Category Archives: Liquid natural gas

Deregulating Rail Transportation of Liquefied Natural Gas

The Regulatory Review, by Mark Nakahara, Mar 24, 2020

Proposed rule aims to make it easier to ship liquified natural gas by rail.

A new regulation from the Trump Administration may soon make it easier for U.S. companies to ship large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG), an increasingly valuable product. But the new regulation also carries great risks.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently released a proposed rule that would allow for railroads to transport LNG in bulk and without obtaining special permits. Critics, however, worry that PHMSA is acting too quickly and disregarding certain safety concerns.

LNG is a cryogenic liquid—a substance that must be refrigerated below -90°C (-130°F) to maintain its liquid state. Since liquids are more compact than gases, large volumes of substances like LNG can be transported by freight trains.

PHMSA states that LNG is “odorless, colorless, non-corrosive, and non-toxic,” but safety concerns remain. LNG has traditionally been shipped by road or sea, and current regulations only allow the bulk transportation of LNG by rail after a shipper has obtained special approval from PHMSA or the Federal Railroad Administration. Observing that LNG is similar in nature to other substances that may be shipped by rail, the Association of American Railroads petitioned PHMSA to allow LNG to be shipped by rail in standard tank cars.

The issue of LNG transportation reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. In an executive order, President Trump noted that the current LNG regulations were drafted almost 40 years ago when the industry was less developed. As part of an effort to upgrade American energy infrastructure, the President specifically requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation amend the regulations to “treat LNG the same as other cryogenic liquids and permit LNG to be transported in approved rail tank cars.”

Just over six months after the executive order, PHMSA issued its proposed rule.

The proposed rule would permit the shipping of LNG in DOT-113 tank cars, which routinely transport other cryogenic liquids such as liquid hydrogen, nitrogen, and ethylene. Since LNG has similar properties to these liquids, PHMSA anticipates that the cars would be suitable for this task. PHMSA says that it also considered creating specifications for a new type of tank car that would be able to transport LNG over a longer timeframe, but it concluded that this process would only delay the rulemaking process.

The proposed rule also raises and seeks public comment on various operational issues designed to reduce safety risks should a rail accident occur. Since LNG is a hazardous material shipped at high pressure, a derailment or collision involving a tank car can have severe effects.

PHMSA is considering several methods for reducing risk. Following a safety recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board, PHMSA has noted that cars containing LNG could be arranged a safe distance from the train crew in the locomotive. It also has suggested that speed restrictions could be imposed on trains carrying LNG, or that additional routing requirements be fulfilled when scheduling rail shipments of LNG.

Due to a lack of data on LNG rail shipments, PHMSA has not yet proposed any concrete, definitive rule changes addressing these operational issues. PHMSA anticipates that freight trains will only carry a few LNG cars at a time and the agency finds it “uncertain” whether the industry would grow to the point where entire trains would be devoted to LNG.

In a letter to PHMSA, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) expressed concern that the agency had not considered all the risks the proposed rule might create. They recalled that there have been two incidents since 2011 where the protective linings of cryogenic tank cars have been breached. Since the LNG industry continues to grow, the senators worry that increased rail transport of LNG will lead to more such incidents.

The senators have reason to be concerned. In 2016, a crude oil train derailed and caught on fire in their home state of Oregon. The accident released 42,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River Gorge. Due to the geography of the area, emergency response crews faced difficulties in quickly reaching the site. The senators noted that LNG’s high flammability can cause even hotter and more explosive fires than crude oil, a fact that the proposed rule does not cover in detail.

Environmental advocacy groups have similarly criticized the proposed rule. In a comment, Bradley Marshall and Jordan Luebkemann of Earthjustice have stated that PHMSA’s proposal is “unlawful” and fails to address potential adverse effects. Since LNG is more explosive than other cryogenic liquids being shipped by rail, an LNG accident in a populated area could have disastrous consequences.

Marshall and Luebkemann have reportedly found that 3.4% of DOT-113 tank cars have been damaged since 1980. Furthermore, they have observed that PHMSA provided no new data or justification to show that the safety of these tank cars has improved.

PHMSA received almost 400 comments before the comment period closed on January 13, 2020. The agency will now have to consider these comments before issuing any final rule.

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    Derailment explosion – 3rd accident in North America involving upgraded DOT-117R tank cars

    Repost from DeSmog

    Ethanol Train Derails and Burns in Texas, Killing Horses and Spurring Evacuation

    By Justin Mikulka, April 25, 2019
    Fort Worth ethanol train fires
    Screen shot of emergency personnel watching an ethanol train burn near Fort Worth, Texas. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

    Early in the morning on April 24, an ethanol train derailed, exploded, and burned near Fort Worth, Texas, reportedly destroying a horse stable, killing three horses, and causing the evacuation of nearby homes. According to early reports, 20 tank cars left the tracks, with at least five rupturing and burning.

