Environment

The Patriot Ax

Under the Patriot Act, safety and environmental studies for natural gas terminals are controlled by federal regulators and are often kept from local officials and residents.
The risks of planned liquefied natural gas terminals are being kept secret from residents where terminals are planned because of recent federal rules issued under the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Local and state officials on both coasts and in the Gulf, who are just becoming familiar with the rules, may be kept from gaining full access to the safety studies -- as well as residents in affected areas.

To date, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has restricted access to more than 90,000 documents under the rules. "A considerable percentage of them are about safety and environmental compliance," said Sean Moulton, senior information policy analyst for OMB [Office of Management and Budget] Watch in Washington, who has examined the titles of the restricted items.

While the federal commission issued the rules a year ago, their effect is only now being realized by cities, states, and citizen groups as the federal regulators apply the information controls to the spate of LNG terminal proposals across the nation.

"LNG is definitely going to be the area where this policy will get its toughest test," said Moulton. LNG poses "a significant risk to the workers and the surrounding community."

From Boston to the Gulf Coast and California's golden shore, local concern is growing over the safety of LNG terminals and the security of transport ships as the energy industry proposes dozens of terminals to provide the nation an adequate supply of natural gas from overseas as domestic wells are depleted.

Last month, for instance, the California Energy Commission dropped a plan to publish a compendium of LNG safety studies for state residents and local governments to use as they consider terminal projects along the coast, said David Maul, director of natural gas and special projects for the commission. Maul's staff found that most of the studies were considered confidential for either security or proprietary reasons.

Meanwhile, the city of Long Beach, Calif. -- which has entered a tentative LNG terminal agreement with Sound Energy Solutions -- will not be able to share with the public much of the safety information it receives, according to Dominic Holzhaus, deputy city attorney.

"We get access to quite a bit of this, but we're bound to various confidentiality agreements with FERC," said Robert Kanter, director of planning for the Port of Long Beach. He said FERC's critical energy infrastructure information rules require the city to keep the information secret.

The federal commission's infrastructure rules are aimed at keeping confidential any information that may aid "enemies," according to Tamara Young Allen, a spokesperson for the agency. Parties with a need to know can file a federal request for safety studies; if granted access, they must sign a nondisclosure agreement.

BHP Billiton, one of the companies that have proposed LNG terminals in California, plans to provide the public with a general description of the results of its risk assessment, but not the whole document, according to Kathi Hann, public affairs manager for the company. Because of concerns about terrorism and trade secrets, only state and local agencies concerned with the project will be able to receive the full assessment, she said.

The federal commission claims legal authority for its strictures under the Patriot Act, though OMB Watch's Moulton said the statute does not explicitly authorize the rules at issue.

Of immediate concern is whether FERC will release in the weeks ahead a study done under contract by ABS Consultants to analyze the likely effects of a catastrophic accident on an LNG ship. FERC will have to examine the report before deciding whether it will be subject to the regulatory restrictions, said Young Allen.

"This [study] is crucial information because that defines how safe these ships are in our community," said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Bay Watch, a community group that is fighting proposed LNG terminals in Alabama.

William J. Kelly is a correspondent for California Energy Circuit where a version of this article first appeared.
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