Already besieged by explosive oil trains and polluting coal trains, rail-line communities in the Pacific Northwest may soon face a new vexation: mile-long trains hauling liquefied natural gas (LNG). It’s thanks to a little-known experiment taking place in Alaska, under test conditions that bear little resemblance to realities in Cascadia.
The first LNG-by-rail shipment
For safety reasons, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does not allow railroads in the US to transport LNG by rail. Or rather, it did not allow this until October 2015, when, with virtually no public knowledge about the development, FRA granted a two-year permit to Alaska Railroad, suddenly making it the very first rail corporation in the US to carry the volatile fuel.
Alaska Rail hauled its first LNG cargo in September 2016 as both an LNG tank car demonstration and a cost experiment. It was a move watched eagerly by railroads in the lower 48—including Union Pacific and BNSF, the two dominant rail corporations in Oregon and Washington, which have been seeking authorization to transport LNG by rail from FRA for years. Railroads looking to offset recent losses in coal and oil haulage are looking to LNG, but the challenge is the same one that accompanies all fossil fuel by rail transportation: how to protect public safety.
LNG can erupt into catastrophic explosions, with blast zones larger and more severe than the conflagrations from oil trains.
This opening for LNG-by-rail raises the specter of ever more hazardous rail cargos traveling through Northwest cities and towns if federal regulators and the fossil fuel industry treat Alaska’s experiment with LNG-by-rail as a first step toward approval throughout the US, which is exactly what rail corporations are lobbying FRA to do. But Alaska’s fossil fuel energy requirements and its relatively small and dispersed population are quite different from those of the Lower 48, making it a poor case study for justifying country-wide shipments. And the stakes are high: in the wrong conditions, LNG can erupt into catastrophic explosions, with blast zones larger and more severe than the conflagrations from oil trains.
The causes behind LNG-by-rail development
Interest in LNG-by-rail is a direct consequence of the US boom in fracking that unleashed huge volumes of low-cost natural gas into the market. This, in turn, began underpricing coal for electricity production, thereby driving down coal shipments. Making matters worse for rail corporations, oil-by-rail shipments also decreased in the last several years, primarily due to a downturn in the market for Bakken shale oil. Railroads hope to make up losses from declining oil and coal transportation by hauling new cargos like LNG, which they believe has the potential to generate significant revenues—if only it were legal.
Even without permission to actually haul it, railroads have already been preparing for the day when LNG-by-rail is legal. BNSF, the dominant railroad in the Northwest, has been testing LNG tank cars since at least 2014. By early 2015, BNSF, Union Pacific, Alaska Railroad, and Florida East Coast Railway had all applied for permits to haul the fuel. Even before the Federal Railroad Administration gave Alaska Rail its two-year LNG-by-rail permit in late 2015, natural gas producers had approached tank car manufacturers about developing tank cars suitable for the task.
Why is Alaska the testing ground?
Alaska’s story is peculiar. Although the state is a major producer of coal, oil, and gas, heating fuel and electricity prices in the interior of Alaska are among the highest in the nation. In fact, many residents still use wood-burning stoves and stove oil for heat, which produce high levels of unhealthy particulate matter pollution during the winter. The state’s Interior Energy Project has prioritized LNG as the solution to both energy costs and winter air pollution, particularly for Fairbanks, the largest city in the Alaska interior. Only about 1,000 of Fairbanks’ 32,500 residents and businesses currently use natural gas, but shipping LNG in bulk by rail could theoretically lower the cost of the fuel, making it more attractive to customers.
Rail shipments of LNG would also assist the struggling state-owned Alaska Rail, which has seen substantial losses. Net income for Alaska Rail fell from $14 million in 2013 to $11 million in 2015, and was expected to fall again to $9.3 million in 2016. The rail company’s 2015 annual report attributes the drop in revenue to weakening global coal markets and reduced oil shipments. In January 2017, Alaska Railroad president Bill O’Leary said the railroad is now “anticipating net earnings in the $4-4.5 million range.” LNG-by-rail shipments could help make up some of that revenue shortfall.
Alaska also has another business interest in increasing natural gas consumption. The state purchased the Titan Alaska LNG plant and gas utility provider Fairbanks Natural Gas in 2015. Since there are no pipelines connecting the two, Titan Alaska currently delivers natural gas hundreds of miles north to the Fairbanks utility using LNG tanker trucks. But rail shipments could reduce costs, since one rail car replaces two standard trucks on the road.
