(NECN: Peter Howe, on Massachusetts Bay) It’s a crucial — but controversial — energy source New England can’t do without: liquefied natural gas. As controversy rages in Boston about LNG tanker shipments into Boston Harbor, in an NECN exclusive, reporter Peter Howe and videographer Mike Bellwin on Thursday got to be the first journalists aboard a new offshore LNG terminal that keeps fuel deliveries 18 miles offshore.
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), and other officials are alarmed by reports that the Distrigas LNG facility in Everett could as soon as next month begin receiving LNG shipments from a plant in Yemen, an Arabian Peninsula nation known as a hotbed for Al Qaeda terrorists. DeLeo convened a summit meeting at the State House Wednesday night with Senator Paul Kirk and others to evaluate the dangers of Yemeni shipments.
As the controversy continued Thursday, an unexpectedly calm and warm January day, sister ships Excelerate and Excellence were quietly pumping millions of cubic feet of LNG into an undersea pipeline, helping keep warm thousands of homes, schools, and offices in Greater Boston.
“We started deliveries about mid-December,” said Rob Bryngelson, CEO of Excelerate Energy LLC. “Since then things have been going well. We’ve delivered on average about 20 percent of New England’s gas needs into the market.” Excelerate, based near Houston, finished what it calls the “Northeast Gateway” project in late
2008. It consists of two buoys with pipes feeding into a 16-mile pipeline that in turn feeds the Hubline natural gas pipeline that extends from Danversport to Weymouth. After four years working to get Northeast Gateway built, Thursday was the first time Bryngelson was on board a ship at the site.
A quick primer on LNG: It is the same natural gas that fuels stoves and heating systems and hot-water heaters, but chilled to negative-259 degrees Fahrenheit. That shrinks the gas to 1/600th of its vapor volume, making it feasible to transport natural gas by ship to the U.S. from producing countries like Trinidad, Algeria, and Egypt.
Nothing about the Excelerate or its sister ships is small. It’s a ship that’s three football fields long, as wide as a football field, with its own helicopter landing pad, and carrying enough natural gas to heat 21,000 average New England homes for a year. It’s a ship that costs $250 million, weighs 200 million pounds, and is powered by 36,000 horsepower worth of engines that drive the ship and warm liquid gas to vapor — and can also produce electricity equivalent to the demand of 11,000 homes.
You don’t walk on and off by a gangway. You get hoisted by crane, holding — as you dangle seven stories over the ocean — onto a grid of ropes in a contraption called a “Billy Pugh,” named for the man who invented it for use on Gulf of Mexico oil and gas platforms. But for all the ships’ sprawling size, Bryngelson said, “We designed Northeast Gateway to be as environmentally friendly and have the minimum environmental footprint possible,” through technologies that recover waste heat, function like a catalytic converter removing pollutants from exhaust, and virtually eliminate the need for using sea water in the vaporization process.
Boston already sees plenty of LNG tankers, sometimes two a week, headed to the 39-year-old Distrigas plant in Everett, Mass. Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many officials have worried about terrorists targeting an LNG tanker in Boston Harbor. Those fears grew after news broke about the expected shipments from a new gas terminal in Yemen, which raised the specter of Al Qaeda operatives potentially stowing away on tankers or devising time-delayed attacks on ships once they got close to Boston. While scientists say an LNG tanker is highly unlikely to explode in a fireball if hit by a bomb or missle, much is unknown about how a large cloud of gas fed by slowly vaporizing LNG might ignite and what that could do to the densely packed waterfront neighborhoods of downtown Boston, Charlestown, East Boston, and Chelsea. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said officials want to be confident all measures are being taken to ensure Yemeni shipments are 100 percent safe.
Carol Churchill, a spokeswoman for Distrigas, said in a statement: “LNG is as safe if not safer to transport and store than most other liquid fuels. LNG tankers are among the sturdiest and most sophisticated on the seas today. The LNG cargoes from Yemen will be delivered on the same ships and by the same officers and crews that have called on the Everett terminal in the past. The only thing that will change is the point of origin, a new state-of-the-art facility in Yemen that is one of the most secure in the world. Distrigas has been in discussions with the U.S. Coast Guard concerning this new terminal for more than six months. And we continue to have discussions with them as well as other government officials and key stakeholders to ensure the safe and timely deliveries of these cargoes. Safety and security have always and will continue to be the primary focus of Distrigas. We have earned and maintained an excellent safety record since we began importing LNG into the Everett terminal in 1971. The security regime surrounding our LNG shipments into Everett is the most robust of any cargo imported into the U.S.”
While it stands by the safety of the Everett Terminal, Distrigas is also building its own offshore delivery terminal, about six miles north of the Excelerate site and 10 miles south of Gloucester. It’s expecting the Neptune terminal to be ready for service by the middle of next month.
Even here at the Excelerate Northeast Gateway site, 13 miles away from Gloucester and 18 miles from Boston, Excelerate’s senior vice president, Captain Mark K. Lane, stresses they are safety obsessed. He spent 28 years at sea before becoming the company’s top official overseeing its crew of captains who operate Excelerate’s eight ships that can hook up to facilities like Northeast Gateway.
“We do vet people that come on board. We look and actually restrict who comes on board and what comes on board. A certain percentage of people are searched,” Lane said. He stresses that both on land and sea, since the first shipment of LNG was made in 1959 from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to England, it’s been extraordinarily safe. “Out of the history of LNG, there’s been in excess of 100,000 round trips or round voyages, over 100 billion tons of cargo carried, and over 100 million miles travelled without loss of any cargo and without any loss of life that’s cargo-related.”
With offshore delivery proven, could Boston ever shut down the controversial Everett Distrigas plant? Bryngelson says, probably not. “I know there are some requirements for liquid trucking and other power plant supply of the gas from the LNG facility out of Everett, so I don’t think you can completely displace it. But certainly, for incremental volumes, for what we’re delivering, offshore is a viable alternative.”
Asked whether Excelerate might ever consider adding more buoys to expand the capacity of gas that could be pumped into Boston from offshore, Bryngelson said, “Right now, what we’re constrained by is the amount of gas the system can absorb. And with the two buoys, we have more than adequate capacity.”
“Not a lot of people realize that we’re out here, we’re delivering gas consistently, and that’s a good thing for us,” Bryngelson said. “We’re out of sight, we’re out of mind for most people. We keep the operations well offshore and away from densely populated areas.” An extraordinary operation few New Englanders will ever see — but will feel in a cozy home or office on a chilly winter day.