Fight over gas terminal may go a bridge too far

Massachusetts members thought they found a way to block a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal from being built in Fall River: Slip language into a massive transportation bill to prevent the planned destruction of an old bridge.

The Brightman Street Bridge, which spans the Taunton River, stood in the path that tankers carrying the supercooled natural gas would have to travel to reach the terminal. Because the drawbridge is relatively narrow, the tankers would not be able to pass through it. Save the bridge, kill the terminal, the members thought. They included $500,00 to convert the bridge for bicycle and pedestrian use.

But Weaver’s Cove Energy, the company developing the project, had an answer. The company proposed shipping the gas in smaller tankers that would operate more frequently to meet demand.

After approving the terminal last July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reaffirmed that decision this year, taking into consideration the use of smaller tankers, even though the Coast Guard raised concerns about the more frequent traffic from the use of smaller ships.

But the company is apparently still lobbying to get the bridge language rescinded, another example of how a fight over a local energy project has shifted to the halls of Congress.

A proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound, off the Massachusetts coast, could be blocked by a provision put into the Coast Guard reauthorization bill. The provision gives the state’s governor, who opposes the wind farm, the power to veto the plan to install wind turbines in the sound.

Martin Edwards, a lobbyist at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a group that represents gas-pipeline companies, said lawmakers are reacting to public opposition, which has grown more pronounced and organized in recent years.

“That puts pressure on public officials to say no,” Edwards said. “There is a lot more blanket opposition now” to any project.

Members have expressed particular concern about LNG terminals because of perceived safety hazards. Several members from states where LNG terminals are proposed tried unsuccessfully to add language to the energy bill passed in 2005 to give governors the power to veto an LNG terminal.

There are plans to build 20 terminals onshore and eight offshore, according to FERC.

Massachusetts members who have sought to block the project say their hand was forced because FERC did not give sufficient weight to local and state concerns.

“People have to find other ways of dealing with energy projects if they don’t make sense for a local community,” said Michael Mershon, the spokesman for Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who sponsored the bridge provision in the transportation bill.

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said the commission carefully weighed the comments that were submitted about the LNG terminal, taking two years to review the project before approving it in July 2005 and then reaffirming the decision this year.

Republicans have criticized efforts to block the energy development project when natural gas prices are at historic highs and supply shortfalls are projected.

The Weaver’s Cove case “showcases the lengths opponents will go to stop a project,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said during a hearing last October according to a fact sheet distributed by Ogilvy Public Relations, which is working for the energy company.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee played a key role in crafting the massive transportation reauthorization bill that served as a vehicle to block the Brightman Street Bridge demolition, introduced an amendment to rescind the provision during debate on emergency heating funds.

In a floor speech, Inhofe said he was astonished to discover the provision had been slipped in.

“This short-sighted stunt by a few members means that the Northeast region will be deprived of supply that would reduce wholesale natural-gas prices by up to 20 percent,” Inhofe said. The amendment was ruled out of order.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) noted opposition to the Weaver’s Cove LNG terminal in a recent statement that criticized Democrats for embracing policies that lead to high energy prices.

Mershon said that Massachusetts members realize the state and region could use more natural gas but that the delegation thinks the terminals should be built offshore, away from population centers. The terminal could undermine economic development plans along the riverfront, Mershon said.

“You can do this in a way not planted right down in the middle of a city,” he said.

Company officials have noted that the terminal would be built in what was once a tank farm operated by Shell Oil Co. The company chose the site for that reason as well as its deepwater port and its proximity to a large natural-gas pipeline, according to a fact sheet distributed by Ogilvy.