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Some Alaska citizens and environmental organizations have criticized Alaska Rail and the FRA for using residents as “guinea pigs for the LNG industry,” noting that the agency avoided public input on the LNG-by-rail experiment by failing to disclose the approval process. One environmental organization is suing the railroad administration for information on the risk factors it considered before approving LNG-by-rail in Alaska. The case could ultimately inform the amount of input that Pacific Northwest residents would have on the approval of LNG-by-rail in their own communities.
What’s good for Alaska is not good for the rest of the US
Alaska Railroad says “an optimistic, long-term goal for the project” would be to use LNG-by-rail to supply natural gas to rural Alaska, much as in Japan, which rail companies point to as model. Japan ships LNG by rail in areas where transport by pipeline is not economically feasible, and the cost of truck transport limits the fuel’s delivery range.
Yet even temporary approval in Alaska opens the door for longer-term LNG haulage by railroads in the Lower 48, where the impacts would be much different. Shipping LNG by rail would raise the same concerns as fatally combustible oil trains, but with a fuel that has more numerous and much more complex hazards. In Alaska, most of the LNG rail routes keep the dangerous cargo far from communities and roadways, which would not be true in the continental US. At-grade crossings, where rail traffic interacts with pedestrian and vehicle traffic, are particularly dangerous. These are a comparatively small issue for Alaska Rail—the entire 470-mile route from Seward to Fairbanks has only about a hundred at-grade crossings—but they are much more common in the the Lower 48: BNSF alone has 25,800 at-grade crossings on its rail network.
Another key difference between Alaska and other states is that state ownership of the rail line makes it easier to give notice of fossil fuel shipments to local emergency responders. In the Lower 48, though, the major railroads are corporate entities, and for the most part they are not required to give firefighters any notice of hazardous materials being shipped.
Implications for Cascadia
Federal regulators should not treat the Alaska Railroad experiment as a reason to greenlight LNG-by-rail in other states.
BNSF and Union Pacific have a near-monopoly on rail haulage in the Northwest, and both have applied for permission to ship LNG by rail. Eager to replace sharply declining oil-by-rail cargoes with other products, railroads are looking to LNG in hopes it will yield revenues as coal and oil once did. But rather than deliver natural gas to Northwest residents, the vast majority of whom are already served by gas pipelines, LNG-by-rail through Cascadia would most likely support exports or other large fossil fuel expansion proposals—all at the expense of increased risks for communities along the rail lines.
Railroads are federally regulated, so state and local governments have very little say over what rail corporations push through their towns. It’s a risky proposition for regions like the Northwest that could potentially see new and extremely hazardous rail cargoes passing through the heart of the region’s biggest cities. Federal regulators should not treat the Alaska Railroad experiment as a reason to greenlight LNG-by-rail in other states. To the contrary, the Alaska experiment should remain a limited decision subject to more extensive review and a robust opportunity for public input.
I agree 100% that transporting LNG by rail presents serious hazards. However, I believe the opposition to pipelines is what causes the push towards rail transportation. I see communities all over the country fighting against pipelines, power plants, windmills, etc. How exactly do all these people plan to stay warm in winter and have power when they need it? Will they be the first to complain about rolling blackouts during high demand times? Natural gas and LNG are far cleaner than the fuels used in many heating and electric generating situations. Not as clean as solar and wind, but cleaner none the less. Any strides we can make for a cleaner world will benefit everyone. Even though it’s not ideal, natural gas / LNG is one of our best options at the moment.
We will have more articles coming soon discussing some of the concerns you raise. Stay tuned, and thanks for your comment.
totally agree with you
The natural gas system leaks a lot of methane which is a very potent greenhouse gas.
Natural gas is no better than coal, in terms of global warming.
Burning natural gas results in roughly half the amount of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity. Natural gas is indeed better than coal, in terms of global warming.
Nuclear power plants are better than natural gas in this regard. All the wastes stay in managed vessels rather than become fugitive in the atmosphere. We might even recycle the spent waste some day. No free lunch, so keep nudging those technologies that show improvement.
According to 2010 data from the National Energy Technology Laboratory, “natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) when combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant.” (via UCS) Please be aware that this figure is (1) a range, and (2) only based on the most efficient natural gas plants rather than the average natural gas power plant.
