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Natural Gas May be Key to Future Energy Consumption


As the waters recede in New Orleans, the number of dead from Hurricane Katrina is expected to grow dramatically. There is another concern of global proportions in the Gulf region where Katrina hit -- oil pipelines damaged during the storm were offline for days, causing a significant increase in oil prices.

More and more, attention is turning to finding other forms of fuel besides oil. One such option is natural gas -- a relatively clean-burning fuel that is used extensively for home heating and electricity production.

The nation of Qatar, in the Persian Gulf, is moving aggressively to expand its natural gas export capabilities in order to serve the U.S. market. But as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, a key ingredient for this commercial venture is lacking.

The United States needs more natural gas and Qatar, having the world's third-largest reserves, would like to be its number one supplier.

The potential exists because of the millions of dollars the Persian Gulf nation has invested in facilities to cool and liquefy natural gas so that it can be safely loaded on special, double-hulled tankers and shipped across the ocean.

On a recent visit back to his hometown of Houston, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Chase Untermeyer noted that the only impediment is the lack of receiving facilities on the U.S. Atlantic coast.

"What the Qataris will say is that it is really up to the United States to license more terminals, particularly on the east coast because they are ready to supply our needs to the great extent that we have them," said the ambassador.

Houston businessman Jack Webb, a member of the Houston World Affairs Council with longtime experience in the energy sector, says expansion of LNG facilities is critical, given the growing demand for natural gas in this country.

"Right now, we import about two percent through LNG facilities and I understand that, in the next 20 years, we will go up to 20 percent. So natural gas means a great deal to us and Qatar is the place we can get it."

There are only four terminals currently operating on U.S. coasts. Plans to develop more have been slowed by local opposition to having what some people believe could be dangerous facilities in their back yard.

Ambassador Untermeyer acknowledges that any project involving fuel could pose some danger, but he argues that the United States would be passing up a great opportunity to meet its energy needs if more terminals are not built.

"It is a risk worth taking and for countries like the United States or countries in Europe that need to import natural gas to supplement whatever other energy resources they have, it is a necessity to build more and more receiving terminals. Europe is way ahead of the United States and Japan has been importing LNG to the homeland for many, many years."

The U.S. Ambassador to Qatar notes that natural gas in a super-chilled, liquid form is not combustible and therefore, poses few risks.

But that does not mean that there are no risks. Georgetown University professor David Jhirad says communities near proposed terminal sites have a right to express concerns.

"The industry has had a pretty good safety record, apart from a very serious accident in Algeria a couple of years ago. But that shouldn't make us complacent,” he said. “Because when you're expanding 20 times from what we have now -- we have four onshore facilities in the U.S. now -- and if we go to over 40 facilities, then we have to [be] near populated areas, we have to be more stringent about safety and security and involve the public."

Professor Jhirad agrees there is a need to expand facilities to receive LNG from Qatar and other foreign sources, but he says industry leaders need to convince site communities that they are taking the proper precautions.

"There are several options to mitigate risk. One of the options is to site them far from populated areas -- remote siting. Another is to have more stringent federal and state siting regulations. The federal government is really responsible for the safety of LNG facilities right now. And of course, after September 11th, we are all concerned about attacks on tankers in harbors."

Worries about terrorist attacks, of course, will always enter into any project involving volatile fuels, but supporters of increased LNG imports say the growing U.S. demand for energy requires officials to find the right balance between safety concerns and the need to expand LNG infrastructure.

Footage: Courtesy Shell Oil

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