    While specific details have not yet been released, it appears to be a unit train of ethanol using the federally mandated DOT-117R tank cars, based on the images showing tank car markings. This is now the third accident in North America involving the upgraded DOT-117R tank cars, all resulting in major spills of either oil or ethanol.

    This latest fiery derailment highlights the dangers to the estimated 25 million people living within the blast zone along rail lines across North America. While this incident had no human fatalities, the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 killed 47 people, devastating the small Canadian town. As I’ve exhaustively reported, the same risk factors for hauling oil by rail, and increasingly, ethanol, are still in place years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

    In Texas, first responders were quickly on the scene and able to contain the fire, preventing the situation from worsening. When ethanol rail tank cars are involved in fires, the unpunctured tanks can explode as the fire increases the temperature and pressure in the full tanks.

    For example, after a BNSF train derailed in Montana in August 2012, eight of the 14 cars carrying ethanol caught fire, resulting in an explosion and the signature “bomb train” mushroom cloud–shaped ball of fire.

    Video: Fort Worth ethanol train derailment. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

    Ethanol Industry Adopting Risky Oil Train Practices

    In 2016 DeSmog published a series of articles analyzing why oil trains were derailing at over twice the rate of ethanol trains. Likely contributing factors included the fact that the derailing oil trains were longer and heavier than ethanol trains.

    The oil industry was moving oil using “unit trains,” which are long trains dedicated to a single commodity, while the ethanol industry was using shorter trains. The majority of ethanol was shipped as part of manifest trains, carrying multiple types of cargo and not just ethanol.

    As part of the analysis, DeSmog found that derailing ethanol trains tended to be longer trains of 100 or more cars.

    However, longer trains are more profitable, and in 2016 the ethanol industry noted it intended to follow the lead of the oil industry and begin to move more ethanol via long unit trains. This announcement led to the following conclusion in the 2016 DeSmog series:

    “Based on the ethanol industry’s interest in using more unit trains for ‘efficiency,’ and the fact that it is allowed to transport ethanol in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars until 2023, perhaps it won’t be long before ethanol trains are known as bomb trains too.”

    And while the DOT-111 tank cars are less robust than the DOT-117R tank cars, both have a history indicating neither are safe to move flammable liquids in unit trains. And DOT-117R tank cars are heavier than DOT-111s, adding another factor that increases chances for train derailment.

    Bomb Train Risks Continue to Grow

    After a string of oil trains filled with volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale derailed and exploded in 2013 and 2014, there was a push for new safety regulations for trains carrying flammable materials including crude oil and ethanol.

    In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new regulations, which, as DeSmog noted at the time, were a big win for the oil and rail industries and their lobbyists. While touted as increasing safety, these watered-down rules did not address the trains’ known risk factors or require the oil and rail industries to implement proven safety technologies. The one requirement in the new 2015 regulations that would have greatly improved safety mandated that railroads transition to modern braking systems. That requirement has since been repealed.

    The rail industry frequently calls the upgraded tank cars, which include DOT-117Rs and were required by federal regulators, a safety improvement. However, in the first two derailments involving the new cars, those purportedly safer tank cars led to major oil spills. One of those occurred in February in Manitoba, Canada, and now the Fort Worth derailment appears to represent a third example of these upgraded rail cars’ failed safety.

    In 2014 during rail safety discussions, the rail industry was recommending using much more robust tank cars — known as “pressure cars” — to move the volatile crude oil implicated in oil train explosions, but federal regulators did not incorporate the recommendation into the final rules. That is why oil and ethanol continue to be moved in rail cars that fail and lead to large leaks and fires during derailments.

    In Utah a train carrying propane in pressure cars recently derailed, highlighting the risk of even those more robust tank cars. That derailment caused a propane leak, and hazmat experts decided the safest thing to do was detonate the tank cars, a situation possible when in rural Utah. However, health experts were concerned about the impact on air quality for local residents.

    Despite the many examples of the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail, President Trump recently issued an executive order mandating federal regulators allow moving liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail as soon as next year.

    These risks are why a group of people were just arrested for blocking oil train tracks in Oregon. And why legislators in the state of Washington have passed legislation requiring oil be stabilized — to make it less volatile and likely to ignite — prior to its loading on rail tank cars for shipment. Several states also are looking at passing laws requiring two-person crews for freight trains to improve safety. One of the factors cited in the deadly Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster was that the train was operated by a single person.