When we talk about climate change, we also have to remember that CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas produced by fossil fuels. Based on the data above we can say it is better than coal in terms of CO2 produced for electricity generation, but since the numbers do not include other greenhouse gases like methane, we can’t say that it’s better than coal in terms of the other climate-changing greenhouse gases. We have to apply the results of the study to what it measured and be careful not to apply it more broadly. Thanks!
It has been recently discovered that much more natural gas leaks from the system than previously understood. The main component of natural gas is methane which has approximately 80 times the heat trapping effect as CO2.
My wife tells me that approximately 1.4 % of all natural gas produced, leaks before it reaches the customer.
Google “Franklinville NY pipeline leaks” and “River on fire from fracking, Australia” for videos.
Thank you, Tarika. Good reporting.
A safer reroute of the near complete DAPL ought to be on the table. The route through the Oawhe Reservoir was ‘intentionally’ threat to water supply. This reroute offers the safest way to get Bakken fuels to market from Gulf port refineries, incidentally reducing demand for off-shore drilling in the Gulf. BNSF proposes 10x the oil train shipment it currently hauls and Union Pacific RR hauls 1/10th the amount of BNSF. Isn’t it time that Amtrak ran 2- trains daily -each direction- on the Empire Builder and restarted service on the Pioneer to Portland-to-Denver?
Memories are indeed short. Consider the propane tanker explosion (single car) in Murdock Illinois in 1983, or the delivery truck explosion in Tacoma on Oct 6 2007.
Both videos are found in YouTube (https://youtu.be/PmZNQQw9yTM) I was producing Hazmat training programs and got the entire raw footage of the Murdock explosion. I talked to the news woman reporter who was on the air at the Murdock explosion, when this let loose. Imagine this happening in your back yard. Propane is shipped at a 2000:1 ratio. That is why these explosions are so dramatic. Exploding tanks resemble bottle rockets.
CSX Transportation also makes rail cars? Are you sure that a Class 1 railroad is doing that?
Thanks for the sharp eye! The sentence has been corrected.
LNG is not explosive at all. This article is completely wrong and misinformed.
Methane is very different to propane, LNG is methane at below -163 degrees Celsius.
Check that link.
The claim that LNG is not explosive is very much a falsehood based on semantics. LNG is simply natural gas that has been cooled to -260 degrees, which keeps it in a liquid form. There are only two instances in which it is not explosive: when it remains at -260, and when it has not mixed with a sufficient quantity of oxygen. Both of these factors are easily modified when a train gets into a collision or derails. If there is a heat source near the train cars (quite common in accidents involving hazmat trains) or a puncture in a train car (also quite common in derailments and accidents), then the factors needed to keep the LNG non-flammable are no longer there.
The reason natural gas providers claim that LNG is not explosive is that they are considering any evaporated LNG, aka natural gas, as a completely separate entity than the LNG from which it evaporated. When LNG evaporates and causes an explosion or fire hazard, US regulations allow energy companies to classify the gaseous LNG as natural gas rather than LNG. As I noted in this article about a 2014 LNG explosion in Washington, that’s a bit like saying water vapor is not water. LNG is natural gas, and natural gas is explosive unless kept under the two conditions stated above. Transporting LNG by rail poses serious risk of altering those two conditions, creating the following hazards: explosion, pool fire, flash fire, asphyxiation, brittle fracture, cryogenic burns, thermal radiation, and forest fires.
Usually a bit more research is needed than grabbing the first result in a Google search for “lng hazards” (I checked). If you want to learn more about the topic, I’d suggest scholarly documents such as LNG Properties and Hazards Overview, rather than a site whose authors’ credentials are not stated. Such shallow “research” might make you completely wrong and misinformed.
I think the author mistakes LNG with LPG. LNG is not an explosive. Even vaporized LNG is not explosive as the air – gas mixture will only ignite at very specific circumstances. Besides, in a case of a spill it will not pollute but evaporate away plus its gas in lighter than air which means that it disseminates quickly and does not produce lakes of vapors that will ignite easily.
