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Newhaven Advocate (Connecticut): A View to a Spill: It’s Shell Oil versus everybody else

February 8, 2007
By Ken Krayeske 

Windy whitecaps on Long Island Sound loudly abused the aluminum hull of the Rocco , a 22-foot water taxi piloted by Capt. Mike Infantino at about 18 knots an hour, 19 on the glide down the back side of one-to-two-foot seas.

Capt. Mike and I bounced south from Branford’s Thimble Islands across 11 miles of sea on our way to a point in the Long Island Sound where the Broadwater barge would be sited (at coordinates 41 degrees, 6 minutes, 1.31 seconds latitude, 72 degrees, 50 minutes, 4.56 seconds longitude, if you must know).

Broadwater is, of course, the proposed 85-foot-tall, 1,200-foot-long liquefied natural gas (LNG) floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU) sought by corporate partners Shell Oil and Trans-Canada. The $700 million project has been in the news since plans first came across the transom in late 2004.

The prospect of a dangerous industrial platform bigger than the Queen Mary II sitting just inside the New York border on Long Island Sound has pitted Big Oil against community groups, federal regulators against Connecticut, and politicians against their previous votes. Broadwater is a defining battle in the war between American energy gluttony and conservation.

If all goes according to Shell’s plans, this would be the world’s first permanently moored LNG processing plant, delivering one billion cubic feet of natural gas to the tri-state market daily. That’s enough to heat and power four million homes and maybe deliver a savings of $300 annually per homeowner—at least according to Shell vice president John Hritcko.

To do this, Shell is asking the Bush administration for a 1.4-square-mile private area on the surface of the Sound (one-tenth of one percent of its entire size, according to the Coast Guard), and additional space on the sea floor to anchor the barge and run a pipeline to link with the Trans-Canada-owned Iroquois pipeline in Milford. Shell also wants a 2.4 square-mile exclusionary zone around incoming tankers carrying LNG from Trinidad, Algeria and Nigeria. Tanker traffic would markedly increase in the area of the Sound known as “the Race,” a popular area for recreational boaters.

Opponents have cited a number of reasons why the proposed platform is a very bad idea: Aesthetic monstrosity, environmental disaster, major security risk and unprecedented giveaway of a community waterway for private benefit. States’ rights advocates have howled at the way the 2005 Bush energy bill paved the way for projects such as Broadwater by taking the final siting authority away from states and placing it with a Bush-compliant FERC. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has vowed to take the states’ rights case to court should FERC rule in Broadwater’s favor—to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Opponents—and opposition runs along the entire Connecticut coastline, from Greenwich to New London—further claim that Broadwater represents redundant infrastructure. They argue that a national energy policy based on conservation, efficiency and regional energy delivery strategies would free the region from imported fossil fuels and the need for dangerous factories in federally-protected estuaries.

There are cheaper ways to meet the region’s growing energy demands, says Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. A consultant hired by CFE to examine the region’s energy needs reported that the state already had conservation and efficiency programs on the book; those, she said, “would offset any growing demand if they were implemented fully. If you don’t believe that, there are supplies coming from other areas to meet the region’s growing demand.”

The latest act in the two-year Broadwater drama reached a crescendo in January when FERC hosted four public hearings, two in Connecticut and two in Long Island. The well-attended, well-covered and contentious hearings were held so that the public and industry officials could provide comments for the commission to add to its final environmental impact statement. More importantly, the hearings offered a window into the democratic process in modern America.

Thousands of opponents crowded the four hearings. The two in Long Island were packed to the gills with cheering anti-Broadwater crowds. The two Connecticut hearings presented FERC with a similar wall of vocal opposition.

Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Gina McCarthy opened the first hearing, held at New London’s Mitchell College on Jan. 9, with a message from Gov. M. Jodi Rell that said, in effect: Broadwater Go Home. Dozens of elected officials and citizens followed suit.

Later in the month, on Jan. 16, more than 850 people stuffed the Branford High School auditorium—filling the room with standing-room-only energy—for the final hearing. They wore costumes, played guitars and wielded books, charts, maps and letters to make their case.

