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While communities across the country block LNG terminals, Quintana just shrugs

In Quintana, several buildings sit within a mile of where the tankers will transfer the LNG: the Masters house, City Hall, the Quintana Yacht Club, the county RV park and its four vacation rentals, a smattering of other houses and the road to Quintana Beach. Tankers would pass within a few hundred feet of a restaurant, a popular fishing spot and the dense village of Surfside Beach just across the jetty.

A three-mile zone would include more houses, another public beach, even more of Surfside and probably parts of the Dow plant.

But the feds believe a 900-foot zone around the terminal is adequate.

Trucks on the horizon show the proximity of the 
planned LNG dock to Jeanne Masters's home.
Daniel Kramer
Trucks on the horizon show the proximity of the planned LNG dock to Jeanne Masters's home.
On Quintana, a sign shows that the opposition is 
present -- but hardly the majority.
Sarah Fenske
On Quintana, a sign shows that the opposition is present -- but hardly the majority.

Says Elena Ducharme, who fought an LNG project in Vallejo, California, "I don't know a single scientist who would believe that's a safe distance."

Powers, the San Diego engineer, agrees. "That's way too small for a buffer zone."

The original evacuation route for the island was supposed to be the main road through town -- until Cornelison pointed out that it runs right past the terminal. Then developers offered up the beach as a route -- but part of the beach is roped off from cars, and other parts are impassable at high tide. The company's current solution: The Coast Guard will bring in boats to evacuate people.

It might not be such a big deal if it involved only the 50 or so people who live on Quintana. But even Mayor Norvil, who supports the project, estimates that the island draws as many as 5,000 people on holiday weekends.

"It's scary as hell," says Jeanne Masters. She loves the island and her restaurant. But if Freeport LNG made her a good offer, she would sell.

She worries about her business. "Who's going to want to come here when we're in the shadow of something like that?" she asks. "But I guess people will come to the beach wherever it's at."

Reimer, the company president, believes a terrorist threat is not realistic. "I don't particularly worry about, personally, LNG tankers being attacked in U.S. ports by terrorists," he says. "We have a good Coast Guard to prevent that."

After 9/11, the Coast Guard shut down the LNG terminal in Boston Harbor, saying it was simply too great a risk. (It reopened one month later.) As former White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke wrote in his book, Against All Enemies, terrorism officials learned in 2001 that Al Qaeda operatives had come to Boston -- on LNG tankers.

Even before community opposition to LNG terminal plans, no one thought all 40 proposed projects would be built. The U.S. Department of Energy had suggested that seven to nine would be likely by 2007. Even that would raise LNG's share of the domestic natural gas market from about 1 percent to as much as 17 percent.

Says Stultz, of the Natural Gas Supply Association, "Everyone wants to get in and get built before the demand is met and the door is shut." And that gives activists tremendous power: "The longer the delay, the more likelihood that costs increase, and in the end, you may not be able to build the facility."

"There's a limited number of good sites available," adds Michelle Michot Foss, executive director of the University of Houston's Institute for Energy, Law and Enterprise.

Reimer, president of Freeport LNG, says it is no coincidence that the Quintana project is rolling smoothly through the permitting process. "We think we identified the best site along the Texas coastline," he says. "It's on the water. It's near Houston, with its huge demands for natural gas. And the community is supportive. It's generally a very pro-energy area."

In March, Dow signed a 20-year terminal use agreement, committing to ship in and ship out at least 1.8 million tons of LNG each year -- one-third of the terminal's capacity. With that and a two-thirds-capacity commitment from ConocoPhillips, Freeport LNG got a cash infusion and the guarantee of a sold-out terminal, Reimer says.

Mayor Norvil himself is a contractor at Dow. Many residents, including Jerry Masters, work there. "They're not really happy with me," Masters says of his bosses. "If they could find a way to fire my ass, they would."

The only potential obstacles for the Quintana project appear to be two government-commissioned studies. The feds contracted for both only after the explosion in Algeria and after communities in the States began to mobilize against LNG.

In December, the Department of Energy asked its own laboratory for a "comprehensive" review of previous LNG studies. But, as the Mobile Register pointed out, the review failed to take into account the most damning study, an industry-commissioned report examining the potential for disaster in Boston Harbor. (The report remains secret, although the Register has reported that it outlined the possibility of a chain-reaction fire overwhelming an entire tanker.)

So the energy department agreed to expand its review. And in February, FERC hired Houston-based ABS Group to calculate an array of dangerous situations involving LNG tankers, including holes in the ships. That study was due March 31, but FERC has put no deadline on when it might be released to the public.

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen says the agency will apply the findings even to terminals already in the application process. "The companies always ask us to act by a certain time, but we aren't necessarily required to meet their directive," she says.

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