Bird-watchers on Quintana Island had their eyes peeled for scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and yellow-throated warblers Tuesday morning, but few were expecting the arrival of the orange Excelsior.
The 900-foot-long liquefied natural gas tanker brought its inaugural cargo of the super-chilled fuel to the new Freeport LNG terminal on the island Tuesday, docking less than a mile from spots prized by birders and a county park popular for camping and fishing.
It's the second such tanker to arrive on the Gulf Coast in the last five days, following the Celestine River, which docked on Friday at Cheniere Energy's new Sabine Pass LNG terminal just south of Port Arthur.
Cheniere also has a 30 percent stake in the Freeport project, but the largest stake in Freeport LNG Development is owned by Colorado oilman Michael Smith.
Cranes were still working on one of the two storage tanks at the Freeport terminal Tuesday, but Smith said both should be ready by Thursday, when the Excelsior is scheduled to begin unloading its cargo. It will be a slow process, allowing all the pipelines and storage tanks to cool gradually to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which natural gas becomes a liquid.
Turning the gas into a highly condensed liquid makes it practical to transport by tanker. At terminals like the new ones on the Gulf Coast, the product is turned back into gas for shipment on interstate pipelines.
The facility should be certified by regulators to begin regasifying the LNG in five to six weeks, Smith said.
Freeport LNG already has 20-year contracts to supply gas from the terminal to ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical and Mitsubishi, but shipments will be slow in coming at first.
High prices' effect
The U.S. saw record LNG imports last year but now higher prices in Europe and Asia are drawing shipments away from the U.S., despite U.S. natural gas prices reaching $10 per million British thermal units in recent months.
The minimal activity expected in the short-term isn't surprising, Smith said.
"Building the supply side of LNG, from production to liquefaction plants, is 10 times more capital-intensive than building the re-gas plants, so by their very nature they will be the first on line," Smith said.
On Tuesday more than 100 people gathered along the breakwater on the Quintana side of the Freeport ship channel as a trio of tugboats guided the tanker in.
An armed Coast Guard patrol boat skimmed up and down the channel, enforcing a 1,000-foot security zone around the tanker and temporarily shutting down marine traffic until the ship was backed into its berth. That will be the routine with every future LNG tanker.
A helicopter hired by the company to film the arrival buzzed overhead, the only aircraft allowed in the airspace above the terminal Tuesday.
The Freeport harbor is already busy with traffic, ranging from cargo ships unloading wind turbine parts destined for West Texas wind farms to oil tankers unloading the raw materials for Dow's many area chemical plants.
Imelda Jez of Danbury said she heard Coast Guard officials talking about the tanker arriving on her police scanner Tuesday morning, so she took her two teenage daughters to watch it.
The opening of the terminal will be "a big deal" for Brazoria County's economy, Jez said, but she is a little concerned about safety issues.
LNG itself isn't flammable, but when it begins to warm up and turn back into a gas, it can ignite.
"We've heard about how dangerous they can be, so I don't like it being so close to this area," she said, referring to the Quintana Beach County Park, which is less than a mile from the terminal. "But I guess any of the chemical plants around here can be just as dangerous."
Michael Jewell, a birder from Houston visiting the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, located a few hundred yards from the terminal, said he'd prefer if it were somewhere else.
"I wish it was all gone, even the houses," he said, referring to the houses that serve as summer cottages and homes to the 50 or so permanent residents of Quintana. "But I'm in sales, so I'd probably be living under a bridge if it wasn't around, so there's no happy medium."
Ida Robertson, a year-round resident of the island whose small house is just a few hundred feet from the terminal fence line, said most people were unhappy about the terminal at first, but so far the company has been a good neighbor.
The company put Robertson up in a hotel for a few days earlier this year when it tested a pipeline that ran near her house, she said.
"We're surrounded by all sorts of chemicals down here, so I'm not really worried about the LNG," Robertson said. "We're the mixing bowl of the Gulf."
Copyright (c) 2008, Houston Chronicle. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.