To some opponents, Broadwater isn’t just about pipelines, politicians, exploding barges or Long Island Sound’s lobster fishery. Indeed, according to Adrienne Esposito, the battle is mainly about the soul of self-government. As executive director of New York’s Citizens’ Campaign for the Environment, she marshaled a massive field campaign in the Empire State against the LNG barge.

Federal law requires FERC to write a final environmental impact statement, based on a draft statement and public comment. But from the moment the feds issued the draft on Nov. 16, 2006, opponents accused the commission of shilling for Shell and basically rehashing the energy giant’s PR campaign.

Esposito wasn’t having any of it in Branford: “The public and our elected officials are united and we have one message to FERC and that’s to withdraw the Broadwater proposal and provide us with alternatives,” she says. “It is a battle for democracy. If democracy truly exists, then Broadwater won’t be approved. This is about who controls the government: Is it corporate America, or is it still a government for the people?”

It’s unclear who among the thousands of anti-Broadwater folks first invoked the term “home rule,” as a point of protest, perhaps an allusion to Gandhi’s peaceful campaign to liberate India from British colonialism. For those who call Long Island Sound home, it fit.

The emotional power of home rule carried the Jan. 16 testimony to FERC given by Leah Schmalz. Having heard the energy industry promise gold for the Sound only to deliver dross, as happened with the Cross-Sound cable, Schmalz is not fooled by Shell’s game. (Readers may recall that Connecticut lawmakers blocked use of that 25-mile cable extending from New Haven to Shoreham, N.Y., for two years because parts of it weren’t buried to the depths required by environmental permits. The cable went into full operation in June 2004.)

“For all of the technical information thrown about, this issue is about a very basic principal—a region’s heritage and our personal sense of place,” Schmalz said. “Generation after generation has flocked to the shores of Long Island Sound. It is where livelihoods are made and family traditions are created. Every person in this room has a place like this—a place that envelops your sense of self. I ask that each of you act on this application as though it was your place Broadwater was seeking to seize.”

Long Island Sound is my sanctuary, my home. My grandparents and their extended family summered in the tiny Guilford neighborhood of Indian Cove. When my parents, both schoolteachers, married in 1964,they opted for August vacations on the Sound.

My sisters and I spent our childhood swimming, counting stars, collecting shells and sea glass. The next generation, my 2-year-old niece, proudly makes and smashes sand castles.

Recently, after being arrested and left alone in a Hartford police interrogation during Rell’s inaugural parade, I paced the tiny room imagining that the institutional tile squares on the floor were the granite boulders on the Indian Cove shoreline. I tried to bound along them like I would on barefoot summer days of salt water air and freedom. After I was released from jail, I made a pilgrimage to the beach to do exactly that, shouting barbaric yawps of joy in praise of sweet liberty.

I’m against the barge but I’m aware of our dependence on energy in all aspects of our lives. That’s why I wanted to go to the precise spot where Broadwater would be, the no-boats-allowed exclusionary zone (a first for Long Island Sound). This time of year, only a few commercial fishermen and sailors like Capt. Mike keep vessels in the water; several of those happen to dock in Branford’s Stony Creek.

Branford born and bred, Mike said he doesn’t know much about Broadwater. “That thing out there, I’m against them just shutting down everything around it,” he says. “I don’t know when we go to the shoreline or to Faulkner’s Island if we will be able to go because of the security zones. It’s a problem for us.”

We cast off the lines and I watch the Thimbles recede into the Connecticut coast as Capt. Mike steers the craft toward the spot where the Broadwater barge would be anchored.

In about 20 minutes, we pass an orange lobster pot buoy labeled “242” about two miles north of where the barge would be—at the edge of the proposed security exclusion zone. Ten minutes later, we are right where the barge would be. Connecticut is visible—too visible, too close for comfort. Artistic renderings of the behemoth from either shoreline make it out to be a gigantic metal island on the horizon. It may look like an innocent container ship at anchor—but it’s not.

Blumenthal, among many others, has criticized Broadwater from the very beginning on the grounds that the barge is just not safe for the Sound—either environmentally or from a security perspective. He’s called for a “no-fly zone” around the barge should Broadwater prevail.

