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New offshore gas plan promising

Posted: 29th June 2009

There was a heated debate three years ago over proposals to locate offshore liquefied natural gas terminals several miles off the coast of Alabama. That debate, spurred by very legitimate concerns about negative impacts on the environment and on Alabama's seafood industry, eventually was decided by Gov. Bob Riley when he rejected the proposals.

Now one of the companies, TORP Technology, is back with a new approach, and it seems to address most of the questions raised by environmentalists, the seafood industry, and the governor.

The public debate is a complicated one because of the technological issues involved with transporting liquified natural gas by ship and then converting back to its gaseous state, either at an onshore port facility or at an offshore facility that then pipes the gas onshore.

As we noted at the time, we believed Riley was right to come down on the side of caution by nixing the offshore proposals.

So what is different this time? TORP's newest proposal would use a very different approach to warming the chilled liquified natural gas, according to information provided by company officials to the Montgomery Advertiser's editorial board.

Prior proposals used what is called an "open-loop system" that drew in huge volumes of seawater to warm the LNG. Federal fisheries officials and other opponents felt this use of seawater would kill or harm a wide variety of fish, as well as shrimp and crabs.

But TORP proposes to warm the LNG back to its gaseous state using a closed system of methane in warming towers aboard a ship. TORP says the methane, already widely used in offshore drilling operations, would be generally benign if it were to be released.

The warming facilities would be on a specially designed ship located about 63 miles offshore, which could be moved out of the way of threatening hurricanes.

The environmental group Mobile Baykeepers has withdrawn its opposition to the project after the redesign by TORP, and state Marine Resources officials have said the new approach appears to address most of the concerns about fisheries impact.

It would be a boon to the state if an offshore LNG terminal could be made to work without harming the environment. Economic development throughout the state could benefit from having another source of natural gas, especially long term. For instance, the huge ThyssenKrupp steel plant now under construction will be a major user of natural gas.

There are still many regulatory steps to be taken before this project could become a reality, and new concerns may arise during that process. But for now, TORP appears to have taken a big technological step forward that could bring an offshore LNG terminal in Alabama waters much closer to becoming a reality.