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The LNG Threat

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Liquefied Natural Gas Tankers Remain Giant Terror Targets

June 16th 2008

Energy / Environment - LNG Tanker
LNG Tanker at Sea

Can Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) be used as a lethal weapon of mass destruction? That question lies at the heart of the debate about increasing use of this important energy resource.

The answers are not reassuring. Nor are the questions.

Certainly, security measures currently in place make LNG terminals and ships extremely hard targets for terrorists. However, it would be imprudent to believe that terrorists are either incapable or unwilling to attack such targets. It would be equally imprudent to assume that these targets are impenetrable. A number of known vulnerabilities exist within the LNG industry. These vulnerabilities lie in the human factor. In other words, LNG ships and tankers are structurally sound. The potential for problems lies within the people who are somehow involved in the industry.

Inadequate vetting of crews

LNG shipments often originate from politically unstable and unfriendly countries and regions. Some of the locations in which LNG originates include Qatar, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt. “It’s the location of the ports, and where the LNG is loaded, and who gets on the vessel [that is important]," said William Doyle, Deputy General Counsel of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA). Many ships operate under grossly unregulated “open registry” or “flags of convenience” registries and often originate from ports with poor security systems in place.

Due to a lack of any meaningful international regulatory oversight, it would be possible for someone to work under a different identity on board one of these tankers and avoid detection. Under the current system, no completely trustworthy and uniform system is in place for vetting foreign mariners. Background checks are conducted on Americans by the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). However, these same background checks are not performed on foreign crews. The Coast Guard does, on the other hand, require crew lists from all vessels entering U.S. ports. Unfortunately, no method is in place to ensure these crews are who they claim to be. Although this is an issue of security for all cargo ships, it is even more critical for ships carrying potentially dangerous cargo, such as LNG.

In a testimony to Congress, Ron Davis, President of MEBA, listed a number of differences between U.S. and foreign mariners, saying, “U.S. merchant marines receive their credentials to work from the Coast Guard. Foreign mariners do not. U.S. mariners undergo extensive background checks through the FBI. Foreign mariners do not. U.S. mariners are vetted through the national driver record database. Foreign seafarers are not. U.S. mariners will be subject to terrorism background checks through the TSA. Foreign Seafarers are not.

Finally, U.S. merchant mariners are U.S. citizens or persons lawfully admitted for permanent residency. The mariners who crew these ships are not.” As a result, it is impossible to be certain that a mariner is who he claims to be or that he is not a security risk. Davis said that there are practically no Americans employed on LNG ships today. At the top of MEBA’s list of threats to an LNG tanker is the possibility that a knowledgeable crewmember could deliberately sabotage the vessel. According to Davis, “The most vulnerable (thing) that you have on the ship is the crew. It is the crew that controls the ship. One or two engineers down in the engine room can take control of the ship, can control the steering of the ship, can control the speed of the ship, can have the ship going 20 knots up the Houston ship channel or in the New York Harbor or in places of confined areas. They can ram the ship anywhere they want.” Davis stated that terrorists might one day intentionally ram an LNG ship into a strategic target such as one fully loaded with a highly flammable, explosive material onboard. Or, as William Doyle said, two or three terrorists infiltrating an LNG tanker could cause serious damage by one taking control of the ship and the other(s) detonating an onboard explosion as the tanker enters a busy harbor. Terrorists could attack an LNG tanker as well as they could any cargo ship. In a 2004 edition of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, Jane’s reported that the type of attack widely envisaged, based on analyses of compromised terrorist preparations, would include “an explosion onboard a cargo ship laden with fuel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer, in effect turning the vessel into a waterborne fireball.”

Should a terrorist somehow manage to get onboard a LNG tanker and cause an explosion, it might be possible to cause a boiling-liquid-expanding-vapor-explosion (BLEVE). A BLEVE might be possible in some instances if the LNG is heated to above its boiling point while still contained within the tank. This rapid heating could cause a percentage of the LNG within the tank to “flash” into a vapor state almost instantaneously. This would cause pressure in the tank to rapidly build up. While LNG tanks do have massive pressure relief valves in place, if these valves were to fail in their ability to release the gas quickly enough or altogether, the pressure in the tank might create a type of explosion that would send dangerous debris flying. Most experts agree that LNG tankers are built to prevent such an event from occurring. One expert polled during the GAO study, Dr. Robin Pitblado from Det Norske Veritas, however, pointed out that a BLEVE might be possible on a Moss spherical tank because these tanks are constructed such that pressure could build up within them.

Skepticism exists within the industry regarding Pitblado’s claim. Captain Scott Conway who has served eight years onboard LNG tankers and who is intimately familiar with the construction of the Moss spherical tanker, views Pitblado’s scenario as unrealistic, questioning his conclusions by asking, “Where is the BLEVE going to occur in this tank? Where are you going to direct the flames back at this tank to heat up the liquid? How are you going to build up the pressure so that it overcomes the safety release? When you can explain this all logically as per the ship’s construction, then we’ll talk seriously.”

Inadequate U.S. security measures for facilities

During a hearing in the United States House of Representatives on 21 March 2007, Jim Wells of the GAO raised doubt that the Coast Guard can marshal the resources needed to meet its responsibilities. While it took 40 years to build the fleet of LNG carriers to 200 tankers worldwide, it will take less than four more years for that number to grow to 300. This rapid growth rate coupled with the anticipated growth rate of LNG imports into the U.S. presents a real security challenge. The U.S. faces today potential lack of security measures and resources to protect these new assets.

