When communities such as Long Beach, California and Mobile, Alabama face the prospect of hosting a major new industry that has been identified as a significant terrorist target, then citizens and reporters naturally want to see evidence that the government carefully considered the risks before approving the facility. But in the past few years, government officials seem more reluctant to release this information, even when local communities must make critical decisions about whether to encourage the location of such facilities in their backyard. New legislation, including the USA Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act, have added to concerns that communities will have to take the decisions and actions of government agencies on faith.
That was the case last year, when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) announced a major push to locate new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in a number of U.S. cities. LNG is a highly concentrated form of natural gas that can be economically shipped around the globe. Energy officials and economists have argued that LNG could be the key to stabilizing North America’s energy prices in the future. But because LNG is highly concentrated, and spreads quickly when released on water, scientists have long warned that it could pose an unusual hazard when shipped into populated areas. Numerous federal officials promoting the siting of new terminals in cities such as Mobile indicated to the public that the risks and hazards were overstated. And they suggested they had studies that proved even nearby neighborhoods had little to fear.
Trouble surfaced when Mobile (Ala.) Register reporters asked to review those studies. None of the agencies that produced or cited the studies were willing to give them to our reporters to read and analyze. After more than a year of reporting by two staffers, Ben Raines and me, the Register finally obtained, through the use of back channel sources, most of the government studies used in analyzing LNG risks. In reporting on the studies’ findings, the Register has been cautious about revealing the sources of its information out of concern that obscure provisions of the USA Patriot Act or the Homeland Security Act might later be used against the sources or the newspaper. Some sources were reluctant to turn over scientific research for fear of violating the law, though they couldn’t point to a specific provision in these acts that they might violate by doing so.
Ultimately, the Register’s reporting helped prompt both DOE and FERC to sponsor new studies of LNG risks. Using many of the Register’s findings, community groups in Harpswell, Maine and Eureka, California turned aside proposals to build LNG facilities in those cities. The two LNG facilities that have been proposed for Mobile have now been put “on the backburner,” according to the companies who proposed building them.
But it has become increasingly clear why some of the federal agencies might have been reluctant to release the studies. In many cases, the conclusions represented by the agencies were not supported by the actual studies, and the scratchwork in the studies was often critically flawed. Unfortunately, as the Register discovered, the devil is usually found in the scratchwork. One example among many: In the days following the September 11th terror attacks, the LNG facility near Boston’s Inner Harbor was shut down. It was reopened a few weeks later, after government officials said that newly commissioned studies showed that an LNG terror attack would not be an issue. While Boston’s mayor and some fire officials continued to question the safety of LNG shipments into Boston, the findings that supposedly led to that decision were apparently never closely examined in a public forum. Just now we are learning from the government— under Congressional pressure—that several Algerians who might have connections to terrorists entered this country by coming into Boston’s LNG port by tanker.
When an LNG terminal was announced for Mobile in the summer of 2003, it quickly became apparent that what government officials were saying about LNG hazards was different than information being offered by many leading scientists. The Register asked the DOE for a copy of the study it most frequently cited, done by Quest Consultants Inc. The DOE response: It denied repeatedly that the study existed (even though it commissioned it) and also claimed it had nothing to do with such a study.
Trying to Unveil the Findings
When Register reporters obtained the Quest study from other sources (who had earlier received copies for review), they discovered that its scope of work and conclusions did not support what DOE and FERC officials had presented to the public. The study’s author also attempted to distance himself from DOE’s conclusions, telling the Register that this study had been designed to answer a very narrow question. It was, he said, being “misused” by the DOE officials who had asked him to do the study. We also found that this document had not examined the possible consequences of a terrorist attack in Boston Harbor, even though DOE officials, and those from other agencies, repeatedly promoted it as evidence that a terrorist attack on an LNG vessel would not likely cause serious repercussions in Boston or elsewhere.
When the Register published its story detailing the disjunction between the substance of the Quest study and DOE’s public representations of it, our reporters noted that the DOE officials claimed they knew nothing of the study. Our stories also noted that the Quest study was referred to in DOE presentations being widely circulated on the Internet as well as in Congressional reports, official FERC documents, and letters to members of Congress from administration officials.
After our story appeared in some newspapers around the country, DOE officials finally acknowledged that the study exists and that they commissioned it. Representative Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat whose Boston-area district includes the only LNG terminal located in a major U.S. population center, described the DOE’s refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for the document “a bizarre and Orwellian rewriting of history.”
We’ve been able to find no provision of the USA Patriot Act or the Homeland Security Act that has been invoked that would require this kind of secrecy with such documents. The recent difficulties we’ve faced in obtaining information have likely resulted from the climate created by these new laws rather than by any specific language in them. But our experience in trying to learn more about the proposed LNG terminal siting in Mobile convinces us that some government officials seem prepared to go to great lengths to prevent disclosure of this research that goes behind their decision-making. It is also possible, however, that some of the silence about this subject might be due, in part, to an absence of broader and tougher press investigation and follow-through.
In recent months, DOE officials have been at least a little more direct in talking to Register reporters. But most of our hard data still have to come in over the transom rather than through government channels. DOE officials have repeatedly sidetracked or refused virtually every request we’ve made to obtain documents, even when documents had been distributed for review to scientists or legislators. DOE officials have never claimed that releasing this information would somehow aid terrorists, and our review of the Quest analysis finds that it would not have offered much new information to terrorists. It did not set forth any credible terrorist scenarios, nor did it produce one involving a threat to the surrounding community.
With the latest round of LNG safety studies commissioned by DOE and FERC, federal officials have willingly acknowledged their existence. But even during the solicitation of bids for these studies earlier this year, government officials made clear that any research developed as a part of these studies might be classified. Officials at Sandia National Laboratories, the quasi-governmental research lab conducting the latest LNG safety research for DOE, won’t comment specifically on this. But sources close to its study said this upcoming analysis of LNG hazards would likely be presented in several forms—one for industry, one for government, and one for public consumption. It remains unclear whether the “public” document will reveal the critical scratchwork that allow us to see how its findings lead to its conclusions.
Register reporter Sean Reilly, who worked from Washington, D.C. in reporting on the paper’s LNG stories, observes that the new emphasis on withholding information can be traced to two sources. The first is a memo by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, written on October 12, 2001 regarding Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In essence, this memo directed agencies to err on the side of caution when disclosing information and encouraged them to use existing disclosure exemptions to the fullest legal extent. This directive indicated a dramatic about-face from the Clinton era, when Attorney General Janet Reno advised agencies to err on the side of disclosure in regard to FOIA requests.
“Terrorism Fears Thwart Journalists’ Reporting”
– Joseph A. DavisFERC’s Critical Energy Infrastructure Information exemption was finalized in February 2003 and gave broad powers to the government and private companies, allowing them to exercise more control over what the general public can learn about the processes, infrastructure and plans of private industries. Reilly highlighted for our readers how these new policies could make it extremely difficult for local communities to obtain information about the risks posed by local facilities such as the LNG terminal.
These provisions are new and generally regarded as untested. Perhaps, in the future, some rationale or legal basis for this approach to withholding information will be put forth. The clampdown on information might reflect a new attitude among the agencies. But as the Register’s experience makes clear, in the current black box of administrative decision-making, government agencies have the means to withhold critical information, even when they have no apparent legal basis for doing so.
Bill Finch is the Mobile Register’s environment editor. Register reporter Ben Raines contributed to this article. Their LNG coverage won the 2003 Community Service Award and a Freedom of Information Award from the Alabama Associated Press Managing Editors’ competition.