According to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on maritime security, Coast Guard and other efforts to secure ports handling energy commodities such as gasoline and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are seriously lagging due to lack of resources and coordinated response planning.
The report, requested last year by Reps. John D. Dingell (D-MI), Joe Barton (R-TX), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), all members of the congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce, found that the US energy supply chain, particularly for shipments of highly combustible commodities like liquefied natural gas was “potentially vulnerable in many places here and abroad as borne out by several successful overseas attacks on ships and facilities.”
GAO’s report highlights the fact that energy commodity tankers have been targets of recent maritime terrorist attacks, such as the suicide attack on the oil tanker Limberg off the coast of Yemen in 2002 and multiple attacks from explosive-packed vessels against oil terminals in Iraq in 2004.
“As the recent provocation by Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz indicates, large maritime vessels may be targeted by smaller boats,” Markey told HSToday. “While this incident did not lead to an exchange of fire, a suicide attack in 2002 against the French tanker Limburg killed one person and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil. Our efforts to secure our homeland must include our home waters as well.”
Continuing, Markey said “as demand for LNG increases, the concerns raised in this report underscore the need to ensure that any new LNG facilities be remotely sited in order to reduce the potential hazards to the public.”
Markey had earlier said in a prepared statement that “we know that terrorists are looking for the weakest link in our security efforts, and this GAO report is a timely reminder that LNG and oil tankers are serious targets. Given the fact that LNG is being transported into Boston harbor every several days on the way to the Everett LNG terminal, an attack on one of these tankers could be devastating.”
Markey said he “will be working with my colleagues to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security responds to the vulnerabilities exposed in this report and that their efforts are not hampered by a lack or resources. We cannot skimp when it comes to public safety.”
“If there was an attack on an energy tanker or terminal in a US port, there could be significant economic, environmental and public safety consequences, which would result in even higher gasoline and heating oil prices,” added Dingell. “I supported increases to the Coast Guard budget in fiscal year 08 and I plan to carefully review the President’s 09 budget request to determine whether the Administration has provided the resources necessary to protect the energy tankers and ports, as identified in this report. GAO’s analysis reminds us of the urgent need to reduce energy imports and spur the growth of renewable and non-polluting energy supplies.”
According to the report, tankers are also vulnerable to stand-off attacks using rockets, mortar or rocket propelled grenades; armed assaults; and insider attacks executed through a crew conspiracy. GAO stated, “The threat of seaborne terrorist attacks on maritime energy tankers and infrastructure is likely to persist,” with the greatest risks at overseas shipping chokepoints such as the Straits of Hormuz, the Straits of Malacca, the Suez Canal, and the Panama Canal.
Although GAO reported no specific threat of attack at US ports, the report warns that various intelligence assessments indicate that domestic ports represent high opportunity targets for terrorists. According to GAO, an attack could have significant public safety implications. For example, a terrorist attack on an LNG tanker could create a fire with such intensity that individuals could be burned as far as one and a quarter miles away after only 30 seconds of exposure, according to a companion GAO report issued in February 2007.
LNG tankers now transport 3 percent of US natural gas supplies, but LNG imports are projected to grow by nearly 400 percent to 17 percent of all US natural gas consumption by the year 2015. Currently the nation’s only urban LNG importation terminal is the Distrigas facility in Everett, MA.