A quarter-century ago, the nation began shifting energy usage to natural gas to escape the very kind of oil-supply squeezes and price spikes consumers are enduring today because of our dependence on foreign oil.
Natural gas is cleaner and cheaper, and domestic supplies are more plentiful.
The switch has been so successful, however, that the growth in demand has outstripped new production, causing prices to shoot up. To rectify this imbalance until major gas fields in Alaska, Canada and elsewhere are tapped, and to prevent price spikes during periods of peak demand, electric and gas utilities want to import more gas in liquefied form by special tankers.
For the nation, and certainly for homeowners struggling with rising energy costs, the idea makes sense. But coastal communities say no, and so far, what they say goes.
Citing safety and environmental concerns, communities from New England to Southern California are blocking plans to build more liquefied natural gas (LNG) port terminals to supplement the few that already are operating at capacity. But creating new LNG terminals is a national imperative and needs to be overseen from a national perspective. Consider:
•Costs. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan says that the absence of sufficient LNG was the main culprit in the natural gas spikes of 2003, when prices more than doubled. A study by the National Petroleum Council estimates that failure to adopt a broad package of natural gas policies, including construction of LNG terminals, will force consumers to pay $1 trillion more for natural gas during the next 20 years.
•Worse alternatives. Without reliable supplies of gas, some residential and commercial customers will opt to use other fuels such as heating oil and coal, which cause greater air pollution. Gas produces a third fewer gases believed to contribute to global warming than petroleum products, and 50% fewer than coal.
Opponents of LNG terminals point to the possibility of accidents or terrorist attacks. If LNG, which is not flammable, escapes and reverts to its gaseous state, it is highly explosive. An accident at a storage facility in Algeria last January killed 26 people.
But LNG has been shipped around the world since 1959 and has become widely accepted in countries without an abundant domestic source of gas, such as Japan. Anti-terrorism experts generally consider LNG tankers and ports to be less-enticing targets than gasoline tankers and other facilities.
Following that reasoning, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued siting permits for new terminals. States then sued, challenging the agency's authority, and now Congress is deciding whether to strengthen its role.
Meanwhile, homeowners and businesses pay dearly for the stalemate.
As long as safety and environmental concerns are addressed, the construction of more terminals could help ease the nation's energy woes — even if some communities don't want them in their backyards.