LNG: A Level-Headed Look at the Liquefied Natural Gas Controversy|
Virginia L. Thorndike
Down East Books , 256 pp, $15.95 (pb)
LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) is an unexpected subject to tackle for writer, Virginia Thorndike. Her previous work has focused on subjects of coastal interest, but most prominently, boats. She has written whole books about Maine lobster boats, Windjammers and tugs. Based on thorough research and expansive personal interviews with knowledgeable leaders in the subject field she builds solid, detailed presentations.
While engaged in research for her engaging book on tugboats, their tasks and their operators, she became aware of the impressively large and uniquely designed LNG tankers. (Tugs play a key role in the importation of LNG). Because her interviews with tugboat people introduced her to a different take on the subject, those views have "counter-balanced any anti-LNG tendency I might have started with. I now, truly have no axes to grind," she says.
"It is my intent to take a look at the world of LNG in a straightforward and matter-of-fact manner, to show what it is and how it works, in the hope of defusing some of the frenzy and hype surrounding proposals for new import facilities." That is precisely what she has accomplished-and in a lively manner, at that. The book is full of pictures and fresh comments from usually obscure engineers, scientists and mariners. Only the chapter on government regulations could be the considered a bit of a snore, but even that won’t make you sleepy-rather, it will make you fume at how ineptly and unevenly our tax dollars are spent.
Thorndike opens her discourse with an overview of the basic energy needs and sources of the United States and includes some fascinating statistics. "In 1900 122 million Btus of energy was expended for each one of us." In 1973 the figure was 350 million. Add population increases and you have an increasing and unquenchable energy demand.
In her second chapter, Thorndike describes the steps natural process of the creating natural gas which takes thousands of years. The reason the Gulf of Mexico is so rich a source is the fact that for eons the Mississippi River has been depositing millions of tons of organic material which now amount to sedimentary deposits tens of thousands of feet deep. Pressure and heat break down the carbon bonds and eventually, you have gas.
History of U.S use is covered in another chapter. The Suez plant in Everett, Massachusetts received its first shipment of LNG in 1971. Elba Island, Georgia started operating in 1972. Maryland and Louisiana also had plants early on but wide price swings made the product a risky investment until recently. Today the rush to develop is on. In 2005 fourteen projects in the United States, including a pipeline from the Bahamas have been given government approval. Another five were approved in Canada and Mexico.
In subsequent chapters, Thorndike discusses means of distribution-pipeline, ship, tanker-truck, characteristics of the product, questions of cost and supply, terrorism, off-shore operations, press coverage, liquefaction processes and the politics.
The chapter on hazards and safety of LNG is oddly reassuring. Because LNG is kept minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, one of the hazards is frostbite. And its unique molecular composition produces a unique burn pattern. Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service regularly brings together chemical engineers, industry representatives and emergency responders to observe and extinguish controlled LNG fires at its training campus in College Station. The safety record in handling LNG is impressive. Not since 1944 has a member of the general public been killed by an LNG related accident.
After a long look at existing operations world wide and U.S regional attitudes toward LNG from Kenai, Alaska to Lake Charles, Louisiana ("The people of the Gulf Coast are accustomed to such projects.") the book concludes with a descriptive analysis of the pros and cons of two different development proposals-the heavily populated Long Beach California site and the Robbinston, Maine site, population 500. The bottom line? She quotes Dr. Jerry Havens, Director of the University of Arkansas Chemical Hazards Research Center, "We want gas, we need gas and we should get it. But if we have alternatives, we ought not to put it in the middle of town."