To counter Blumenthal’s and other opponents’ rhetoric concerning Broadwater as a juicy target for terrorists, Shell hired former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (through his security company, Giuliani Partners) as a security consultant. Richard Sheirer, a Giuliani loyalist and former New York City deputy police commissioner, sings a steady tune about Shell’s commitment to safety and security. He speaks of firefighting tugboats and exclusionary zones, and of gas carriers being escorted through the Sound on their way to the barge.

But among the many tradeoffs, Broadwater’s security zone would preclude many lobster sets like “242” from remaining where they are. Boats entering the security zone would face private vessels staffed with armed private guards. And if it ever were to blow up—well, that’s exactly why they want to stick this thing way out in the middle of the Sound, away from populated areas. And away, it was hoped, from undue public scrutiny.

That’s not happening. Opposition is growing, and it is encompassing a number of constituencies.

It’s a bad news barge, says Nick Crismale, president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobsterman’s Association. Crismale, from Branford, attended both Connecticut FERC hearings. Surrounded by his compatriots at New London, he derided Shell’s encroachment on their livelihood.

Broadwater, he charged, would handicap the already crippled lobster industry in Long Island Sound. In 1999, a huge die-off hobbled the Sound’s lobster industry, and it’s been struggling to come back ever since.

“Guys who have stayed on since ’99 have optimism that this resource can be brought back,” Crismale said. “We don’t want to be blindsided.

“We are here to be recognized as a potential industry impacted by Broadwater,” he added. “We don’t want to see it go into effect. Our concern is that we are not lost in the battle for the greater good.”

For the lobsterman, the barge’s presence would have an immediate, real-time impact: There are 14 high tides a week, Crismale says, and since lobstermen don’t go out at night, they can fish between 7 to 10 tides weekly.

“If there are three LNG ships a week, that’s three additional tides we can’t fish on,” Crismale says. “Whether it is good or bad, it eliminates times that we can pull traps. We will suffer additional gear loss when boats hit lines.”

A Save the Sound online graphic shows that in 1990, Long Island Sound contributed more than $5 billion to the regional economy annually—through boating, recreational and commercial fishing, including lobstering, revenue from seaside parks and other sources of income. Sen. Andrea Stillman (D-New London) argued that a big piece of that revenue would be jeopardized were Broadwater to prevail. She spoke alongside East Haven Republican Sen. Len Fasano; they’ve teamed up on a Broadwater safety and security task force.

After the hearing, Fasano derided Bush’s energy “plan,” passed in 2005 with Democratic support, because it contravenes states’ rights by placing the siting authority for energy infrastructure projects with FERC.

“It usurps home rule,” Fasano said. “The citing of the LNG plants is ultimately a decision made by FERC, and it trumps state law.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, who voted for that selfsame 2005 energy bill, first came out against Broadwater in Feb. 2006 after many months of hedging his bet (and gauging public opinion?) and has faith that FERC will eventually nix the project. The state retains rights under the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, and the senator stresses that the commission enjoys only limited authority, in that it is bound to act within the confines of its authorizing legislation. It has to, he says, honor what it hears in the public hearings as well as the environmental impact statement. (A statement, it must be noted, that Blumenthal dismissed as a industry-shilling “whitewash.”)

Despite the fact that all five FERC commissioners are Bush appointees, Lieberman trusts the commission will be eventually come out against the Broadwater plan. Lieberman said on Jan. 7, “If FERC keeps an open mind, and looks at various properties of liquid natural gas and considers the environmental risks, they’ll vote no.”

Jan. 7 was the day Save the Sound held its “Brrrroadwater Plunge,” where dozens of swimmers, including Blumenthal, dove in off a Branford beach to protest the barge. Lieberman stayed on shore, but did predict in a follow-up interview that FERC will “determine Broadwater made a weak case for locating the terminal in Long Island Sound.”

Trouble is, as Sen. Fasano pointed out, FERC decides if Broadwater passes muster under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Moreover, Shell shrewdly sited its barge so that it is just inside New York waters, leading to a deeply felt frustration at Connecticut’s exclusion from the one area where everyone agrees states have rights that trump whatever FERC decides, through the Coastal Zone Management Plan.