    States are moving to address these very real, well-documented, and preventable risk factors because the U.S. federal government has fallen short in mitigating those risks to American communities from the oil and rail industries. These regulatory shortcomings, which began under President Obama’s administration, have only intensified under the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory approach. With the prospect of LNG trains in the near future — along with record amounts of oil trains coming from Canada to U.S. ports and refineries — the risks of “bomb train” accidents (the nickname bestowed by nervous rail operators) continue to grow.

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      Trump Order to Allow LNG by Rail Would Expand ‘Bomb Train’ Risks

      Repost from DeSmog

      Deadly explosion in Durham, North Carolina on same day as Trump’s order

      By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, April 17, 2019 – 15:13

      Fiery detonation of a propane train in Utah

      On April 10, first responders in Durham, North Carolina, responded to a suspected natural gas leak. While they were evacuating people from the area, the gas exploded, killing one person and injuring at least 25.

      The same day Durham was dealing with the aftermath of a deadly natural gas explosion, President Donald Trump was issuing an executive order directing federal regulators to create new rules allowing rail companies to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) by train in the next 13 months, or less.

      The gas and rail industries have lobbied for years to allow LNG by rail, and have found a willing partner in the Trump administration. Last week’s executive order was cheered by lobbyists for both natural gas and rail. One lobbyist, Charlie Riedl of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, immediately spoke about the purported safety of moving natural gas in any form.

      It’s really hard to even get it to ignite to begin with in a gaseous format, let alone in a liquid format,” Riedl told Bloomberg.

      Durham, however, might disagree.

      Are Federal Regulators Testing the Safety?

      As I wrote in January 2017, Robert Fronczak, a top official at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a railroad industry lobbying group, gave the industry position on LNG by rail in a late 2016 presentation titled, “Getting LNG Onto the Rails.”

      At the Energy by Rail conference, Fronczak noted that the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was researching the risks of transporting LNG by rail, but that according to Fronczak, “That could take several years to do and we don’t think it’s necessary to wait all that long … We think they should allow it immediately.”

      Fronczak’s presentation also included a slide titled, “What DOT Should Do?” (DOT refers to the Department of Transportation.) His presentation recommended transporting LNG in a class of refrigerated tank cars called DOT-113, which is used to move the hydrocarbon ethylene.

      From Getting LNG Onto the Rails presentation October 27, 2016. Credit: Robert Fronczak, AAR

      In 2017, DeSmog asked the Federal Railroad Administration about the planned testing around LNG by rail, but the response provided few details: “The testing is still ongoing … there’s no prediction yet on a completion date.”

      Last week DeSmog inquired again about the status of this research and received a similar response: “Additional tests are planned this year and next but full details are not yet available.”

      These answers are typical of the communication from the FRA these days.

      In a follow-up email I asked one question, “Simply put, how can we assure people that this is safe when the research hasn’t been done?”

      The FRA‘s emailed response did not answer the question directly but, just as in Fronczak’s presentation, referenced the refrigerated tank cars used to transport ethylene: ”DOT-113 cryogenic tank cars have been in service for approximately 50 years transporting ethylene, refrigerated liquid (ethylene and methane have the same cryogenic and flammable characteristics) with a good safety record.” (Natural gas is primarily methane.)

      The president has mandated that regulations allowing LNG by rail be in place in 13 months. However, the FRA currently isn’t providing any public information on actions the agency is taking to ensure this can be done safely. And while it is true that the DOT-113 tank cars have been moving hazardous materials safely for years, the number of these tanks cars in service is quite low compared to crude oil and ethanol. In 2015 there were under 13,000 car loads of product moved using DOT-113 tank cars.

      To put that in perspective, according to a 2014 AAR documentU.S. railroads were transporting 9,500 carloads of crude oil in 2008 but by 2013, that number skyrocketed to 407,761 carloads. Crude oil trains weren’t experiencing major derailments before rail companies shifted to transporting oil in long unit trains of 100 cars or more at high volumes, which was the case in 2013, the year of the deadly Lac-Mégantic crude oil derailment.

      The problems with moving oil by rail showed up once large amounts of crude oil began moving in these long trains dedicated to just moving crude oil (unit trains). As I’ve noted on DeSmog, the oil-by-rail boom also coincided with the use of heavier rail cars that could hold up to 286,000 pounds when fully loaded. The DOT-113 tank cars likely to carry LNG can hold the same weight.

      In pushing for LNG by rail, Fronczak was just doing his job, which is to promote rail industry interests, that is, profits. That is what lobbyists are paid to do.

      When contacted for comment, the AAR pointed to its recent press release on Trump’s executive order and the AAR‘s petition to allow LNG by rail. The rail lobbying group did not address questions about the AAR‘s current position on unit trains and train length regulations for LNG.

      However, unlike the AAR, the FRA‘s job is to regulate the rail industry and protect the public from unnecessary risks.

