Homeland security begins far from home. For the U.S. Coast Guard, ensuring secure port operations and vessel movements in the United States begins with a methodical approach that starts at distant overseas ports of embarkation.
As the only U.S. military service with law enforcement authority, the Coast Guard has the leadership role in securing the U.S. marine transportation system. The service and its partners have processes in place to enhance the security of cargos and vessels coming to U.S. shores from ports overseas, and to reduce the risk that they have been compromised at any time during their voyages.
The shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Yemen to Boston, Mass., exemplifies this layered approach to mitigating risk and the care and attention to planning, coordination, and execution that assures the safety and security of these ship movements.
Some LNG shipments for Boston come from Trinidad and Tobago and are offloaded at the GDF SUEZ Energy North America Neptune LNG facility or the Excelerate Energy®’s Northeast Gateway LNG deepwater port off the coast of Gloucester, Mass. For those deliveries, the cargo must be re-gasified or returned into a gaseous state and sent ashore via an undersea pipeline. Each specially equipped ship takes about a week to offload this way.
Larger LNG shipments come from Yemen, Egypt, or Trinidad to deliver their cargo in its liquid state to the GDF SUEZ Energy North America Distrigas facilities along the Mystic River in Everett, Mass. The Yemeni ships are between 935 and 950 feet long and carry between 35 million and 36 million gallons of LNG, which are loaded at the Balhaf natural gas facility on the southern tip of Yemen.
To reach their U.S. destination, the LNG ships from Yemen must pass through pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, travel through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea, then cross the North Atlantic, then transit into the Port of Boston. The voyage takes about 18 days.
The Balhaf LNG port is one of Yemen’s largest industrial facilities, but the fact that these large shipments come from Yemen raises concerns. The country is in turmoil. There is a power struggle under way for leadership of the country, and terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are based there.
Security at the Source
One of the best ways to ensure that ships are secure when coming to U.S. ports is to determine if their ports of call abroad are in compliance with the International Maritime Organization’s International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, said Capt. Tony Regalbuto, USCG (Ret.), chief, Office of International and Domestic Port Assessment. The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 requires the Coast Guard to assess the anti-terrorism measures of foreign ports that trade with the United States, including the Balhaf LNG facility in Yemen. The Coast Guard uses the ISPS Code as the primary basis to determine if a country and its ports have effective anti-terrorism measures in place. The service established its International Port Security (IPS) Program in 2004 to assess about 150 countries on a two-year cycle. The IPS Program has been to the Balhaf facility several times in the last few years and determined that it has robust security measures in place that exceed the ISPS Code. Regalbuto said the IPS Program tries to ensure ships don’t become contaminated by terrorists or weapons of mass destruction in foreign ports with poor security before they come to the United States.
To reciprocate, the Coast Guard invites representatives from countries with ports that send ships to the United States to observe the U.S. Coast Guard’s ISPS Code implementation procedures. Through the IPS Program, the Coast Guard also takes part in bilateral and multilateral discussions with maritime trading partner nations around the globe.
Not surprisingly, after the 9/11 attacks, LNG movements in Boston Harbor raised concerns about public safety. Some perceived the potential for a huge release and ignition, which would be devastating to the port and to the city itself. In reality, because of its properties, LNG is flammable but not explosive. Additionally, “The ships are built to stringent safety standards, with numerous safeguards to prevent both accidental and intentional releases,” said Cmdr. Thomas S. Morkan, chief of response for Coast Guard Sector Boston. “Risk exists, but much has been done to mitigate that risk.”
To coordinate and mitigate the risks associated with the LNG transits, the Coast Guard examined the possible procedures using three different working groups – which included stakeholders and advisers – before the Yemen shipments began. The Yemen group looked at where the ship is loaded; the high-seas team dealt with the ocean transit; and the Boston group addressed arrivals and harbor transits. “From these, a variety of mitigation tactics were developed and implemented,” Morkan said.
