Liquefied natural gas shipments from Yemen arriving in Massachusetts -- and soon just off the Gloucester shoreline -- are under scrutiny by state and federal officials as the Middle Eastern country becomes an increasing focus of international counter-terrorism efforts.
Suez LNG, the French-owned energy company that runs the Distrigas terminal in Everett and is on the verge of completing the Neptune terminal 10 miles southeast of Gloucester Harbor, briefed a group of state and Boston-area officials Wednesday about their Yemeni ship security.
Suez has been receiving international LNG shipments at the Distrigas port since 1971, but is expecting its first tanker from Yemen next month.
With the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight by a Nigerian man trained in Yemen still in the public consciousness, authorities -- including those that control security in Boston Harbor -- are taking an even closer look at allowing the giant, fuel-laden ships so close to heavily populated areas.
The U.S. Coast Guard is the government agency responsible for LNG security and Chief Petty Officer Jeff Hall of the agency's First Division in Boston said Wednesday that the proposal to bring a tanker from Yemen into Everett was under review and was not a certainty.
"LNG is probably the highest security vessel that comes in to the port of Boston," said Hall. "With things going on in Yemen right now, we are looking ahead at the security procedures in place. We would consider a ship coming in from Yemen a higher threat."
While the focus right now is on Boston Harbor, Suez expects to open the Neptune terminal in the middle of next month south of Gloucester Harbor and begin receiving LNG shipments from a number of international sources including Yemen.
Neptune has been under construction since the summer of 2008 and its official commissioning has been delayed for several months because of technical issues.
Suez Spokeswoman Carol Churchill said Wednesday that the company is "pretty certain" the terminal will be ready to go in mid-February, and although there are no Yemen deliveries scheduled yet at Neptune, it was likely that one would arrive eventually.
When it does, Churchill said Suez would increase its already "robust" security for the ships coming from Yemen, which would feature regular Suez crews with no Yemenis.
"The only thing that will change will be the port of origin," Churchill said. "The ships will be the same, the crews will be the same. There will be more security than will be from other ships, the security regime that we have in place that enters Boston Harbor is among the most robust security surrounding any cargo that enters the U.S."
The ships will all stop in a third port before reaching Massachusetts and would be boarded by the Coast Guard before entering Boston Harbor.
Churchill said Suez had been working with the Coast Guard on LNG security for six months. She said offshore terminals like Neptune and on-shore terminals like the Distrigas facility were equally safe.
While Neptune is nearing completion, a few miles to the south, the Northeast Gateway LNG terminal, owned by Texas energy company Excelerate Energy, has been receiving shipments since June 2008.
Northeast Gateway does not receive any shipments from Yemen, according to spokesman Doug Pizzi, but does receive shipments from Egypt, Trinidad and Qatar.
Even before the failed bombing attempt on an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight by a man who had been trained by extremists in Yemen, counter-terrorism experts had been watching the country because of concerns it was becoming an increasing host to al-Qaida.
Located at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen's ports are located on the Gulf of Aden, a body of water which has been plagued by attacks from nearby Somali pirates.
Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the government of Yemen at the country's embassy in Washington, was in Yemen and could not be reached for comment on the debate in Massachusetts Wednesday, embassy officials said.
Suez has been receiving natural gas since 2006 from a plant in Balhaf, Yemen -- also used by French company Total Gas & Power and Korea's Kogas -- but has increased the amount it received after problems with supplies from Trinidad.
At the meeting Wednesday in Boston, called by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, Coast Guard and Suez officials appeared to have answered many of the concerns about Yemeni LNG from officials including U.S. Sen. Paul Kirk, numerous Boston-area leaders and advisors to members of the state's congressional delegation.
"I think everyone felt much more informed than they did going in," said Winthrop Town Manager and Gloucester resident James McKenna. "We were reassured by the Coast Guard that they institute security clearance at the port of origin."
"I have faith that they are going to make the right decision," said Michael Costello of Newburyport, House chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
While Boston was well-represented at the "summit," no North Shore officials were invited -- a point of contention for Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who for two years has been trying to get the federal government to assess terrorism threats to Gloucester along with the Boston area, not with rural areas.
"The Homeland Security threat assessment level assigned to Gloucester is completely inadequate, and the city does not have the capacity to protect itself in the event of an LNG disaster," Mayor Kirk said in a statement. "Gloucester's Homeland Security status needs to change so that we are included in the port city area with Boston rather than with the suburbs such as Wenham."
span style="font-size: 8pt; color: rgb(170, 170, 170);">Copyright (c) 2010, Gloucester Daily Times, Mass. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.