Congress is about to enact an energy bill that would severely limit the power of coastal states and municipalities to veto construction of massive — potentially dangerous — liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) terminals in their harbors. If the bill is signed into law by President Bush, federal authorities will gain the power to overrule states and municipalities in choosing locations for these terminals.

The terminals, costing up to $1 billion each, are to be built at U.S. ports, which would receive giant LNG-cargo ships and convert the refrigerated liquid back into gas, for delivery across the country.

Because such facilities could pose a risk of explosion and would represent a tempting target for terrorists, many coastal communities are understandably reluctant to allow their construction in local waters. Yet if this measure is adopted, these municipalities and states will lose their say over the terminals’ placement. The bill, if enacted, would set a dangerous precedent; it should be rejected.

Supposedly, the push to endow the federal government with authority over the location of LNG terminals is to address a specific problem: the stagnation in North American natural-gas production and the desperate U.S. need for foreign supplies to meet soaring demand. By building more terminals, it is asserted, the United States could expand its imports of liquefied gas by sea.

But though a case could be made for greater reliance on imported gas, there is far more at stake here than the availability of imported fuel. To increase the nation’s net supply of energy, the Bush administration would also like to build more oil refineries, coal plants, and nuclear reactors — facilities that are likely to face strong opposition on environmental grounds from the communities in which they would be built. And if the energy bill is adopted, it will set a precedent for expanded federal authority over the siting of all energy facilities — including nuclear-power plants — and the gradual elimination of local control over such decisions. Indeed, the proposed legislation includes $1.5 billion in federal subsidies for the development of nuclear reactors, and it is unlikely that any of these would be built unless the federal government could determine their location.

To put this in perspective, consider the nation’s overall energy situation. At present, about 94 percent of our energy is supplied by oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. Many environmentalists would like to place greater reliance on renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, but the Bush administration favors continued dependence on petroleum and other non-renewable sources. And if these sources are to satisfy the much higher levels of demand expected in the future, their output will have to be substantially increased. This, in turn, will require the construction of additional refineries, reactors, and other such facilities.

The need for more LNG terminals is an important part of this larger picture. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, America’s demand for natural gas will have risen by an estimated 39 percent between 2001 and 2025: from approximately 22.6 trillion to 31.4 trillion cubic feet per year. However, domestic gas production is not expected to rise by nearly this amount, and so imported gas will have to take up the slack.

Canada may be able to pipe us some of this gas, but much of it will have to come from other countries, by ship. And because natural gas is too voluminous to be delivered by sea in its original state, it must be cooled to a temperature at which it becomes a liquid; in this form, it can be carried in special tankers. But then it must be converted back into its natural state — in “regassification” plants on our shores.

For the U.S. to increase its reliance on imported gas, therefore, it must first build many more terminals and plants of this sort.

In recent months, American energy companies have announced plans to build dozens of LNG terminals at ports on both sides of the country, including one off Rhode Island and one in Long Island Sound. Understandably, these plans have sparked opposition from the communities involved, thus calling into question the administration’s plan to boost U.S. reliance on imported natural gas. It is this opposition that the White House seeks to circumvent by proposing — in the name of “national energy security” — a federal takeover of decisions regarding the location of LNG facilities and pipelines.

People in this country have long insisted that decisions bearing on the health and safety of the communities in which they live should be made locally, especially in the case of industrial facilities that pose substantial environmental threats and risks of explosion. If the administration succeeds in eliminating local rights regarding LNG terminals, it can be expected, on the same “energy security” grounds, to seek the abrogation of such rights in the case of other facilities, such as oil refineries and nuclear reactors.

Not only would this deprive communities of their essential rights, but it would also bring the country closer to an authoritarian, “Big Brother” form of government.

Making the new energy bill a law would be a dangerous mistake.

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