      Misleading Media Headlines

      A headline on a story from the oil and gas trade site Oilprice.com, which also appeared on Yahoo Finance, dismisses concerns about the dangers of LNG by rail: “Environmentalists’ “Bomb Train” Concerns Are Overblown.” (“Bomb train” is the nickname rail operators gave oil trains after they began exploding with giant fireballs after derailing.)

      While the headline is dismissive, the story itself includes information contradicting the headline and spelling out the very real safety concerns regarding LNG by rail. It mentions “plenty of cautionary tales from previous experiments in sending oil and gas by rail, from spills, explosions, and accidents” to the oil train disaster that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.

      Despite its headline and after citing industry views on the relative safety of LNG, the story goes on to say, “While that sounds like any cause for alarm and cries of ‘bomb trains’ is overblown, however, there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNGwere ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air.”

      Utah’s Propane Bomb Train Previews LNG by Rail

      An important detail in this conversation about moving LNG by rail is that the LNG likely would travel in much more robust, safer tank cars, the DOT-113 line, than even the new cars used to move ethanol and oil. Even though rail companies now are transporting oil in newer tank cars, those cars have failed repeatedly during derailments, resulting in large oil spills.

      Liquefied propane currently travels in DOT-112 tank cars, which are also more robust than the ones used for oil and ethanol. At the end of March, a train moving propane in Utah derailed and the damage led to some propane leaking. However, the derailment was nothing like the typical oil train derailment, with multiple ruptured cars and major product releases.

      Why aren’t oil and ethanol moved in the same tank cars as propane? This idea was floated at one point as the Department of Transportation was preparing its 2015 oil-by-rail regulations, but industry lobbyists quickly vetoed it. As a result, the tank cars that oil and ethanol travel in remain one of the many risk factors surrounding these products’ transport.

      The accident in Utah showed that the tank cars used to move propane do a better job at preventing product leases than the ones used to move crude oil. However, it also highlights the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail.

      While the train in Utah didn’t explode on its own after derailing, the damage to the rail cars carrying the propane and its explosion risks led responders to decide the best way to deal with the derailed cars was to detonate them in place.


      Video of propane tank car detonation in Juab County, Utah. Credit: Juab County Sheriff’s Office

      This was possible because it was in rural Utah, more than 70 miles from Salt Lake City and six miles outside a town of less than 700. However, the natural gas and rail industries’ top priority for introducing LNG by rail is to move LNG to the Northeast, which is experiencing pipeline bottlenecks.

      That means trains carrying LNG would go by and through major cities.

      Can you safely detonate rail cars full of flammable gas in a major population center?

      As the U.S. grapples with a potential boom in moving fracked natural gas-turned-LNG across this country using long, heavy unit trains, it seems like a question the FRA should be examining. As I’ve documented over the years, we know what happened when federal regulators failed to do this before the crude-by-rail boom: We discovered “bomb trains.”

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        Rail Safety bill passes off California Senate Floor with bipartisan support

        Press Release from California Senator Lois Wolk

        Rail Safety bill passes off Senate Floor with bipartisan support

        Bill requires minimum two–person train crews

        5/11/2015 12:21 PM

        SACRAMENTO—Legislation by Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) to protect communities along rail lines by requiring trains and light engines carrying freight within California to be operated with an adequate crew size for public safety reasons secured passage from the Senate last Thursday on a bipartisan 23-11 vote.

        “Today’s freight trains carry extremely dangerous materials, including Bakken crude oil, ethanol, anhydrous ammonia, liquefied petroleum gas, and acids that may pose significant health and safety risks to communities and our environment in the case of an accident,” said Wolk. “With more than 5,000 miles of railroad track that crisscrosses the state through wilderness and urban areas, the potential for derailment or other accidents containing these materials is an ever present danger.”

        SB 730 prohibits a freight train or light engine in California from being operated unless it has a crew consisting of at least 2 individuals.   It also authorizes the California Public Utilities Commission to assess civil penalties, at its discretion, against anyone who willfully violates this prohibition.

        The California Public Utilities Commission supports SB 730, stating that requiring two-person crews is a straightforward way of ensuring two qualified crew members continue to operate freight trains in California.  According to the Commission, of all the industries subject to their oversight — energy, water, telecommunications, and transportation –rail accidents result in the greatest number of fatalities each year.

        “Senator Wolk’s legislation helps keep us at the forefront of rail safety, ” said Paul King, Deputy Director of the Office of Rail Safety for the California Public Utilities Commission. “Senator Wolk’s bill would ensure that freight trains continue to have the safety redundancy that a second person provides. Such redundancy is a fundamental safety principle that is evidenced in certain industries, such as using two pilots in an airplane cockpit, or requiring back-up cooling systems for nuclear reactors.”

        SB 730 will be heard next in the Assembly sometime in June.

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