LNG – just like Natural Gas – is non-toxic, non-corrosive and its only very cold which is pretty much its only hazard. I doubt very much that you have ever been in touch with LNG either directly or at least commercially as otherwise, you would have a better understanding of the matter. When a gasoline transporter blows up it’s a major hazard that will not only endanger people by the blast but also by the toxic substances it liberates. This is not the case with LNG. All claims of explosions of LNG were later debunked to have been either LPG or gasoline explosions. LNG has a more than 50-year stellar safety record that no other chemical can match. Those are facts that can be verified at any time by anyone interested.
Oh my, what could I have done to merit the visit of not one but two oil and gas industry consultants in one day, two-and-a-half months after my article was published? Curious… but I certainly won’t pass up the opportunity to be flattered.
I can assure you that the author is quite well versed on the difference between LNG and LPGs (liquid petroleum gas, aka propane and butane). The latter hydrocarbons can be derived from natural gas/LNG processing and sold separately, as they typically sell for higher prices than natural gas itself. For this reason an LNG peak-shaving or export terminal is also often a propane production facility, though the processing and transport of propane from the terminal is always glossed over or omitted in LNG terminal applications and safety analyses. Aside from the connection of origin, propane is commonly used as a refrigerant to liquefy natural gas – it’s used in Cascade, SMR, C3-MR, and the APX Hybrid process. Lastly, the transport of propane by rail (which you insinuate is much more dangerous) is already permitted in the US.
Your statement that “all claims of explosions of LNG were later debunked” is patently false, as is your statement that cryogenic burns are the only hazard. Noticeably, you didn’t provide any sources even though you say these claims can be verified at any time by anyone. Please see the links that I provided to Carlos above. One explains in detail how the safety record of LNG is padded in the US. The other explains the fire and explosion hazards of LNG.
The “very specific circumstances” you refer to under which methane (the primary component of LNG) will ignite is a 5-15% volume, which is reached any and every time it is released into the atmosphere. There’s nothing specific or rare about it. The trick is to keep releases away from any ignition sources, which is made difficult when transporting it by rail through populated areas, thus the concerns expressed in this article.
Your condescending tone aside – as you know all this, I must assume that you willfully mislead the public about the real danger (or better how safe it actually is) LNG poses. It’s a hydrocarbon and as such, it is flammable in principle. We know that and requisite care is being taken while it is being handled. But you make it appear as if there are nuclear bombs rolling through the countryside which is patently false. Every single explosion that I have heard of over the last 20 year that someone wanted to stick to LNG was later found to be LPG, Naphtha, Gasoline or some chemical.
Yes, I am an energy analyst and I do some strategic consulting from time to time and yes, I work on LNG a lot. And I have a vested interest in truth being told. I simply don’t accept when someone presents things in a manner to induce others to false conclusions. You are worried about LNG trains? How are you not worried about chemical trains, LPG trains, gasoline trains, Naphtha trains, fertilizer trains, ammonia trains, ..? All of them and many more are much more dangerous than LNG but those trains have been rolling through all countries for ages and people are more or less in the know. If properly handled, those can be done in a safe manner. LNG is inherently safer than all those together but you chose to demonize it because it’s not very known yet. That’s cheap.
I engage in the hard work to bring perspective to this world – not in scoring cheap points with overblown assertions. I know that there is a lot of “fake news” on the internet but I don’t have to accept it.
You are free to write what you want – just know that there are people that see through the deception.
This man also wanted to mislead the public – until he didn’t. http://oilpro.com/post/31338/cuomos-new-energy-program-fracked-natural-gas?utm_source=DailyNewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_term=2017-05-24&utm_content=Article_22_txt
The author appears to have some what of an attitude toward LNG, (its a fuel with possible hazards as are all fuels). So just exactly how did you want the FRA to start testing railroads hauling LNG? This was just a place to start and seems like a good one from a stand point of safety. Fact is LNG has been transported through the northwest by rail already from time to time, not as a commodity but as a fuel for locomotives (ignition source) without incident, first responders were informed on the route and safety was considered by experts in the field. I am also wondering how any one knows that LNG can erupt into catastrophic explosions with blast zones larger and more severe than conflagrations from oil trains. I know my response is rather late and probably won’t be responded to. The fact is LNG is not the answer to our fuel or emissions problems but it is a good candidate as a bridge fuel to get us there, so the testing of transporting it in a semi rural environment seems like a good idea.
Transporting LNG by rail is expensive, dangerous, and bad for the environment. LNG should be transported by pipeline, with additional pipelines constructed when necessary.