THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Plan for LNG site has new hurdles

Politicians work to block Fall River storage facility

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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FALL RIVER — A proposed liquefied natural gas project avoided a potentially crippling blow last week in Congress’ lame-duck session, but the controversial Weaver’s Cove proposal continues to face major political and other hurdles.

A bipartisan coalition of Massachusetts and Rhode Island politicians — including Republican Scott Brown and Democrat John F. Kerry — inserted language in the $1.2 trillion Senate omnibus budget bill prohibiting any of the money from being used to approve the project. The measure would have halted federal permitting for Weaver’s Cove, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid abandoned the full bill late Thursday night after support for it faltered.

Members of the two states’ congressional delegations pledged to have the same provision added when the budget is ultimately debated, the latest turn in opponents’ ramped-up campaign to kill the nearly decade-old plan to deliver super-cooled natural gas to Fall River. Critics say a terrorist attack or accident would place thousands of people in peril in the densely populated city and harm fish habitat and tourism.

“We want to put a stake through this vampire’s heart,’’ said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton, who first inserted the spending prohibition into a House bill this year with Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, which Senate colleagues then picked up.

Only one other LNG storage facility exists on Massachusetts shores — in crowded Everett, where post-9/11 safety concerns have made it a national symbol of where not to place such facilities.

Yet Hess, the company behind the estimated $700 million Fall River project, will press ahead despite the continued and “disappointing’’ efforts to kill it, said Gordon Shearer, chairman of Weaver’s Cove Energy. He said the project will bring 1,000 jobs to the region and the political obstacles it has endured are unfair.

“It is most viable and needed,’’ said Shearer. “We have a process in place that allows people to evaluate and weigh these things. . . . So why can’t it be allowed to work here? Once you start bypassing [established procedures] where do you stop?’’

Hess now proposes to have up to 70 LNG tankers a year travel up Narragansett Bay to berth in Mt. Hope Bay. From there, a subsea pipe would carry the liquefied gas more than 4 miles up the Taunton River to a storage facility at a former oil terminal. Then it would be vaporized to go to homes or businesses or be shipped by truck as a liquid.

The company’s original proposal called for LNG tankers to dock at the Fall River terminal. While that plan was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2005, McGovern successfully blocked federal funding to demolish an old bridge, preventing the massive tankers from getting up the Taunton.

Weaver’s Cove then proposed using smaller vessels, but the US Coast Guard rejected that, saying they would not be able to safely navigate the river or bridges. Now the energy commission is reviewing the plan to berth in Mt. Hope Bay, a spokeswoman said last week.

The LNG project has parallels to Cape Wind, the proposed 130-turbine project in Nantucket Sound that is expected to begin construction next year. Both are massive energy projects that have spent almost a decade getting federal approvals. Both have been opposed by politicians who have tried to work language into federal legislation to have them killed. But unlike the massive wind farm, which received federal support and ultimately secured state support in the Patrick administration, Weaver’s Cove has virtually no state or local political support.

Still, the project has moved forward because LNG exports and imports are overseen by federal energy regulators, not local and state authorities.

Seven years ago, as the natural gas supply waned in the United States, a flurry of LNG projects were proposed across the country and in New England, from on a Boston Harbor Island to Harpswell, Maine. Most died out after an LNG terminal was built in St. John, New Brunswick, or because of public opposition.

An LNG port was built 10 miles off Gloucester, however, and another proposal remains viable in northern Maine. While new natural gas deposits have been found across the country, Shearer said an LNG port in New England is still needed because there is little gas storage here. He says the LNG terminal can help lower and stabilize gas prices.

“In spite of everything you read, New England is still at the end of the energy pipeline grid,’’ Shearer said.

In the past year, opponents have redoubled efforts to stop the project. Save the Bay, a Rhode Island advocacy group, took out a large ad in the Wall Street Journal recently warning investors against the project. Opponents were also spurred on when Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting minutes revealed testimony against the project by a National Marine Fisheries Service official, who said the offshore berth was inappropriate because winter flounder in Mt. Hope Bay are on the verge of collapse. Shearer said Hess is willing to offer a $15 million plan to offset any harm.

The city of Fall River, which opposes the project, is challenging Weaver’s Cove on calculations they used to determine the spread of flammable gas in an LNG pipe rupture, saying the company dramatically underestimated how large an area might be affected. The designation of the Taunton River as a federal Wild and Scenic River — and a letter from the National Parks Service to the energy commission suggesting the project was incompatible with that title — is also encouraging, opponents said.

“It’s just in the wrong place,’’ said Gordon Carrolton , a board member of the Coalition for Responsible Siting of LNG, as he stood in Somerset and gazed across the Taunton River at Fall River. Carrolton grew up sailing on the bay and said people in Boston don’t seem to know that a massive LNG terminal similar to the one that has drawn so much negative attention in Everett could be coming to the city.

“When they were trying to site the LNG terminal [on a Boston Harbor Island] everybody was up in arms,’’ Carrolton said. “But that was way out [from people] in comparison to this.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.