WASHINGTON -- A controversial liquefied natural gas terminal planned for Fall River is likely to be approved this summer after the Senate voted yesterday to give a federal agency the power to decide where it and other LNG terminals are placed, casting aside local input on whether the port facilities could lure terrorists or hurt coastal development.
The provision in the Senate energy bill -- scheduled to get final approval as soon as today -- grants ''exclusive authority" on decisions for LNG terminals to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, allowing it to overrule objections from state and local governments. With a raft of proposals for new terminals in urban areas, senators from coastal states argued that the FERC should not be allowed to ignore local studies on how the terminals would affect residential and business development and on whether they can be effectively secured against a terrorist attack or a devastating explosion.
An energy bill amendment, co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, would have given governors the last word on whether an LNG terminal should be built -- an idea supported by Governor Mitt Romney and the National Governors Association. The amendment failed by seven votes. Senator John F. Kerry, another Massachusetts Democrat, backed the amendment.
Since the House version of the energy bill also gives FERC ultimate authority on new LNG facilities, the change is expected to be part of any final energy bill that reaches President Bush's desk. Bush has said he supports FERC jurisdiction over where LNG plants are located.
Some security specialists have warned that LNG terminals, including the planned terminal in Fall River and the Distrigas facility that is operating in Everett, have the potential to create massive explosions if they are sabotaged or bombed, killing many people in densely populated areas.
''An explosion at an LNG facility can trigger a firestorm, killing or injuring every person within a mile of the site," Kennedy said. ''Massachusetts and other states deserve a voice in siting whenever a project will put residents at great risk."
FERC has always claimed to have the final say on whether LNG facilities can be built, but states have tried to block them based on local environmental and safety ordinances, leaving many projects caught in protracted legal battles at state and federal levels. But opponents of this measure say it will give the agency new authority to ignore local opposition and push through plans, with lasting impact on the environment and security.
Last month, FERC issued a report favoring the Fall River terminal proposal, despite strong objections and threats of a lawsuit from officials who do not want an LNG terminal placed in their city. The project could get final approval this summer, and construction would take about three years.
A spokesman for Weaver's Cove Energy, the company that wants to build and run the Fall River terminal, applauded yesterday's vote.
''This is encouraging that the Senate voted this way, which should help expedite the process," said Jim Grasso, the Weaver's Cove spokesman. ''People need to understand this: We need the gas."
The vote greatly increases the chance that the Fall River proposal and about 30 others across the country will get green lights for construction, said Anna Aurilio, legislative director for the US Public Interest Research Group.
''The only agency that is going to have authority is definitely not a public safety agency. It's an energy agency," said Aurilio, whose group opposes new LNG terminals.
Energy companies also want to build LNG terminals in Providence; Pleasant Point, Maine; off the coast of Gloucester; in Somerset; and near Connecticut's Long Island Sound. These sites are at different stages in the regulatory approval process.
Fall River Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. said he was disappointed in the vote but added that he hopes the close margin will persuade FERC to reconsider its support for the site in Fall River. He added that the city will still try to prevent the facility from being built, noting that Weaver's Cove needs state permits and that Fall River can challenge the FERC decision in federal court.
The energy bill's authors said their intent was to clear ambiguities that have left LNG proposals languishing in protracted court fights amid a rising national appetite for natural gas to heat homes and run factories. Though LNG now accounts for only 3 percent of US natural gas use, the Energy Department has estimated that percentage will grow dramatically.
Giving a single federal agency clear authority over the placement of new terminals will allow the United States to build essential facilities, said Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Bingaman noted that companies seeking to build LNG terminals still have to meet state and local zoning restrictions, acquire local permits, and meet state environmental regulations, but final authority must rest with a single agency that tends to the nation's broad energy needs.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who opposed Kennedy's amendment, said allowing governors to come in at the last moment and kill a proposed terminal would sacrifice an opportunity to increase the supply of natural gas.
''Someone needs to have the sole responsibility for siting these plants," Alexander said. ''We have 31 applications for those [facilities] -- onshore and offshore -- but we've got a process that's broken. It's filled with uncertainty."
The Fall River facility would be built in an area where 9,000 residents live within a 1-mile radius, with schools, hospitals, and parks nearby. Kennedy noted that giant tankers carrying ''explosive liquefied gas" would travel along 31 miles of coastline and under five bridges before docking at the facility, although FERC's report said Coast Guard escorts would provide adequate security.
Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat whose district includes the Everett LNG facility, said companies have had no problem meeting rules for new terminals under the current system. But by creating a fast-track system for approval with FERC in control, Markey warned, Republican leaders are sacrificing safety to do the bidding of big businesses.
''What the Bush administration is doing is creating a homeland security and environmental crisis by planting terrorist targets in the middle of densely populated urban areas," he said.
David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.