Local Ports Leery of LNG Projectby Don Jenkins
The Daily News, July 16, 2006
The enviros and NIMBYs doggedly fighting a Houston's company plan to import foreign natural gas through the Columbia River have potential allies --- Lower Columbia ports.
Just before a deadline this month to peak up, the ports of Kalama and Vancouver warned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that tankers carrying liquified natural gas (LNG) could "wreak havoc on shipping in the Columbia River."
A Northern Star Natural Gas executive asserted the fear is unfounded and fueled by misinformation about the company's plans to bring ships upriver and unload natural gas at Bradwood, Ore., an old mill site across the river from Cathlamet.
Nevertheless, the fears are widely held -- and stoked by uncertainty.
Portland, Longview and Woodland port officials said in interviews that they share Kalama and Vancouver's concerns about how their clients would be affected by the special attention the U.S. Coast Guard began giving LNG tankers after Sept. 11, 2001.
The Coast Guard has yet to announce how it would treat LNG tankers on the Columbia River. But on other U.S. waterways, it has restricted ship traffic near LNG tankers to keep terrorists from getting close enough to bomb the flammable cargo.
Port officials say a moving bubble of protection in the 600-foot wide Columbia River channel could turn the waterway into a one-way river, with LNG tankers getting the right-of-way, while other ships get stopped. An LNG tanker would take three hours to travel from Astoria to Bradwood. Ships leaving ports between Longview and Portland could be held up for those three hours, according to a report filed by Northern Star.
The company forecasts two or three tankers would come to its Bradwood terminal each week.
Disruptions would make Lower Columbia ports less attractive to shippers and jeopardize the business advantages ports will gain with a deeper channel, Kalama port director Lanny Cawley said.
The ports lobbied for more than a decade before dredging began last year.
"I don't want to see the Port of Kalama put in a situation where something could affect all the hard work we've put in to bring larger and more ships," Cawley said.
Northern Star vice president Gary Coppedge said the company would schedule deliveries to avoid interfering with other ships.
"We expect to schedule them so there are no delays on the river," he said. "I would guess after the first couple LNG carriers come up the river, nobody will even notice."
Although the company, according to Coppedge, has not calculated the cost, it will order LNG tankers traveling across the ocean from Pacific Rim countries to slow down or speed up to arrive at a time convenient for other ships.
"We're not going to schedule traffic going upriver when other traffic is coming down," he said.
Without waiting for the channel to clear, a LNG tanker would have a 70 percent chance of meeting a ship coming from the other direction, according to a study commissioned by Northern Star. The Columbia River Pilots, the mariners who pilot vessels up the river, say they can safely navigate LNG tankers pass other ships.
"We've handled bigger tankers in the past," said Capt. Paul Amos, president of the river pilots. "It's another ship."
But port officials wonder what no-passing restrictions the Coast Guard will impose and whether those restrictions will tighten whenever the Coast Guard raises the security level.
Ships passing on the Lower Columbia are separated by 200 to 300 feet. Restricted areas around LNG tankers -- so-called "exclusion zones" -- have been several times larger in other places.
Although ports have not taken positions officially opposing Northern Star's proposal, the port of Kalama's letter to federal regulators spells out their worst fears, calling the plan a "direct threat to river-born commerce on the Columbia River."
"It's absolutely something we're following very closely," Port of Portland spokesman Eric Hedaa said.
Longview port director Ken O'Hollaren said any delays would be unacceptable. Inland ports must guard their waterways to compete with coastal ports, he said. "We do not want to see costly delays or disruptions as a result of a facility being there."
Woodland port director Dave Ripp said an LNG terminal could hamper the port's effort to attract a client to its terminal, which still is on the drawing board. "This could be one type of business, one type of product, disrupting several."
Groups that have been campaigning for months against the terminal and a pipeline that would connect the terminal to an interstate natural gas pipeline in Cowlitz County are egging the ports on.
"I think it could have a dramatic impact on upriver ports," said Puget Island resident George Exum, co-chairman of the Wahkiakum Friends of the River, a group formed to protest Northern Star's application.
"If (shipping) companies are impacted by having to wait, they might want to take their business elsewhere," he said.
Columbia Riverkeeper executive director Brent Foster sent a letter to ports in June encouraging them to study Northern Star's proposal and submit comments to FERC, which will decide next year whether to allow the terminal and pipeline.
The threat to the port's economic interests will be one of the stronger arguments against the terminal, he said. "If ports want to attract new shipping companies, having LNG here is going to be a major strike against them."
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