Foreign sites sought for natural gas ports

But the prospect of gigantic, dome-topped gas tankers edging into their harbors makes many Americans — and Mexicans — nervous.

In Mexico, many people still remember the Nov. 19, 1984, explosion of a liquefied petroleum gas depot that killed 334 people in Mexico City.

"Could you imagine an accident like that here? It would destroy and make the entire town disappear," said Armando Olea, president of Amigos en Libertad, a group formed to encourage resort developments in the Puerto Libertad area.

Further, Mexico has recently seen a wave of bombings aimed at gas pipelines. In July and September, the leftist People's Revolutionary Army bombed 10 gas pipelines in central and eastern Mexico. The attacks forced some of Mexico's biggest factories to shut down.

Gas companies say liquefied gas shipments are safe, noting that ships have made 33,000 deliveries without an accident in the last 40 years. The terminals use berms, double-hulled tanks and computer-controlled sensors to contain any leaks.

"We can put these facilities anywhere and operate them safely," said Bill Cooper, executive director of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas in Washington.

Other experts aren't so sure. In February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office consulted 19 scientists and reported "conflicting assessments" of what would happen if a gas ship ignited.

One study, by Sandia National Laboratories, offered this prediction: If terrorists could blast a 53-square-foot hole in a ship, the resulting blaze would be so intense, it could cause second-degree burns to people more than a mile away.

The LNG industry has already had one, fairly recent, catastrophe: On Jan. 19, 2004, an explosion at a liquefied natural gas plant in Skikda, Algeria, killed 27 people and injured 56.

Mexico takes the lead

Several proposed ports for the California coast have foundered because of fierce opposition by community and environmental groups.

The latest defeat came in May, when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected plans for a floating terminal the size of an aircraft carrier that would have been anchored 14 miles off the coast of Ventura County.

"It's awfully hard to find a remote site in the coastal zones," said Darcel Hulse, president of Sempra LNG.

Mexico, meanwhile, has been enthusiastic about the terminals. The country imports much of its gas from California and Texas, and the government is eager to find alternatives.

"This will help diversify our suppliers of gas at competitive prices and reduce our dependence on gas from the state of Texas," President Felipe Calderón told a meeting of governors on Friday.

The country's first gas terminal opened last year near the east coast city of Tampico, and another is under construction near the Pacific city of Manzanillo.

In Puerto Libertad, many residents said they were excited about the terminal and the 1,500 construction jobs it is expected to generate. Aside from a Federal Electricity Commission generating plant, there are few jobs in town.

Ascension Manjarrez is building a 28-room motel behind her restaurant to house the workers. Fishermen Maximo and Juan Vejar are building 16 little cabañas to rent near the beach.

"You can't stop progress," said Maximo Vejar. "This plant is the future."

•Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic

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