an immediate fire, which would burn out close to the site.
But what if that “event” is not an accident, but a terrorist attack? In the hit parade of potential LNG nightmares, terrorism is a solid #1. Two years ago, terrorists used a dinghy packed with explosives to ram a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. A report by the Institute for the Analysis of Global security says LNG “may offer more opportunities for terrorist strikes on vulnerable energy infrastructure located near residential neighborhoods.” Opponents warn a suicide plane or boat laden with explosives could easily zero in on the huge Broadwater barge. “It’s sitting out there, a natural target,” says Legislator Ed Romaine.
“Who are the terrorists going to terrorize?’ scoffs Hritcko. Because Broadwater is miles away from any populated area, he contends it’s not on Al Quaeda’s radar. “You have a facility out there that’s not located near anyone,” he points out. “There are no pictures of dead bodies—a spectacular event afterwards that the terrorists want. That’s why they go after populated areas, tall buildings, trains, those type of things. They want a spectacular incident. This won’t provide that incident.”
Besides, Hritcko says, there are plenty of shoreline oil tanks that would make excellent terrorist targets right now, but “nobody seems to be talking about that.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy concedes Broadwater might not be a “primary” terrorist bulls-eye, but would still provide a “great big boom.”
“People thought terrorists wouldn’t be interested in a building in Oklahoma City,” he adds.
Harvey Kushner agrees. “You can’t rule anything out,” says Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus. Terrorists like “the element of surprise.”
“If Al Quaeda were focusing on this particular area, and there were operatives in here, some lone wolves or small cells, you know it might be the thing to hit because of its notoriety.”
Right Here, Right Now
For Broadwater and its oil giant owners, the attraction to doing this project here and now is a rapidly growing U.S. market for natural gas. Demand for electricity is increasing, and power companies that are building new generators or rebuilding old ones are turning to natural gas because it emits fewer pollutants and makes it easier to comply with clean air regs. The N.Y. State Energy Research Development Authority estimates demand for natural gas will jump 37% by 2021. And that’s what energy executives like to see.
But Hritcko says there’s plenty in it for consumers, too. Broadwater would pump in an extra 1 billion cubic feet of gas into the N.Y. metropolitan area, about a quarter of what’s being used now. “You add that much supply into the market, you’re going to bring down the price.” Specifically, Broadwater promises to cut the price of energy in the region by 680 million dollars a year. The company says that translates to $300 per home, with $148 of that from savings on your electric bill.
That sounds good to Erin Davis of Calverton, who we met feeding croutons to 19 month old Braden outside the pizzeria in Wading River. “I just can’t believe the price of electric here. On top of housing and everything else. So if it would lower the price of electric, that would be great.” But can you take that savings to the bank? LIPA is currently studying both the need for Broadwater’s gas and its impact on costs. LIPA chairman Richard Kessel says one question on the table is whether Broadwater is necessary in the first place, since there are a number of plans for new or expanded natural gas pipelines.
And then there’s the fact that most of Broadwater’s gas would not be used on Long Island.
“If only 20 to 25% of the gas is going to come onto Long Island, the rest is going to come up through the City and to the rest of the region…is that a great benefit for Long Island?” Kessel wonders. “We’re being asked to house this project, which is very controversial, but we’re not getting all the gas from it.” Yes, say the Broadwater people, but everyone on Long Island will benefit from lower energy costs and cleaner air.
Another question that haunts Broadwater is whether we’ll all sleep any better if the U.S. becomes even more dependent on energy imports, especially when unstable countries are involved. Broadwater’s biggest supplier is Trinidad, but the list includes Algeria, Nigeria, and potentially Russia. “Look at some of the other areas it could come from,” says Sid Bail, a civic activist and retired social studies teacher from Wading River. “Venezuela? Hugo Chavez is not waking up every morning and saying, ‘What can I do to keep energy prices low in the United States?’”
“That’s a legitimate concern,” concedes Hritcko. But he says the goal isn’t energy independence, it’s “energy diversity.” With a number of source countries in the mix, “if something happens in one location you can get it from another location. And that’s what LNG allows. You’re not sitting at the end of a pipeline locked into a supplier that may just turn the valve and shut you off.”
