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Blast Traced to LNG Leak

Preliminary finding in the probe of a Jan. 19 explosion in Algeria worries proponents of California gas plants.

February 23, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

A recent explosion that killed 27 people at an Algerian natural gas complex is believed to have started with a leak of liquefied natural gas, Algeria's top U.S. emissary said last week, worrying proponents of LNG import terminals in California and across the country.

The Algerian government initially blamed a faulty steam boiler. But Idriss Jazairy, the Algerian ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview that preliminary results of an investigation traced the accident to LNG that leaked from a pipe, turned into a gas and exploded.

Industry executives in the United States reacted with consternation to Jazairy's comments, and some wondered privately whether another liquid gas, such as propane -- rather than LNG -- might actually be responsible.

They expressed concern that the burgeoning LNG import industry could suffer a major setback if the investigation ended up concluding that LNG was the culprit in the Jan. 19 explosion, which injured more than 80 people in the Algerian port city of Skikda.

More than 30 proposals for LNG import terminals are pending in the United States. There would be four in California: in Long Beach, Eureka and at two sites off the Ventura County coast. Nationwide, four such terminals are operating today.

Early reports from Algeria focused on possible equipment failure in one of the natural gas plant's massive steam boilers. Such boilers wouldn't be used in the type of plants proposed in the U.S.

Now, Jazairy said in a telephone interview from the Algerian Embassy in Washington, Algerian investigators suspect LNG leaked from a pipe and that vapors were drawn into the boiler, where there was an explosion.

Such a chain of events is highly unusual, he added.

"It was a combination of events that is very unlikely to reproduce itself."

Jazairy urged Americans not to view the accident as an indictment of LNG, which he called far more environmentally friendly than other fuels, such as diesel or nuclear energy.

"There's a lot of scaremongering and politicization," he said. "It's important to see the reality of the woods behind the trees."

Jazairy said that he checked with officials in Algeria to confirm what he said in the interview. In a later e-mail, he added that the probe was continuing and that the public should bear in mind that there is often a mismatch "between the time required to investigate such an event scientifically and the immediacy of information required by public opinion."

Opponents of proposals for LNG plants in the U.S. have been pointing to the Algerian tragedy as proof that LNG terminals should be placed in remote areas.

At a recent LNG industry conference in Long Beach, protesters waved signs outside the conference hotel reading "No LNG" and "Boom!"

U.S. and California officials are reviewing plans for a $400-million LNG terminal in the Port of Long Beach, proposed by a Mitsubishi Corp. subsidiary, Sound Energy Solutions, headed by Tom Giles. When told of the Algerian ambassador's comments, Giles said he was waiting for a report by Sonatrach, Algeria's national oil and gas company.

"We're confident that we can still build a safe project in Long Beach," Giles said.

Rising U.S. gas prices and a limited supply of domestic natural gas are spurring unprecedented interest in importing gas in liquid form from such major producers as Algeria, Oman and Indonesia. Other countries have imported LNG for decades.

One of the attractions is that once natural gas that has been chilled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, it is a greatly condensed liquid that can be transported by ship rather than by pipeline.

But the gas becomes highly flammable in liquid form, and can explode in a confined space, provoking concerns about accidents and terrorist attacks in cities such as Long Beach, where LNG terminals are proposed.

In Washington, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy recently launched LNG studies, with results expected this year.

A FERC spokeswoman declined to comment Friday on Jazairy's statement, saying the agency was awaiting a formal report from the Algerian government.

An Energy Department spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The ambassador made his comments after Algerian radio reported an announcement earlier in the week by Energy Minister Chakib Khelil: "Insurance experts report that the problem could have been a crack in one of the LNG pipes ... that allowed LNG to escape and turn into gas." The minister's statement was reported by Reuters news service.

Some LNG industry officials hypothesize that some other gas may be to blame for the blast.

A fact sheet about the Algeria explosion released this month by the California Energy Commission stated that only modest amounts of LNG were stored near the explosion site and that the area contained large amounts of natural gas liquids such as ethane and propane.

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