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Countering the threat: securing LNG vessels in transit

Oilfield Technology,

Just over a year ago the world was shocked by the news of an alleged US$ 3 million ransom paid by Saudi Aramco to Somalia pirates to release its supertanker Sirius Star carrying 2 million barrels of oil – a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output. This hijacking was the sea bandits’ biggest booty to date and there is a real fear that other fully laden supertankers could be snared by the pirates in future attacks. Indeed, most attacks are directed at merchant ships connected in some way to the oil industry but there is an increasing risk to LNG carriers as well. Most pirates will probably be deterred from taking over a tanker carrying LNG at temperatures below -160°C, however the frequency of attacks by Somali pirates in the last year and their nature suggest that LNG operators need to consider and address questions of how to avoid or minimise the risk of capture of LNG carriers transiting the Gulf of Aden and what to do if a vessel is attacked and captured by pirates.

An important shipping route

The Gulf of Aden is an important route for commercial shipping. It is reported that about 11% of the world's oil is carried by sea passes through the Gulf of Aden, on its way to the Suez Canal or to regional refineries. Pirate attacks off the Somalia coast rose from 19 in 2008 to 80 in 2009, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and the Gulf of Aden reported 116 attacks last year. However, the emergence of Yemen as a major LNG exporting country in 2009 made the situation even worse. This will be key in the discussions at the NG O&G APAC summit.

Safety concerns

In terms of LNG shipments, there were previous attacks on carriers in Indonesia and Singapore, which means that Somali pirates can easily capture these types of tankers as well. Seven months before Yemen LNG (a consortium led by Total S.A.) started its first LNG shipments from the Bal Haf export terminal, Somali pirates attacked an empty oil tanker just off the coast of Yemen. Yemeni navy commandos recovered the hijacked ship, but the whole situation raised a lot of concerns regarding the safety of future LNG shipments.

Whilst the risk of a pirate attack on an LNG vessel transiting through the Gulf of Aden may have increased in the last few months, it seems unlikely that the consequences of a capture, both in physical or legal terms, are any greater for an LNG vessel compared with any other vessel carrying a liquid cargo. 

How can ship owners protect their cargo and crew onboard?

“You only have a short time to prevent these pirates from boarding and taking control of the ships,” explains Dr Mustafa Alani, Director of the Terrorism and Security department at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. “Once they have control then you have hostages and you have to deal with the situation completely differently.” Dr Alani argues that ship owners either need to station troops onboard or allow the civilian crew to be armed and trained in how to repel attackers. However, having armed guards on board a merchant vessel raises interesting questions of law as to who is in control of the vessel during an attack when force is used and who onboard the vessel can authorise the use of that force.

Another solution is to use other deterrents such as a long range acoustic device (LRAD), which is simply a satellite dish hooked up to a humble MP3 player. The LRAD, which has a range of around 1000 m, fires out high-pitched messages or sirens to warn pirates that they have been spotted. In fact, this piece of kit can reach excruciatingly painful levels if the pirates get too close.

More simple but effective measures include attaching barbed wire to the boat to hamper pirates’ attempts to clamber aboard. Some vessels are also fitted with powerful hoses used for blasting anyone who gets anywhere near, but some ship owners have taken a more hard line approach by providing machine guns.

However, as maritime experts suggest, the most effective and practical measure is to sail at a speed exceeding 25 knots (which is generally too fast for most pirates) and have a high freeboard. All LNG carriers have these features, but extra security measures still need to be considered by LNG operators in order for them to protect their cargo and the crew.

Author: NG Online News.

Photo: Sirius Star

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