Now forget the international picture. The big question just may be: Who controls Long Island Sound? If Broadwater goes through, opponents warn that an as yet-unknown swath of the Sound, a nationally recognized estuary, will become the sole domain of a giant corporation, off limits to most pleasure boaters and fishermen.
“If we’re going to use great big terms, let’s call it ‘the industrialization of the waterways,’” says Sima Freireman, GM of the Montauk Inlet Marina. “It’s a marine resource. This is not where we should be building factories.”
Taxpayers have spent up to a billion dollars in the past decade on “preserving and protecting the Long Island Sound,” says Esposito. So why would Long Islanders “turn it over to two foreign corporations?”
For Jeff Kaminsky, a lobsterman since childhood, this is not an abstract issue. “We fish right there…lobster gear’s there right now,” Kaminsky says, standing on the cluttered, aging dock next to one of his boats in Mattituck Harbor. Kaminsky, 38, and his father Jim, already have to deal with lobster die-offs and the loss of gear to traffic in the busy Sound. He says a cruise ship size vessel swiveling on its mooring is not going to make things any easier. “It’s gonna spin around, so that’s a mile circle right there. And then they’ll need a security area.” Kaminsky told me. “How much ground are we going to lose?”
“Can’t happen,” fumes Capt. Bob Celgowski, owner of a busy charter fishing company in Mattituck. “They have no right to do this. No one owns this piece of water out here but all of a sudden they think they do.”
If you ask the Broadwater people, though, the industrialization of the Sound has already happened. Thousands of commercial vessels pass through it every year. New London is the second busiest port in New England, Hritcko points out. “You’ve got the oil terminals at Northport and Northville. You’ve got barges, you’ve got oil tankers, you’ve got cargo vessels. You’ve got the nuclear submarines coming in and out” and they have their own security zones.
“We can’t just simply dig in our heels and say, ‘no’ anytime something comes up,” says Broadwater’s Kelley. “We have to work together to identify common interests and identify projects that are going to be the best for the region.”
Broadwater says it has already modified its plan based on input from commercial fishermen, who will probably “have access to pass through” the Broadwater security area, though “weekend boaters” will likely be banned. “It’s not an exclusion zone,” Hritcko insists, “it’s a safety and security zone.”
An expensive security zone. Suffolk officials say it will cost taxpayers about 12 million dollars a year to provide safety and protection for the Broadwater barge and the tankers that feed it. But Broadwater says that figure is inflated, and county officials concede most of the tab will be picked up by the federal government.
Get Your Gloves ON
With so much at stake, Broadwater is shaping up as a political brawl second only to the battle of Shoreham. Both sides are pulling out the stops. The Anti-Broadwater coalition boasts 45 member organizations. They are joined by throngs of L.I. politicians, including four of the Island’s five congressmen, both U.S. Senators, both county execs and almost all of Suffolk County’s legislators. Broadwater has already spent tens of millions on the project and has hired former Suffolk County executive Robert Gaffney and ex-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani as consultants. The company boasts its own list of backers, including local business groups, unions, utilities, hospitals and schools who are concerned about high energy bills and want the project to have its day in court.
Broadwater is also unabashed about using its buckets of cash to curry support. Hritcko and Kelley talk about a “social investment program” that would plunge millions of dollars into environmental programs to improve the Sound. “It’s not money every year where you have to worry that the federal government is going to cut back on its budget and cut you off. This is something that’s going to be out there for 20 years.” But Broadwater got a bit of a PR black eye when it offered as much as 15 million dollars to the Town of Riverhead as “payments in lieu of taxes.” The town said no thanks, and Supervisor Phil Cardinale called the offer “hush money.”
“They were saying, if you just trust us, we will be your friend, we will make it worth your while,” Cardinale told the Pulse.
Asked about that, Hritcko is unapologetic. “The opposition is going to say, ‘yeah, you’re trying to buy us off.’ Because they want to shut down the process.”
