LNG ‘freedom molecules’ coming soon to railroad tracks around the country

President Trump giving a speech
President Donald Trump speaking at Sempra Energy’s Cameron Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) Export Terminal in Hackberry, Louisiana on May 14, 2019.

By Ann Henson Feltgen,

President Donald Trump plans to open up the transportation of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) around the United States in railroad tanks that can hold 30,680 gallons of the extremely flammable fuel, with as many as 100 tank cars per train. And so far, an environmental assessment by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has given the plan a green light with no additional safety requirements.

When announcing Trump’s April 10 executive order that prompted the assessment, Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry proclaimed LNG as “freedom molecules” that will break the Russian hold over Eastern European countries as their sole supplier.

Trump’s plan has drawn little public attention to date. Still, it would allow ramping up production of natural gas by a method that chills it to -260° F, where it becomes a compact liquid that is cheaper to ship. Trump’s executive order does not mention that LNG, should it escape its container, can form a flammable vapor cloud, which if ignited can kill thousands of people in urban areas.

A draft environmental assessment is open for public comment through August 8. Click this link to view and submit a comment: Draft SP20534.

Trump’s order relates to Energy Transport Solutions LLC (ETS), which in 2017 applied for a special permit to transport LNG in specialized vacuum railway tankers, as other hazardous chemicals are transported.

Red Florida East Coast Railway train
A Florida East Coast locomotive with an LNG tender car

Last year Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) won federal favor to undertake a pilot program to transport by rail LNG from a small-scale production plant in Hialeah anywhere along its 351 miles of track. The company uses portable vacuum tanks, similar to those used by semi-trucks that have hauled LNG for years. The company ships more than 100,000 gallons of LNG per day to PortMiami and Port Everglades for shipment to Caribbean counties, according to its website.

New Fortress Energy

ETS is a logistics subsidiary of New Fortress Energy, which is owned by Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund. Fortress also owned FEC, the parent company of All Aboard Florida/Brightline until it was sold to Virgin Trains USA.

Wesley Edens founded New Fortress Energy in 2014 and has led an effort to grow the company into a global, fully integrated energy infrastructure company with LNG production facilities and terminals operating across North America and the Caribbean, according to the company’s website.

A man wearing a suit and glasses testifying before a microphone
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry

At the moment Fortress has its sights set on Pennsylvania, where the company is developing natural gas liquefying facilities in the Marcellus Shale region that runs from the southwest to north and central portions of the state. According to financial documents, the company would have the capacity to produce an average of 3.6 million gallons of LNG per day. The facility is scheduled to be completed in early 2021.

But environmentalists and other critics are warning about the dangers of LNG.

Another project in Alaska prompted the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity to intervene before Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s proceedings in 2017. The project entailed an 807-mile pipeline, a liquefied natural gas production facility and the export of 30 million tons annually.

According to Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the national nonprofit conservation organization, the proposal could vastly expand drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Arctic.

‘A massively terrible idea’

“This massive LNG project is a massively terrible idea,” she said in a press release. “Expanding drilling and fracking in the Arctic is incredibly dangerous, and this polluting plan is likely to be an economically disastrous boondoggle. We’re intervening to protect polar bears, the climate and Alaskans from this monstrous project.”

While that project is now on hold, some scientists agree with Monsell that this is dangerous territory for U.S. oil and gas companies. LNG expert Fred Millar has testified and spoken out about LNG projects along the East Coast and Florida. He believes ship transport is “a major target for terrorists,’ and says both regulations and training for emergency first responders are lacking.

Fred Millar

“LNG is where the nuclear power industry was before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima,” he said in an interview.

Other companies are targeting Florida, with Crowley Maritime and Eagle LNG operating a shore side LNG facility at the Crowley Talleyrand Marine Terminal of the Jacksonville Port Authority. The companies are planning for servicing Crowley’s new LNG-powered vessels for U.S.-Puerto Rico trade. Crowley operates a liquefaction plant in West Jacksonville and transfers LNG by truck to the port.

Crowley also is constructing a storage facility on two acres near its port operations to hold 2,000 cubic meters of LNG to fuel its two LNG-powered tankers.

Two months ago, a ribbon-cutting ceremony heralded another LNG facility opening on the St. John’s River in Jacksonville. JAX LNG identifies itself as the first small-scale LNG facility in the United States with both on-site marine and truck-loading capabilities. The “state-of-the-art” facility was constructed through a joint venture between Pivotal LNG and NorthStar Midstream, a storage and transport company.

History of LNG

LNG, which is predominately made up of methane – a greenhouse gas – was first produced in the United States in 1941. Although the conversion of natural gas to LNG was developed more than a century earlier, the technology to mass produce the gas was lacking.

A plant in Cleveland closed three years later when a tank ruptured and spilled thousands of gallons of LNG into nearby neighborhoods, killing 130 people. That incident stifled LNG production for 15 years until technology caught up to provide safer storage materials.

