Seven members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation have urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to permanently ban shipments of liquefied natural gas by rail, arguing that a plan to ship the highly explosive fuel through their districts to a proposed export terminal in New Jersey poses the risk of “catastrophic impacts.’’
The Biden administration had ordered the suspension of gas shipments by rail in November 2021, freezing a controversial 2020 decision by the Trump administration to greenlight the practice. In a letter dated Feb. 24, the Pennsylvania lawmakers, all Democrats, applauded the suspension and called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to act on his department’s proposal to make the ban permanent. A decision is expected this month.
The congressional representatives contend that the Trump administration failed to propose adequate safeguards or conduct the necessary analysis of the potential impacts of allowing liquefied natural gas to be transported in railcars. They also argue that the rule was issued before federal agencies completed safety reviews, that its analysis of the greenhouse gas impacts of a planned Pennsylvania project did not meet federal standards and that regulators did not examine how the shipments would affect minority and disadvantaged communities.
The lawmakers’ concerns focus on a plan by New Fortress Energy, a natural gas investment company, to ship LNG from a proposed liquefaction terminal in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, to a former munitions manufacturing site in Gibbstown, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
The company would ship the gas on trains and trucks along a route of about 175 miles through densely populated areas including Philadelphia, its suburbs and parts of southern New Jersey. At the terminal, the LNG would be loaded onto oceangoing tankers for export.
In 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that Delaware River Partners, a New Fortress affiliate that would build a new dock for the export terminal, estimated that the facility would receive 15 truck deliveries per hour, or 360 in a 24-hour period, with each truck carrying about 12,000 gallons of LNG. Because the rule allowing railroad shipments of the gas had not yet been promulgated by the Trump administration, the Army Corps said then that it could not predict how much of the LNG would arrive by train.
Opponents say that round-the-clock shipments of the highly explosive fuel, whether by truck or train, would expose residents along the route to a potential explosion paralleling the recent derailment of a train carrying toxic vinyl chloride through eastern Ohio. The wrecked traincars burned for days there, prompting evacuations and raising health and environmental concerns.
Lawmakers said that incident in early February showed that any federal regulation governing the transport of hazardous materials like LNG should rely on a careful analysis of the risks and ensure the protection of communities and workers.
“The rail lines on which the LNG would travel pass through densely populated areas, creating even more risks of catastrophic impacts,“ they wrote. The letter was signed by the U.S. representatives Chrissy Houlahan, Madeleine Dean, Brendan Boyle, Matt Cartwright, Dwight Evans, Mary Gay Scanlon and Susan Wild.
Environmental groups have also warned of the dangers. Shipments of LNG through densely populated areas in New Jersey and Pennsylvania would “put communities at grave risk, “ said Kimberly Ong, an attorney for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “Transportation of LNG by rail or truck is an extraordinarily dangerous process.”
She said that any community within two miles of an explosion would be threatened not only by the blast and fires but also suffocating gas clouds.
On another front, critics argue that increased U.S. exports of LNG would stimulate more production by the natural gas industry, including companies drilling in Pennsylvania’s massive Marcellus Shale reserve. Production, combustion and the resulting methane leaks would generate more carbon emissions at a time when federal and state governments are trying to limit the consumption of fossil fuels and to slow global warming, they note.
The New Fortress Energy project has been delayed by the need to secure the needed state permits, federal rules banning construction of a Delaware River dock during the migration season of the critically endangered Atlantic sturgeon and the expiration of a state permit that would have allowed construction of the proposed liquefaction plant in northeast Pennsylvania.
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Under the Trump administration, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PMHSA, granted the project a special permit to ship LNG from Wyalusing to Gibbstown only. The permit was then broadened into the 2020 LNG-by-rail rule, which applied to shipments nationwide until it was suspended by DOT. PHMSA is expected to issue its final decision on the rule and an updated version this month.
Rita Yelda, a spokeswoman for the NRDC, said it might be hard for the project to remain afloat if the DOT finalizes its current ban on shipping LNG by rail. “The Gibbstown project relies heavily on its ability to bring in LNG by rail, so the DOT’s decisions here could make all the difference in the viability of the project, “ she said.
New Fortress Energy did not respond to requests for comment on the lawmakers’ letter. But in an application for a permit renewal submitted to PHMSA in November 2021, it said that transporting LNG by rail was a crucial part of its project. “The capability to move LNG by rail remains integral to the viability of this enterprise and this special permit thus is an important component of this undertaking, “ the company said.
New Fortress Energy said then that natural gas companies had experienced major business disruptions because of the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on supply chains and the workforce but that it planned to press on with its plans for the LNG export program.
“Although these setbacks have impacted the original business models and construction timelines that were in place when our special permit application was submitted, they have not altered NFE’s support for the Wyalusing Facility project,“ it said.