Shortage of qualified mariners & U.S. officers

The rapid growth of LNG does not affect only the ability to safeguard each ship; it also affects the quality of mariners working onboard these vessels. Due to the nature of LNG, highly skilled and trustworthy individuals are required to ensure its safe transport. Currently, LNG tankers have crews consisting of mostly foreigners. Yea Byeon-Deok, professor and LNG initiative coordinator of the International Association of Maritime Universities said, during a conference in Australia, “Many substandard vessels have begun to appear as demand for LNG increases, while there is a chronic shortage of experienced crew.”

Because of sudden rapid growth in the industry, many experts question whether or not there will be enough qualified mariners to crew these vessels. Nearly 1,500 senior officers and 750 senior engineers will be required to man the 100 new LNG ships. Approximately 80 percent of these ships will be fitted with steam turbines, requiring engineers with steam experience, which, according to one report, is a “vanishing resource.” The fact that many senior LNG officers are due to retire soon, and new, highly skilled mariners will be required to replace them exacerbates the situation. It will be tough enough just to replace those who are retiring, increasing existing shortages of crew members and officers to crisis proportions.

The Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators LTD (SIGTTO) has recognized the acute shortage. “A short-term answer for an LNG vessel operator is to ‘poach’ its crew from another such operator but, clearly, the long-term answer is training, training, and further training. SIGTTO members, as much as anyone, wish for the quite unique safety record of LNG shipping to be preserved. The influx of new personnel into the industry is of concern, especially if there is a temptation by a minority of operators to ‘cut corners’ and put officers into positions of responsibility on a LNG carrier before they have been properly trained.”

The U.S. Maritime Administrator has been striving to increase the number of U.S. mariners employed on these tankers. U.S. officers go through a rigid qualifications process to ensure they become highly skilled. Meanwhile, the U.S. has no control over the quality of foreign officers. According to H. Keith Lesnik, Director of the Office of Deepwater Port Licensing, officials are pushing to bring more U.S. officers onboard LNG tankers. So far, four shipping companies have agreed to do this. Under the Deep Water Port Act, the Administrator has to allow these ships access to the port facilities, whether they have U.S. mariners onboard or not. In an effort to try to influence companies not wishing to comply with the manning request, the Maritime Administrator offers priority processing to companies agreeing to the manning requirement. The priority allows these ships to be moved to the front of the line for the license application process.
 
No U.S.-Flagged LNG Vessels

Up until 2001, there were U.S.-flagged LNG tankers. Since 2001, however, not a single U.S.-flagged LNG tanker exists.

The reason for this is purely economic. It is more costly to register a ship in the U.S. than in a foreign country because a U.S.-flagged vessel is required to employ Americans, which is more expensive, and also to pay higher taxes and fees. Additionally, running a U.S.-flagged vessel entails more stringent requirements because the vessel then falls under the U.S. Code of Regulations. These U.S. regulations require more rigid crew training and more stringent licensing standards on crew documents. All of these factors drive up the costs of running the ships. The real benefit for a ship to carry a U.S. flag would be so that it can carry cargo from state to state within the U.S. and it can carry U.S. military cargo from U.S. bases to overseas bases. Neither of these advantages serves as a motivator to LNG trading companies because neither is necessary in an LNG operation. The flag flown has no bearing on the ship’s operator. Registering a ship is a fairly easy process. The International Transport Worker’s Federation lists 28 countries as flag-of-convenience (FOC) countries. Registering a ship in an FOC country generally requires much less paperwork than do countries that have national registers. In some cases, such as Panama, registration can be done in just a few hours by fax.

The implications are that since requirements are much less stringent, security precautions and fleet training are most likely lacking.

Hijacking

A 2004 study conducted by the European Conference of Ministers of Transport jointly with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), describes two scenarios involving terrorists striking at sea. In the first scenario, called the Trojan Horse scenario, terrorists develop legitimate trading identities that would allow them to ship and misuse “dangerous consignments.” In the second scenario, the hijacking scenario, terrorists seize control of an entire vessel and its cargo to use it in a mass assault. According to Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor, the intelligence community fears that preparations for a major seaborne assault might already be in an advanced stage. In March 2003, during the night, about a dozen heavily armed men boarded the chemical tanker Dewi Madrim off the coast of Sumatra. The hijackers proceeded to take over the ship. Experts believed that this might have been a training exercise because the pirates navigated the ship for an hour through the Strait of Malacca then kidnapped the captain and first mate without demanding a ransom. Some experts believed that the hijackers could have been terrorists practicing operation of a large vessel in the crowded shipping lanes.
 
According to an ABC News investigative report, fears in shipping and security circles were increasing with the notion that these armed terrorists, or ven pirates, could take control of a vessel carrying LNG and transform it into a floating bomb. Admiral Kevin Eldridge, who was the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 11th District in California, stated that an attack by ship on U.S. shores was “likely enough for us to put a lot of effort into the planning of it.” Eldridge continued, “There aren’t enough ships [and] there aren’t enough planes for us to set up a picket line, so that we know what’s coming.” He continued, “We’re pushing our borders out. Frankly, if we have a vessel in our port that has a problem, it’s too late.” According to Captain Conway, physically it would be extremely difficult for pirates to successfully scale the 50-foot hull of an LNG vessel. However, according to Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), acts of pirates hijacking a ship have been facilitated by planting an insider within the ship.

Stepped up and more realistic security measures on LNG terminals and ships must address the vulnerabilities--and soon.

Cindy Hurst is a political-military research analyst with the Foreign Military Studies Office. She is also a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve. This article was adapted from a report for the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security www.iags.org. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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