An offshore liquefied natural gas terminal 13 miles from Gloucester won initial state approval yesterday, the first significant step toward delivering the fuel far from populated areas to satisfy New England's growing demand for gas.
The Excelerate Energy LLC project must still meet a slew of federal and other state approvals before it can be built, but the state determined that the first round of environmental studies by the company adequately documented the potential consequences of their project to the marine ecosystem.
Still, state Environmental Secretary Stephen R. Pritchard ordered the company to conduct more comprehensive assessments on a suite of issues, including the project's impact on commercial fishermen and marine life as it prepares a final environmental report. Pritchard also expressed deep concern over the combined impact of the Excelerate project and another proposed LNG terminal to be built 10 miles off Gloucester, because each calls for an underwater pipeline, virtually side by side, that could harm marine life.
``I question the development of duplicative infrastructure on public trust lands," Pritchard wrote in the 19-page certificate approving the draft environmental impact report. Pritchard's comments do not signify state approval or denial of the project, but rather that the company largely complied with regulations to look at all possible environmental impacts.
Excelerate is in a race with the company that owns the Distrigas LNG facility in Everett to build New England's first offshore LNG terminal. A state draft environmental decision on that second Gloucester proposal, called Neptune, is expected within two weeks.
The Coast Guard, the lead federal permitting agent for both projects, is expected to issue final decisions in December on each company's plan. If both are approved, nothing would prevent both from being constructed.
The offshore terminals would be invisible on the sea surface unless a tanker is moored. Underwater, there would be buoys, anchors, and the pipe carrying gas to shore. A ship carrying supercooled gas would dock, regasify the liquid on board and inject it into the underwater pipeline. Excelerate has proposed building a 16.4-mile pipeline to connect to New England's distribution network.
Environmentalists and government officials have liked the idea of offshore terminals because ships don't steam near populated areas. Public officials and residents near the Everett facility and proposed LNG terminals in populated areas, such as in Fall River, fear that a terrorist attack or catastrophic accident on one of the mammoth ships could cause widespread death and injury.
Construction of an offshore terminal would not force closure of the Everett terminal, New England's only operating LNG facility, but it may provide enough to meet New England's growing energy demand so that other projects wouldn't need to be built on land.
Over the last three years, more than a half-dozen LNG proposals have surfaced in New England and Atlantic Canada, including one on Outer Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. The federal government has approved one so far in New England, in Fall River. Critics of that proposal hope that an offshore facility, which would take about eight months to build, could leapfrog the Fall River terminal, which has a three-year construction time frame, and potentially kill it.
``We are obviously very pleased we passed this project milestone," said Doug Pizzi, a local spokesman for Excelerate, a Texas company that has already built the world's first offshore LNG terminal in the Gulf of Mexico.
Pritchard said he wants to see more safeguards for fish and other marine life during pipeline construction and from the intake pipes, which would suck in sea water to cool the ships' engines. Excelerate originally proposed using 54 million gallons per day to cool the engines but has reduced that amount to 5 million gallons. Still, Pritchard said that could result in 16 million fish eggs and 2.5 million fish larvae being trapped and killed on screens covering the intake pipes every year, representing about 14,000 adult fish.
He also said the company's estimate that fishermen would lose $2.4 million over the project's 25-year lifespan may be understated. The company also said six fishing jobs would be lost over the life of the project.
A Distrigas spokesman said Excelerate's initial approval didn't jeopardize his company's plan.
``This is another step in a very careful and deliberate process. We are on virtually identical timetables," said Doug Bailey, a Distrigas spokesman.
In Gloucester, fishermen and Mayor John Bell said that if one or both of the projects were built, it could result in fishermen being excluded from one of the most robust New England fishing areas. The company said in its draft environmental report that both recreational and commericial fishing would be excluded from about 14 square miles during construction and about 3.9 square miles for the rest of the project's life because of safety concerns.
Some environmentalists yesterday said that both projects may be viable, but that constructing two pipelines made no sense. If both projects were built, they would like to see only one pipeline. State officials said that if both projects are built they would encourage use of the same pipeline.
``We describe [using two pipelines] as absurd ," said Seth Kaplan, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, a group that is advocating for better regional planning for new energy facilities.
Beth Daley can be reached at email@example.com.