Monday, January 09, 2006

LNG Catch 22

The floating LNG regasification facility proposed for Long Island Sound has hit another snag. An article in Sunday's New York Times described the curious permitting snafu that has developed on the way to review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, relating to the project's safety plans. Apparently, the details of the Broadwater project have fallen under a post-9/11 infrastructure security regulation that effectively bars them from public scrutiny. In the absence of specifics, opponents are seizing on the classification of the plans to argue that the project is too risky for the busy waters of Long Island Sound, or its heavily populated shorelines. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

Living only a couple of miles from Long Island Sound, I am more than a little interested in how this comes out. My first instinct is that Broadwater would be a tremendous boon for the region, providing direct access to international supplies of clean natural gas at prices much lower than those I see on my monthly gas bill. But, as I said before, the project shouldn't get a free ride on safety or environmental impact, just because it's a good business proposition.

As a resident, I share the frustration of those seeking to understand how Broadwater might affect the area, particularly in a worst-case scenario. Under our system we have come to expect full public scrutiny of such proposals as part of our Constitutional rights, honed by legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act. But we also shouldn't lose sight of the responsibility of the government and of businesses acting under government license to safeguard information, the release of which might be harmful in wartime. The Broadwater project must find a way to navigate the gap between those poles, if it is to go forward.

However, it is a long, unjustified leap from the dilemma described above to the flawed logic that uses the security around the project's plans as de facto evidence that it is inherently unsafe. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was quoted in the Times saying, "It is powerful evidence of the susceptibility to terrorist attack and proves that the public interest is greatly endangered." A filing by Suffolk County, NY went even further, citing FERC's comment that destruction of an LNG terminal by saboteurs would negatively impact public health and safety as proving, "that the Broadwater project can not be found safe or in the public interest." Franz Kafka would recognize a kindred spirit, there.

Every energy facility in the country is vulnerable to terrorism, with serious potential consequences, nor are energy facilities unique in this regard. If that fact were sufficient argument against building more, then we'd better consider a ban on the sales of new gas and electric appliances.

It may just be that wartime prudence prevents our knowing enough about Broadwater's design and safety systems to make us all comfortable. If so, then we must choose between blocking the project--thus obliging us to address the future energy balance of the greater NY region in some other way--or trusting in the judgment of those with the clearance to scrutinize these plans. The latter may seem a quaint notion in 2006, but to me the other choice looks worse. If we fail to find a sensible way through this procedural quandary, our energy future will be jeopardized as much as by any attack Al Qaeda could mount.

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