Thursday, January 10, 2008

GAO report finds tankers are vulernable

Tankers vulnerable to attacks
GAO report cites Coast Guard overload
from The Suffolk Times, Jan. 10, 2008

By Denise Civiletti

International tankers transporting liquefied natural gas, oil and other hazardous commodities are "threatened and vulnerable" to terrorist attacks and the U.S. Coast Guard lacks the resources to protect these vessels in international and U.S. waters, according to a report made public by the U.S. Government Accountability Office Wednesday.

The Coast Guard is having difficulty meeting its current "security workload," according to the GAO, and security demands on the Coast Guard will grow significantly over the next decade as more LNG import facilities come on line, the report said. By 2015, the amount of LNG imported into the U.S. will grow more than 400 percent. A total of 32 new LNG import facilities have been either proposed or approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or the Maritime Administration as of March 2007, according to the report.

The report says the Coast Guard at some ports, due to a lack of resources, has been unable to meet its own requirements for security activities such as escorts and boardings. The Coast Guard faces additional challenges in the future at some domestic ports, where workload demands are likely to rise substantially as new LNG facilities come on line and LNG shipments increase. The report released to the public does not identify specific ports due to security concerns.

"The Coast Guard is scrambling to meet its expanded post-9/11 mission," Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said in an interview Thursday. "When you layer in the burgeoning LNG industry, you can see the Coast Guard is stretched beyond its capabilities," Mr. Bishop said. The congressman, who serves on the Coast Guard subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee, said Coast Guard officials have told him they are "very concerned about their capacity to provide security for these additional [LNG] facilities." Mr. Bishop said there are now 42 new LNG applications "in various stages of development."

Indeed, in its September 2006 Waterways Suitability Report for the proposed Broadwater LNG facility, the Coast Guard concluded the Long Island Sound Coast Guard sector could not "effectively manage the potential risk to navigation safety and maritime security associated with the Broadwater Energy proposal" at its current levels of responsibilities and resources.

Mr. Bishop pointed out that the Coast Guard must sign off on any construction permit issued for a new LNG facility, like the proposed Broadwater terminal in Long Island Sound, and the Coast Guard would not do so unless it can secure the facility.

But the congressman called on the federal government to "stop the clock" on all new LNG applications. While LNG will undoubtedly become a more prominent part of our energy supply in the future, Mr. Bishop said, "we have to go about it in a sane and responsible way." He criticized the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for reviewing and approving applications "in the order in which they arrive rather than taking a more holistic approach."

The GAO conducted its study on maritime security because the country's energy needs rely heavily on ship-based imports and that reliance will continue to grow as more LNG import facilities are approved and constructed. The global LNG fleet is expected to double from 200 in 2006 to more than 400 by 2010.

"This supply chain is potentially vulnerable in many places here and abroad, as borne out by several successful overseas attacks on ships and facilities," the report said. The ships bringing crude oil and LNG to U.S. ports are mostly foreign-flagged vessels, and the U.S. has limited oversight authority over these vessels' crews or condition, until they enter U.S. waters, at which point the Coast Guard bears primary responsibility of protecting them from attack with security boardings, escorts and patrols.

During transit into and out of port, these vessels travel slowly, which increases their exposure, the GAO report said. Tankers follow timetables that are easy to track in advance and they follow a fixed set of maritime routes.

In 2003 through 2005, according to the Coast Guard, there was an annual average of about 80 foreign-flagged deep draft vessels (ships of 800 feet or more in length) carrying liquid petroleum products or coal to port facilities within Long Island Sound.

If the Broadwater offshore terminal is built, it will take delivery from an estimated two or three LNG tankers each week, according to the project's draft environmental impact statement, adding between 104 and 156 vessel arrivals in the Sound per year.

A terrorist attack on any tanker carrying oil, gasoline or LNG would likely cause a spill, fire and, in the case of oil or gasoline, an explosion.

Local fire and police departments would be an integral part of the emergency response team in the event of an attack, according to the GAO report, but most local emergency response agencies lack the specialized equipment and training needed to handle the fires, explosions and spills that would most likely result from a terrorist attack, the report says. Another equipment concern, according to the GAO, is communication equipment used by law enforcement and emergency response personnel that isn't "interoperable." Interoperable communications systems "allow emergency responders to talk to each other to effectively coordinate their efforts," according to the report. The GAO found lack of fully interoperable communications systems among law enforcement agencies and emergency responders continued at ports visited by GAO staff in conducting their study.

The GAO report recommends more planning and more funding to complete plans and purchase necessary equipment.

Mr. Bishop said the federal government is in the "very beginning stages" of a $25 billion multiyear effort to upgrade the Coast Guard's fleet and equipment. Called "Deepwater," the project in its early stages has been "an embarrassment," Mr. Bishop said. A failed attempt to retrofit eight 110-foot cutters to add 13 feet in length rendered the vessels "completely unseaworthy," the congressman said. "Now they are on the scrap heap, being cannibalized for parts."

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