Precautions are taken to enhance the security and safety of each U.S.-bound ship and its cargo from the point of departure to arrival in the United States.
All crewmembers have U.S. visas, and access to the ship is closely controlled, with visitors escorted. Security teams accompany the ship. Bomb-sniffing dogs inspect the ships and divers conduct bottom surveys during the transit. Follow-up inspections are conducted upon arrival at Boston, and security teams come aboard to inspect and escort, and special teams monitor the critical watch stations.
“If we note any anomalies at any time from departure to transit to arrival without determining if the anomaly can be investigated and cleared, we won’t permit the ship to enter this port,” said Morkan. “If the vessel was boarded by Somali pirates, it should be prepared to be refused entry.”
Port Partners Participate
For every LNG transit into the Port of Boston, the Sector Boston Operations Center (OPCEN) is staffed, to include interagency partners, under captain of the port as incident commander. The Coast Guard OPCEN watch team is joined by representatives of the Massachusetts State Police; Massachusetts Environmental Police; and Boston police and fire departments. Massport, the local port authority, is not part of the OPCEN but is involved in the LNG movements. On the water, a security zone surrounds the ships, enforced by as many as a dozen response boats from the different agencies to keep other craft away from the tanker, along with one or more helicopters. Also communicating with the operations center is the Federal Aviation Administration; Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency; the Boston Office of Emergency Management; and the Coast Guard Investigative Service. Airport movements are coordinated, and the Tobin Bridge is closed when the ship passes under.
Morkan says that the port movements are coordinated with the tides as well as the commuting hours to present the least amount of disruption both on the water and on land.
The Everett Marine Terminal LNG facility meets approximately 20 percent of New England’s annual gas demand, including deliveries to residential and commercial customers as well as an on-site 1,550-megawatt power plant that generates power for approximately 1.5 million homes in Greater Boston.
The 35-acre site includes a marine terminal for cargo unloading, two double-walled, above-ground LNG storage tanks, and associated equipment. The cargo is offloaded as a liquid. Discharging takes about 24 hours. The ship is then escorted out to sea.
While the first LNG ship to offload its cargo at the Everett Terminal arrived in November 1971, the 935-foot, 76,500-ton Greek-flagged Maran Gas Coronis, built in 2007, made the first LNG delivery of liquefied natural gas from Yemen in February 2010. More than 70 LNG tankers arrived at Everett last year, and at least one tanker arrives at the facility every week.
“Although it is the smallest LNG import facility in North America today, it is the most active,” said Clay Harris, president and CEO of GDF SUEZ Energy North America.
Every Shipment Is Important
The Coast Guard downplayed the milestone of the 1,000th safe LNG transit in 2010. “Each one is equally important to us to ensure the safety and security of the vessel and the port,” Morkan said.
The close cooperation among stakeholders is necessary and appreciated.
“We work with the USCG and our other port partners on an ongoing basis and this collaboration enables us to make weekly deliveries of LNG safely, securely, and without incident – and we’ve been importing cargoes for 40 years,” said Carol Churchill, manager of communications for Distrigas of Massachusetts LLC.
“We appreciate the cooperation of the port and public safety community and believe that a large part of our success is due to the fact that we share information freely about the characteristics of our product and the role LNG plays in the New England energy supply. We also meet regularly with a focus on improving our existing practices and procedures to ensure that LNG can continue to be managed safely for the benefit of the region. This will continue to be a focus going forward.”
“The Coast Guard helps to keep our ports running safely and efficiently. These days, [day] in and day out safe operations are often taken for granted, but they are vital to bringing in the imports and transfer [of] our exports that allow the United States to participate as a producer and consumer in the global marketplace,” said Capt. Gordan Evans Van Hook, USN (Ret.), senior director for innovation and concept development for Maersk Line, Ltd.
Capt. Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is a senior writer with MCR LLC in Arlington, Va.
This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.