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Horrific on the harbor

EVER SINCE Sept. 11 made the safety of liquefied natural gas tankers in Boston Harbor a prime concern, there has been no agreement on the extent of the destruction that a successful terrorist attack on a tanker might cause. Now a yearlong, 166-page study done for the US Department of Energy by Sandia National Laboratories has resolved the issue. The fire would be horrific, causing major injuries and significant damage to buildings a third of a mile away and second-degree burns on people more than a mile away.

The study leaves public officials and representatives of the natural gas industry no choice but to reexamine their plans for protecting the densely populated corridor through which LNG tankers pass on their way to the Distrigas terminal and storage tank complex in Everett. The study also raises new questions about proposed LNG terminals in Providence and Fall River and puts a premium on future offshore delivery of LNG to the region.

In recent years, with natural gas replacing dirtier coal and oil as the preferred fossil fuel for electricity generation, LNG has become indispensable in New England. In the winter, the region simply cannot get enough of the fuel through pipelines from the American Southwest, the Canadian west, and the Maritime Provinces. Distrigas estimates that it supplies 35 to 40 percent of the region's winter gas demand and 20 percent year-round.

The liquefied gas -- which is cooled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit and occupies one-600th the volume of the fuel in its gaseous state -- would not explode if terrorists managed to pierce one of the holds on a tanker. But the liquefied gas would leak out, convert to gas, and almost certainly ignite. The report says burning gas from one tank on a ship could cause others to rupture, adding to the conflagration.

The industry has an outstanding safety record, and since Sept. 11, Distrigas has worked with local, state, and federal officials to improve security. But the new study makes clear the dire consequences if terrorists manage -- through a missile assault, onboard sabotage, or a suicide airplane or speedboat attack -- to puncture one of the tanks on a ship.

Earlier this year a Texas company. Excelerate Energy, unveiled plans for an LNG terminal 10 miles off the coast of Gloucester. The president of Excelerate, Kathleen Eisbrenner, said yesterday that the firm has been meeting with federal officials on the proposal, which could be in service in early 2007. Early next year Excelerate will start operating a similar offshore terminal in the Gulf of Mexico.

The offshore terminal off Gloucester would, of course, have to pass environmental muster. But right now it appears to be the safest long-term answer to meeting the region's gas needs beyond what can be supplied by pipeline.

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