By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org
The Biden administration has proposed a rule that would temporarily halt the transportation of liquified natural gas (LNG) by rail – except in three states, including Florida, where those “bomb trains” regularly haul the highly flammable commodity through heavily populated neighborhoods along the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) tracks.
The proposal would reverse former President Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order directing the Secretary of Transportation to permit LNG shipment in rail tank cars throughout the country. The reason for the Biden administration suspension: to develop “a more complete understanding of the risks and benefits associated with rail tank car transportation of LNG.”
It would not, however, impact special permits previously handed out by the Trump administration to two subsidiaries of New Fortress Energy to transport LNG by rail in Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
One permit allows FEC to ship LNG in special cryogenic rail cars, double steel-walled, thermos-like tank cars known as ISO containers, from New Fortress’s liquefaction plant in Hialeah to ports between Jacksonville and Miami. Often the shipments of the refrigerated liquid methane have traveled 19 miles from the Hialeah plant to Port Everglades.
The Hialeah plant’s sister plant in Pennsylvania also received a special permit authorizing the shipment of mixed freight with up to 100 tank cars of fracked LNG gas to make the 175-mile run between Wyalusing, PA and Gibbstown, NJ. That plant, however, has not yet begun operations.
NO REALISTIC LNG-BY-RAIL CRASH TESTS
The permits facilitated New Fortress projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars amid the emergence of rail as an alternative to natural-gas pipelines.
Florida Bulldog reported in September 2020 that New Fortress’s parent, the multi-billion dollar private equity firm Fortress Investment Group, apparently forgave more than $100 million in debt owed by Trump.
A public comment period, in which interested individuals can read the rule in its entirety and make comments, is currently underway and ends Dec. 23.
Fred Millar, an LNG expert who has testified publicly about LNG projects, said a key safety concern is how LNG tank cars will hold up in a crash.
“The Feds have done some minimal field crash research to test its crashworthiness, but only at very low impact speeds,” Millar said. “There’s been no testing on the speeds at which these trains operate – at 50 m.p.h. – and no one knows what to expect if there’s a crash.”
Others have concerns, too. Karl Alexy, staff director of the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety, told members of the National Transportation Safety Board in 2014: “When you begin to look at cars that are derailing at [train] speeds of 30, 40 m.p.h., it’s very difficult, it’s a big ask, to expect that a tank car gets hit [and] not be breached.”
The current industry safety standard for the maximum speed of high-risk hazmat trains is 50 miles an hour, Millar said.
TRUMP OPENED THE GATE
While transporting LNG by truck in specialized thermos-like portable tanks has been permitted in the United States for years, transport of LNG by rail has not been allowed because it was considered too hazardous.Trump’s plan, however, was to open up LNG by rail around the United States in tanks that can hold 30,680 gallons of the extremely flammable fuel, with as many as 100 tank cars per train.
Trump’s April 2019 executive order laid out a method to develop large-scale LNG plants 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 directed then-Secretary of Transportation Rick Perry to develop regulations authorizing LNG to be transported in rail tank cars that already carry other cryogenic liquids. But instead of using a worst-case accident scenario to evaluate safety, which until the 1990s was federal policy, Perry was ordered to use risk-based standards, grounded on the odds of a worst-case scenario ever happening. Trump touted his plan for moving LNG safely and cost-effectively from plant to port. But many safety questions were never tested or explained.
Millar accused the Trump administration of “hasty rulemaking” by various federal transportation agencies including the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration. “The DOT agencies formed an LNG-by-rail task force for this intensive effort to justify the hurried-up rulemaking,” he said.
Adam Carlesco, attorney for the nonprofit Food & Water Watch Southern Region, said President Biden could have signed an executive order to immediately stop the transport LNG by rail.
“Despite the looming threat of climate-induced societal catastrophe and the daily threat to Florida communities posed by rail transport of LNG, Biden is more content to abdicate bold executive authority in favor of regulatory incrementalism and congressional compromise. What we need is bold leadership and executive action to stop the extraction, transport, export and combustion of LNG immediately – the stakes are too high to do any less,” Carlesco said.
The Transportation Research Board has been charged by the task force with reviewing numerous questions such as the lack of safety data, lack of field testing and whether there was even a market for LNG, and to report its findings next July. The task force will have two years to approve or reject those findings.
LNG promotors “have said we are the bridge from fossil fuel to renewable energy,” Millar said. “But why not just jump over it. The market around the world for LNG is on shaky ground. The writing is on the wall – LNG is not the savior of the world.”