That plan gives New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer the last word in this regulatory process. Without any one of four permits from Spitzer’s government, Broadwater is dead in the water. The Democrat Spitzer, who, as attorney general was tough on corporate crime and championed environmental causes, is the wild card in the Broadwater deck. The permitting agencies in New York—Department of State, Environmental Conservation (which has two permits to issue or not) and the Office of General Services have all remained mum on their Broadwater intentions.

For reasons like that and others, the Connecticut DEP wants regulatory authority as well.

“We believe the state of Connecticut should have an ability to conduct a coastal-zone management review of this facility,” said Connecticut DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy. “It is not just permanently going to be residing in New York waters. The security zone will permanently extend into Connecticut waters, and much of our waters will be frequently impacted by transit of vehicles in and out of the facility, all of which will require some disruption of our coastal facilities.”

McCarthy and Blumenthal have both been pushing for Broadwater to submit to Connecticut home rule; cynical conjecture figures that a Bush-stocked FERC will not allow it because that would certainly tank the barge project. The DEP just turned down the application of the Islander East natural gas pipeline because it heads straight through shellfish beds in the Thimbles. It might have been approved, said McCarthy, had Islander East suggested a different route. Energy is not her bailiwick—but she does understand it is something we all rely upon.

“I have to remind the environmental constituencies that we may have disagreements with power generators, but we have to sit at a table and resolve our issues,” McCarthy said. “We have to make sure we have energy, and it is reliable. We have to work with the energy world to design an energy generation and distribution system that is sustainable.”

Unfortunately, without regional direction, the intersection between power generation and conservation invites chaos. FERC is currently considering 12 LNG-related proposals for the Northeast, according to FERC spokesman Bryan Lee.

“Of the dozen that are pending before us, quite a number of those are not virgin facilities but upgrades,” Lee said. Expansions of infrastructure include pipelines in Pennyslvania, New Jersey and New York. LNG proposals in Quoddy Bay, Maine and Fall River, Mass. have spurred similar discomfort among citizens of those states. But Lee presses on: “The interest in developing LNG is being spurred by economic interests and the U.S. demand for this environmentally favorable fuel. The commission is looking at each application as it comes in under the law. It treats each application as a single docketed matter.”

That’s exactly the problem.

“We should be looking at this in a regional way, and examining the best proposals with the least environmental impact,” said the DEP’s McCarthy. “Right now, there is no way to do that comparative assessment. There are tables where this discussion could have a meaningful start, but it is difficult to have that with federal rules in place now.”

McCarthy calls for an LNG siting plan modeled on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a Kyoto-style compact among eight Northeastern states with a cap-and-trade system for power-plant emissions.

The initiative seeks conservation and efficiency in scale. Applied more consistently, the compact’s philosophy could offset the demand for a gas barge.

“We think efficiency is doable,” she said. “It will reduce the cost of electricity and it will help us to meet demands in the future. If we invested half of the money in efficiency as opposed to generation, we would be miles ahead.”

Trouble is, conservation really isn’t Shell’s business—even if the megacorporation does admit that global warming is a real threat (Exxon’s yet to admit that); all the more reason Shell says we must support the barge. “We should start working on solutions to reduce emissions,” said Shell vice president John Hritcko. “One way is natural gas. It is cleaner burning and more efficient [but] it is not the perfect solution.”

The company exists to generate profits for its shareholders, and some estimates say those profits will proportionally exceed the $300 per home energy savings it promises. Meanwhile, Shell in 2006 posted record profits of $25.4 billion, just a tad short of Exxon-Mobil’s also-record-breaking $36.2 billion haul.

But opponents are insisting on putting people over profits. The thousands who turned out at the FERC hearings—from New Haven teenagers to the late governor Ella Grasso’s daughter Susan, to four generations of the Berman family from Killingworth—are all putting their faith in the democratic process tanking the Broadwater boondoggle.

The faith is not especially strong. At the Branford hearing, New York anti-LNG firebrand Esposito offered this challenge to FERC: “Will you make a mockery of us?” she asked. “Will you shove this down our throats, or give us the dignity we deserve as members of a democracy and say ‘Go back to the drawing board’?”

The four federal officials on stage remained stoic through hours and hours of similar public comments. During an intermission, FERC referee James Martin acknowledged that the endless parade of opponents had made their point.

“I know the message that I’m taking back with me,” he said.

Let’s hope so.●

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