The Hess LNG energy company has withdrawn a controversial proposal to locate a liquefied natural gas plant in Fall River, welcome news for residents and political leaders who have spent almost a decade trying to prevent the terminal from being built in the crowded Southeastern Massachusetts city.
The company said it abandoned the Weaver’s Cove project because its imported gas would not be able to compete against inexpensive shale gas being produced in North America. Opponents, however, claimed at least partial credit.
“We finally put the stake through the vampire’s heart,’’ Congressman Barney Frank said yesterday in an interview. “It’s a good sign for citizens … there is the idea the corporations always win.”
The state’s only onshore LNG terminal -- in Everett, just north of Boston -- became a national symbol of the dangers of putting such facilities near populated areas after 9/11 highlighted the risks of a terrorist attack or accident. But because the proposed Fall River plant was under federal, not state, jurisdiction, an almost unanimous bipartisan political effort failed to halt it.
Hess now says it will sell the property, and yesterday afternoon Fall River mayor William A. Flanagan said the city will look to buy it to “control our own destiny” in developing the city’s waterfront.
A flurry of New England LNG projects were proposed in the early and mid-2000s, including one on a Boston Harbor Island and several in Maine. None has been built on land, although two offshore ports were built about 10 miles off Gloucester, where LNG is vaporized on ships and pumped through an underwater pipe to shore.
Hess had offered several iterations of the project, most borne out of attempts to sidestep opponents’ maneuvers to block the terminal. The latest plan was for up to 70 LNG tankers a year to travel through Narragansett Bay to berth in Mt. Hope Bay. From there, a subsea pipe would carry the liquefied gas more than four miles up the Taunton River to a storage facility at a former oil terminal. Then it would be vaporized to go to homes and businesses or be shipped as a liquid by truck.
Yesterday, Gordon Shearer, president of Hess LNG, said the decision had nothing to do with the years of opposition, but rather the ability to make a profit. In recent years, new drilling technologies called hydraulic fracturing have freed vast US reserves of gas trapped in rock, in states such as Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Texas. As a result, domestic gas prices have fallen dramatically, making imported LNG less competitive.
“The significant increase in natural gas production from shale resources in North America resulting in lower prices as well as the growth in demand for LNG in the rest of the world make it unlikely the company can secure supplies of LNG on economic terms attractive enough to ensure the sustained profitability of the project,” Shearer said in a statement. In a follow-up conversation, he said that if opposition mattered, “we would have pulled out a long time ago.”
Yet politicians and citizens insisted yesterday their dedicated efforts were part of the reason the company pulled out. The initial proposal, made in 2002, had enormous LNG tankers traveling up the Taunton River to dock at the Fall River terminal. While that plan was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2005, US Representative James P. McGovern successfully blocked federal funding to demolish an old bridge, preventing the massive tankers from traveling up the river.
Hess then proposed using smaller vessels, but the US Coast Guard rejected that idea, saying they would not be able to safely navigate the river or bridges. That’s when the company proposed the subsea pipe.
Opponents also succeeded in getting Congress to designate the lower Taunton River “wild and scenic,” hoping to force more environmental scrutiny.
“I’m having visions of sugarplums,’’ said Joseph Carvalho, president of
the Coalition for Responsible Siting of LNG in Fall River. His group, along with Save the Bay in Rhode Island, has worked to block the plant. “The people overcame,” he said.
Mayor Flanagan said Hess’s decision makes Fall River safer and allows the city to develop the waterfront in a way the city sees fit. He said many developers were hesitant to build near the area, fearful their projects would be harmed by a hulking LNG plant.
“This project has been an albatross around this city’s neck for a long time,’’ Flanagan said. “Our administration will entertain buying it and controlling our own destiny.”
Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown, along with McGovern and Frank, issued statements celebrating the decision.
“Having toured the proposed site in Weaver’s Cove last year, I opposed this project because I believe building an LNG terminal so close to this densely-populated area would have endangered public safety,” Brown said in a statement.
Kerry said, “This is a victory for common sense and public safety and people up and down the Taunton River will be sleeping more soundly tonight knowing that this long fight has been won.”
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