Ironically, the political firefight on Long Island is happening hundreds of miles from where Broadwater’s future may be decided. The main government decisionmaker on this issue is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a non-elected body otherwise known as “FERC.” Three of FERC’s five members are selected by the White House, and President Bush has made it clear that he wants to see more LNG terminals. That scares Broadwater’s opponents.
“I just hope there isn’t a hidden agenda…an agenda to make sure, looking at things on a national level, ‘well we need more natural gas,’ and overriding any valid concerns locals might have…” Legislator Romaine told the Pulse.
Peter Maniscalco is blunter. “The fix is in at FERC,” the Southampton College teacher, writer and environmental activist told a crowd of anti-Broadwater opponents. “It’s very scary when you have an unelected body that basically makes a final decision and doesn’t have to listen to anyone.”
According to its website, FERC has approved 11 new terrestrial LNG terminals around the country and turned down only one over the past four years. But FERC spokesman Bryan Lee says simple “beancounting” is misleading, since a number of projects get culled out in the early stages. Lee denies any pro-industry bias on FERC’s part: “Each application for an LNG facility undergoes stringent review by the Commission, and extensive conditions are imposed… Our national economy is dependent on a reliable source of energy. And so the Commission’s role is to assure that any of these facilities that get built are done safely.”
Home Team v. Visitors
Has something like Broadwater been “done safely” before? Not yet. Broadwater and a similar project off the coast of California are the first two floating LNG terminals proposed for the United States. None have actually been built anywhere in the world, though Broadwater says the same basic designs have been used on oil barges for years.
FERC is expected to issue a “draft environmental impact statement” on Broadwater sometime this fall after hearing from a variety of agencies and the Coast Guard, which is in charge of maritime safety and security. You the public will get to speak up at a pair of public hearings to be held on Long Island, and based on those comments FERC will present a “final” environmental impact statement. Shortly after that—by late this year or early 2007—the commission will issue its decision on the project itself. If approved, it would take about three years to build.
But Broadwater’s opponents aren’t waiting for that to happen. They are maneuvering for more power to decide the project’s fate at home.
“Our goal as your delegation in Albany is to make sure this decision is not made in Washington or someplace else far, far away,” Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. (R-Sag Harbor), told an anti-Broadwater rally.
For Broadwater to get the green light from FERC, New York State has to agree that the project doesn’t violate the federal Clean Water Act. A pair of bills sponsored by Assemb. Thomas DiNapoli (D-Great Neck) and State Senator Kenneth Lavalle (R-Port Jefferson) are aimed at beefing up that legal firewall—reinforcing New York’s claim to jurisdiction over environmentally sensitive coastal waters. That might strengthen the state’s hand if FERC approves the project and the whole thing winds up in court. Connecticut already has a similar law, one reason opponents think Broadwater was sited on the NY side of the Sound. Meanwhile, Suffolk County is using a nineteenth century law on maritime navigation to assert the county’s own right to regulate its portion of the Sound.
But it’s uncertain whether those measures will hold up as constitutional. And is this “home rule,” or an attempt to cut off a legitimate governmental decision-making process? Team Broadwater has no doubts. Hritcko scolded his opponents in absentia: “You’re paying the highest energy costs in the country, you’re driving people off of Long Island, you’re impacting the economy, and you don’t want to go forward and at least have the discussion based on facts. And that’s the real tragedy here.”
Mary Gardner sees it differently. “Corporations always have more money than the little guys. This is the way it is. But they don’t always win.”
Relevant contact info:
P.O. Box 800
Wading River, NY 11792
30 West Main Street, Suite 301
Riverhead, NY 11901
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
888 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20426
Kenneth P. LaValle
1st Senate District
325 Middle Country Road, Suite 4
Selden, NY 11784
Assemblymen, 16th District
11 Middle Neck Rd, Suite 200
Great Neck, NY 11021
Suffolk County Executive
H. Lee Dennison Building
100 Veterans Memorial Highway
P.O. Box 6100
Hauppauge, NY 11788-0099
Fred Thiele, Jr.
2nd Assembly District
2302 Main Street
Bridgehampton, NY 11932