Small-scale producers continued producing LNG through 2010, but the U.S. was considered more of an importer than exporter. Then fracking for oil and natural gas opened up the industry.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), 110 plants that convert natural gas to LNG are operating in the U.S. As of May 4, export terminals were located in Alaska, Louisiana, Maryland and Texas. Seven more are approved and under construction in Louisiana, Georgia and Texas. An additional six plants are approved but have not yet broken ground in Louisiana and Texas.

A large tanker ship with giant red, half-ball containers of LNG on the ocean.
LNG export ship

Trump issued an executive order promoting energy infrastructure and economic growth on April 10. This order lays out a method to engage in large-scale LNG plants, such as that proposed for Alaska, by skirting or changing the Clean Water Act, which stipulates that federal permit seekers must show that their actions will not harm state water quality standards. Some states have used the Clean Water Act to block LNG production and transportation.

The order directs the Secretary of Transportation to develop regulations authorizing LNG to be transported in rail tank cars that already carry other cryogenic liquids. Instead of planning for the worst-case scenario, which until the 1990s was federal policy, the Secretary was ordered to use risk-based standards, grounded on the probability of a worst-case scenario.

Trump is looking at employee retirement plans to invest in and underwrite the costs of whatever infrastructure will be needed to implement this order.

All of these reports are due by Oct. 1.

Environmental assessment

The linchpin to Trump’s plan focuses on shipping the chemical safely and cost-effectively from plant to port. Transporting LNG by truck in specialized thermos-like portable tanks has been permitted in the United States for years, while shipping by rail has been prohibited.

However, other hazardous materials, like ethylene, are allowed to travel by rail when using similar but much larger double-walled tanker cars approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Canada has authorized LNG transport using these cars.

The argument for using this transport is that it is less expensive, emits less pollution and provides enough safety features to keep the liquid at its optimal temperature for at least 20 days. And, due to the thickness of the stainless steel walls, the risk of punctures would be minimal.

The “rail tank cars are built to a double pressure-vessel design with the commodity tank (inner vessel) constructed of 3/16 inch and the outer shell of greater than 7/16 inch thick steel,” the assessment stated. Insulation between the inner and outer shells keeps the liquid’s temperature constant. The cars also are equipped with relief valves.

The document acknowledges the possibility of derailment and tank punctures.

 “There are no test data or computer models that could be used to predict the probability of puncture at any particular speed, or identify a threshold speed at which the probability of puncture of the inner tanks becomes high,” the assessment stated.

The consequences of derailment and puncture scenario lead to “a higher probability of a fire due to the formation of a flammable gas vapor/air mixture in the immediate vicinity of the spilled LNG” and a spark or hot surface could ignite a flammable vapor cloud.

Overall, the document concludes that while the consequences could be grave, the probability of such a scenario is low.

Scientists disagree

Jerry Havens, a retired professor at the University of Arkansas Department Of Chemical Engineering, has voiced his concern about LNG for years. He is considered a worldwide expert on LNG’s risks. He has said he is not for or against natural gas but wants sufficient precautions taken for its transfer and storage.

Havens did not respond to a Florida Bulldog request for an interview. He has testified at a number of federal hearings on the subject. In 2005, for example, he testified at a hearing before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about a proposed Long Beach, California LNG import project, laying out the problems with an LNG incident:

  • A flammable vapor cloud could spread for 3-miles from a spillage of 3-million gallons.
  • A flammable vapor could travel a shorter distance from the site, ignite and kill or burn a significant number of people in a densely populated area.
  • And, nowhere did the proposed project address the potential impacts of a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion that can occur with LNG. Nor did the company consider the hazard of LNG vapors exploding when in confined spaces.
  • There is clearly a risk of an LNG spill and pool fire from a terrorist attack at an LNG terminal, he stated.
  • An explosion can happen suddenly as well. Except for the spreading of the fire and other consequential or cascading effects, after the initial explosion or fire, much of the initial adverse impacts would not be mitigated.

Havens and other scientists have a big problem with companies that use private consultants to downplay the threats involved in LNG production and transport. He submitted a position paper to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in July 2016 opposing the secrecy of models used that downplay the danger of LNG production and transport. Because these models have been developed by private consultants, they are considered proprietary and other scientists cannot replicate the results.

“There is no question that the hazards attending the handling and storage of extremely large quantities of potentially flammable/explosive materials in LNG facilities, which if the hazard determinations are not accurate, could result in catastrophic damage, extending beyond facility boundaries,” he stated.

“There must be a means developed to ensure that the public is provided information sufficient to independently verify the accuracy and applicability of the model predictions that determine FERC’s determination for or against LNG facility approval.”

Millar, the outspoken expert on LNG projects in Florida, believes the U.S. Coast Guard, the governing authority for ports, is ill-prepared for what could happen. The Coast Guard did not return Florida Bulldog phone messages for comment.

He said the Coast Guard does not regulate port activities, “but only offer voluntary guidance to the maritime industry,” adding that he was told the Coast Guard “cannot regulate this industry hard, because they are our eyes and ears in the maritime world, and they would stop talking to us.”

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