June 22, 2005

Risk Analysis

Marc Comtois

Anne Applebaum, writing about airport security, also touches on cost-benefit risk analysis.

By their own account, federal screeners have intercepted "7 million prohibited items." But of that number, only 600 were firearms. So, according to the calculations of economist Veronique de Rugy, 99.9 percent of intercepted items were nail scissors, cigarette lighters, penknives and the like. . . this isn't a country that has ever been good at risk analysis. If it were, we would never have invented the TSA at all. Instead, we would have taken that $5.5 billion, doubled the FBI's budget, and set up a questioning system that identifies potentially suspicious passengers, as the Israelis do. Even now, it's not too late to abolish the TSA, create a federal training program for airport screeners, and then let private companies worry about how many people to hire, which technology to buy and how long the tables in front of the X-ray machines should be. But every time that suggestion is made in Congress, someone denounces the plan as a "privatization" of our security and a sellout.

E. Howard McVay, Jr., a merchant-marine captain and a Narragansett Bay pilot licensed in Rhode Island, just wrote a piece on the NIMBYism inherent in the anti-LNG debate, in which he sought to destroy a few myths. [Link is no longer available for free].

I would like to address a few of the statements that I know to be misleading if not wrong. . .

. . . The passage of LNG tankers would affect commercial fishing.

Since long before the 9/11 attacks, liquid-propane-gas (LPG) tankers have been going in and out of Narragansett Bay with a moving security zone around the vessel -- similar to what would probably be required for LNG ships. The escort vessels of the Coast Guard and the state Department of Environmental Management have many years' experience running ahead and alerting commercial fishing vessels of a gas ship's heading their way, requiring them to move out of the way. A fishing vessel may have to stay out of the way for 10 to -- at most -- 15 minutes before returning to where it had been fishing.

. . . The passage of LNG ships would affect recreational boating.

The LPG vessels have been plying the Bay's waters for years without an impact on the many world-class yachting events that take place here. Why? Because the schedulers of the events work closely with the pilots aboard most vessels on these waters. Indeed, ideally most ships are in their berth and starting cargo operations before most sailing events start. Thus they rarely bother each other.

. . . LNG vessels passing under bridges would cause major traffic delays.

After 9/11, the Coast Guard started closing the Newport Bridge to traffic while an LPG tanker passed under it. During the learning curve of the first bridge closings, there were some delays. But once we had perfected the technique, we reduced the bridge-closure time to about eight minutes -- enough to clear the bridge of traffic while the LPG passes under it.

My life has been focused on the waters of Narragansett Bay since early childhood; besides being a ship pilot, I fish, race sailboats, and cruise these waters. If the passage of LNG ships in and out of Providence were not to be safe, the Rhode Island State Licensed Pilots of Narragansett Bay would work to prevent these vessels from passing through our waters. Our job is to protect the waters of the Bay from unsafe navigational practices of any foreign-flag vessel in our state's waters.

Therefore, should you read an article stating that LNG tankers cannot pass through our waters safely, the chances are you're reading the writings of a NIMBY ("Not in my backyard") person, who is grasping at anything to prevent a project from moving forward -- not the writings of Rhode Island's navigational experts, who regulate such activity.

These two issues raise the question: what price "safety"? How far should our fears of terrorists attack extend before responsible precautions expand into near-hysterical measures? Also, we should take care to be cognizant of the fact that some will seek to take advantage of these fears for their own advantage.

Those who are proponents of big government programs (such as the Transportation Safety Authority) or are, for whatever reason, against responsible, common sense energy infrastructure expansion (such as responsibly expanding our local ability to store and distribute LNG) appeal to the raw emotional fear of terrorist attacks to help make their arguments. Thus, every LNG ship or tank is a "potential" terrorist target and every airport passenger is a potential terrorist, even Grammy or Grampa. This despite the fact that terrorists can be profiled and the targets they appear to most value are much more symbolic than "practical." In the case of airport security, we are inconvenienced and the entire airline industry is rendered less efficient. In the case of the LNG threat, we are left with few options but those that will lead to increasing prices and restrictions in our energy supply. Given this environment, President Bush's call for more nuclear power plants is probably a non-starter.

It is impossible to apply a dollar figure to life, but, before complaining about price inflation or long lines at the airport or expensive heating bills, remember that we have made the choice. So long as we allow fear to exercise an over-sized role in defining our behavior and dictating our actions, we will pay the price, both from our wallets and our psyche. Fear is natural, but irrational fear, like it or not, can be very expensive indeed.