Defying President Bush's threatened veto, the House Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill making the U.S. Coast Guard enforce security zones around eight liquefied natural gas terminals and any arriving tankers - all potential terrorism targets.
The White House has complained that the requirement would divert the Coast Guard from other high-priority missions and provide an "unwarranted subsidy" for LNG owners.
The 395-7 vote margin on the $8.4 billion Coast Guard bill was well beyond the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto. Seven Republicans voted against the measure.
After the vote, the White House praised the passage of a GOP-backed amendment to the bill that permits the Coast Guard to take into account agency, state and local government security resources when deciding on security plans for LNG sites.
"The administration remains concerned about several key provisions in the House bill," said White House spokesman Trey Bohn. "However, the veto threat prompted members to adopt a Republican amendment which made significant changes to the bill. We will continue to work with members of Congress as this legislation moves forward."
The Senate is considering its own version of the bill.
Democrats scoffed at the White House's objections, saying Bush is ignoring the huge security threat posed by LNG sites on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
"I am simply appalled that this administration would refer to protecting our families as an unwarranted and unnecessary subsidy," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who chairs the House Transportation subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard.
A dozen more LNG terminals are being planned, including three in Oregon - two on the Columbia River and one in Coos Bay. Supporters say they are needed because of increased demand for natural gas and limited domestic supplies.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said the LNG security provision could hamper the flow of much-needed natural gas as energy prices and demand rise. "We're creating more red tape and more impediments," Mica said.
The Government Accountability Office says a terrorism attack on an LNG tanker arriving at a terminal could ignite an explosion and fire so fierce that people a mile away would be burned. But GAO auditors also say the Coast Guard is already stretched too thin to meet its own standards for protecting arriving LNG tankers from attack.
In March 2007, the Coast Guard outlined gaps in resources and necessary changes for LNG to be shipped upriver east of Astoria to Bradwood Landing, calling for additional Coast Guard personnel to carry out annual tanker and facility inspections and for more firefighting resources. Escort boats would enforce moving security zones around tankers, and additional zones would be set around ships offloading at the terminal. At a minimum, said Lt. Bryan Burkhalter, Coast Guard Group Astoria's assistant operations officer at the time, "It will increase the workload."
But the Coast Guard's waterway suitability report left open who would provide the additional safety and security forces; those roles don't have to be pegged down until a facility is licensed and ready for construction.
Last September, as officials fielded questions about another proposed LNG facility, in Warrenton, state Sen. Betsy Johnson asked, "Will the Coast Guard use Coast Guard assets for escorting for-profit ships to the site, and if that is, in fact, what occurs, how does that affect your Homeland Security or humanitarian missions?"
Capt. Patrick Gerrity, then Captain of the Port in Portland and the Coast Guard's local authority on LNG's maritime security, responded: Although a 2005 energy law requires companies to offset the costs to local authorities protecting LNG facilities, it does not require a shared payment plan with the Coast Guard. "It would be a federal burden," he said.
The bill also sets stricter crime reporting requirements for cruise ships and requires double hulls around fuel tanks on large cargo ships to prevent catastrophic oil spills like the one in San Francisco Bay in November.
To address complaints that crimes aboard cruise ships are underreported, the bill makes line operators report to the Homeland Security Department all security incidents, including deaths, serious bodily injuries and sexual assaults.
Cruise lines also are required to post crime statistics on an Internet site maintained by the Coast Guard, with links from the cruise line public Web sites.
"Sometimes, even cruise ships need sunshine," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.
Cruise lines last year announced a voluntary agreement with the FBI and the Coast Guard to improve and standardize crime reporting.
"The bottom line is, the crime statistics provided by the cruise industry are inaccurate and inadequate," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn. "This has got to change."
Cruise line industry officials say the reporting requirement is redundant, since they are already doing so voluntarily.
The bill also addresses a problem that has plagued the Great Lakes region: invasive species that sneak into U.S. waters aboard oceangoing cargo ships and wreak havoc. Oceangoing ships would be required to install ballast water treatment equipment to keep foreign species from U.S. waters.
Ballast tanks help stabilize ships in rough ocean waters. But ballast water is widely considered a leading source of aquatic invaders, which compete with native species for food and habitat.
At least 185 invasive species have been identified in the Great Lakes, including zebra and quagga mussels, which clog water pipes and do more than $150 million worth of damage a year.
"This is a great day for the Great Lakes and the coastal areas," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich. "Let's get out there and fight those nasty zebra mussels."
The bill also would increase the Coast Guard by 1,500 members to 47,000. Another provision would tighten agency management controls over Deepwater, the $24 billion program to modernize the agency's aging fleet. It has been plagued by cost overruns, design flaws and lax oversight.
The bill is H.R. 2830.