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From Boston.com -

The ship holds enough super-cooled gas in its tanks and labyrinth of gray pipes to heat about 30,000 homes for a year. But the ship's critical attribute is the ability to turn that liquid back into a vapor at sea and pump it into an underwater pipe that carries the gas to shore.

As fears swirl over the risk of a catastrophic accident or terrorist attack at LNG terminals on land, many see such floating factories as a safer alternative for meeting surging energy demand in the United States. Two offshore LNG ports have been proposed off Gloucester, including one by Texas-based Excelerate Energy LLC, the company that charters Excelsior and owns the port in the Gulf.

There is significant opposition to the Gulf terminal and other proposed LNG deepwater ports nearby because they can take in more than 135 million gallons of the warm Gulf water a day to vaporize the liquefied gas, killing billions of fish eggs and larvae in the process. But the companies proposing the terminals off Massachusetts say they have modified the onboard vaporization process to dramatically decrease the water used, and some Bay State environmentalists and politicians are giving tempered support to the proposals.

``It appears these offshore projects may be viable," said Roger Fleming, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, a prominent New England environmental advocacy group. The impact on marine life and habitat needs further analysis, he said, but ``given our need for additional natural gas, we are looking to see if those impacts can be managed."

A spokesman for Governor Mitt Romney said that offshore LNG is a far better alternative than putting terminals onshore, but that Romney is withholding final judgment on the two Gloucester projects until they are studied more.

There are more than a half-dozen proposed LNG facilities in New England, including a terminal in Fall River that is vigorously opposed by residents and the state's political leadership but has been approved by federal regulators, and another on a Boston Harbor island. The company that runs New England's only existing LNG terminal, in Everett, has proposed the second LNG project off Gloucester. Both offshore LNG projects could receive a final federal and state decision as soon as January.

The technology Excelerate Energy uses is state-of-the-art, but the concept is simple. The company installs a yellow buoy under the sea surface that is attached to the seabed with anchors. One end of the buoy has a flexible pipe that feeds into a buried gas line Earlier this month, the Excelsior, laden with a shipment from Trinidad, was positioned above the Gulf buoy. The crew opened a subsurface compartment and pulled the buoy into the ship, mooring the vessel onto it. To vaporize the minus-260-degree Fahrenheit LNG, the liquid flowed through a network of pipes alongside other pipes filled with warm seawater. The gas then flowed through the buoy into the flexible pipe before reaching a pipeline.

Security is tight on the ship and around it. Exclusion zones of about 4 square miles encircle the ship when it is moored. Security is most strict closest to the ship. At sea, there are no gangplanks or ladders to get on board. Security badges are issued to all visitors and they are accompanied by crew members.

Excelsior's visit was Excelerate's third shipment to this port in the 17 months that it has been operating, in large part because the ship, which is also equipped to traditionally offload LNG at land-based terminals, could make more money offloading elsewhere, company officials said.

Off Gloucester, however, a ship would be stationed continuously. Excelerate wants to build a $125 million two-buoy system so that as soon as one ship finished a weeklong unloading, another could start. This would prevent an interruption in the flow of fuel into the region's natural gas pipeline system. A 16-mile pipeline would also have to be built under the seafloor to connect to the HubLine, a natural gas line already under Massachusetts Bay. The ships would be barely visible.

Even a northeaster should not affect the gas flow. Excelerate officials like to boast that they were able to operate in 20-foot seas in the Gulf during Hurricane Katrina, and they say ships will be able to operate even when dockside LNG ships cannot.

``People would laugh at us at conferences when we said we wanted to do this," says Rob Bryngelson, a vice president of Excelerate Energy as he stood on Excelsior's bridge last week, watching surveillance videos of the ship on flat-screen televisions.

Excelsior feels like a small city, and even has a swimming pool and basketball court for its approximately 30 crew members. Its decks are made of carbon steel -- which can become brittle if LNG drips on it. So a thin film of water runs under all LNG pipes to instantaneously vaporize any leaking gas that hits it.

Despite the sporadic use of Excelerate's Gulf port, environmental concerns about it are growing. Environmentalists and fishermen are beginning to realize how many fish can be killed, and worry about the ***ulative impact as other projects that use the same kind of water intake system come on line. The intakes can kill billions of fish eggs and larvae when they are trapped by screens at the pipes' openings, potentially harming fishing and the overall ecosystem, critics say. A coalition of environmental groups unsuccessfully sued the federal authorities last year for permitting construction of another LNG Gulf project without taking into consideration the ***ulative impact of all the water intake systems, known as open-loop because the water is continuously drawn from the ocean and pumped back into it.

But in Massachusetts, Excelerate is proposing a closed-loop system, so named because the water will be recycled. This is in large part because the North Atlantic waters are too cold most of the time to vaporize the LNG. Instead, each ship will suck in less than 5 million gallons a day. The water will run alongside the LNG pipes and then be heated back to 60 degrees Fahrenheit by the engine's boilers so the water can be used to vaporize more LNG. The ship uses about 2 1/2 percent of its fuel to operate the closed-loop system, and Bryngelson said air emissions will rise, although Excelerate is subject to tighter emission controls off Gloucester than in the Gulf.

Still, federal and state environmental officials say the closed-loop system could kill more than 16 million fish eggs and 2.5 million fish larvae per ship every year, representing about 14,000 adult fish. It could also hurt the overall production of the ecosystem because other species feed on the larvae and eggs. Fishermen are also opposed to the site, saying the ship's exclusion zone -- up to 4 square miles from which other boats would be excluded -- is in a prime lobster and ground fishing area.

Concerns are also rising among some fishery biologists that loud noise from the regasification process might bother federal endangered North Atlantic right whales or other marine mammals. Last week, a fishing boat anchored near Excelsior in the Gulf helped run sound tests to see if the noise could disturb marine mammals.

But even one of the New England region's most prominent right whale researchers said shipping and noise problems can be solved.

``I like these offshore terminals," said Scott Kraus, vice president for research at the New England Aquarium who studies right whales. He said all ships need to slow down so they don't hit right whales in the region and the technology exists to dampen noise from ships. ``Nobody wants one of these things in their backyard and with this one, it isn't in anyone's."


Rushie
 
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