As the global LNG industry grows, so must its perception and understanding of security threats. Understandably, some attention has been focused on specific piracy risks faced by LNG carriers; the statistics alone speak for themselves: the number of LNG carriers travelling through the Suez canal more than doubled from 428 in 2008 to 885 in 2010; in the same time period attacks in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean jumped by nearly 60 per cent from 136 to 217. Alarming news reports have speculated on LNG carriers exploding under small arms fire in the Indian Ocean, and insurance premiums have risen accordingly. In response, many LNG operators are quick to hire private security detachments in order to protect their vessels, and cash in on discounts offered to ships employing armed anti-piracy measures. Now that the sustainability of the international naval presence is being questioned, the demand for private security is higher than ever.
What is required, however, is a level-headed and proportionate response to the actual threat faced by LNG carriers.
The notion that a well placed AK47 or RPG round could breach the hull or tank of an LNG carrier causing a major explosion, possibly even sinking the ship, is simply wrong. Because of their design LNG tanks require exceptional amounts of force to breach the tank; small arms fire will have no impact on the double hull of an LNG carrier. Furthermore, LNG is stored at atmospheric conditions, not under high pressure, so a mere crack will not cause an immediate explosion. Even with higher velocity or calibre weaponry than the small arms favoured by pirates the risk of explosion is unrealistic.
Of greater concern is the fire risk onboard LNG carriers which is heightened significantly by the presence of volatile cargo. Twice this year have pirates started fires on vessels in an attempt to force the crew from citadels; in both instances the crew were rescued by navy forces after pirates left the vessel. As a result, vessels must ensure adequate fire safety drills, procedures and equipment are up to date and widely distributed on board.
However, fire risk should be an issue of concern for all vessels. Although the extent of damage caused by a fire aboard an LNG vessel could be greater, the same could be said for any tanker carrying flammable cargo.
The only truly LNG-specific risk is caused by the perishability of its cargo. Detention periods are getting longer as negotiations become more protracted. Pirates know to hold out for the average ransom amount of US$4.5 million – of the vessels still held in Somalia, the average detention period is now 332 days. The conditions to allow a cargo of LNG held at -160 degrees centigrade cannot be sustained indefinitely; the nature of LNG therefore imposes an additional time constraint on ransom negotiations, meaning the settlement amount is likely to be higher than average. Tried and tested crisis response procedures should be in place to save valuable time in the event of a hijacking to allow negotiations to proceed efficiently.
Whilst some LNG operators may rush to hire armed guards, it is essential to first question both the necessity and associated risks of introducing weapons on board, and the credibility and experience of the personnel. A thorough knowledge of pirate capabilities and vessel vulnerabilities, combined with best management practices, will remain a highly effective anti-piracy solution. Unnecessary scenarios where LNG carriers with high freeboards and capable speeds of above 18 knots slow down and succumb to intimidating small arms fire, as was reported recently, can be avoided altogether with adequate knowledge and training, and minimal risk
Rory Lamrock, AKE Security
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