Exports of U.S. Natural Gas May Present Risks From Receiving Countries

Energy and Commerce Forum

On Oct. 10, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power convened a panel of ambassadors and energy and trade ministers from Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean to discuss the geopolitical implications of the U.S. expanding its export capabilities for liquefied natural gas (LNG).  The delegates primarily highlighted potential economic benefits to receiving nations, such as increased competition in the market and security of supply, and spoke little of the risks that LNG operations pose to human health and the environment.

With respect to environmental impacts of exporting LNG from the U.S., the overall consensus among delegates was that greater access to LNG would allow importing nations that are heavily dependent on dirty fossil fuels to rely more on cleaner natural gas to meet energy demands and eventually transition to renewables.  Further, many of the delegates asserted that natural gas would allow them to assist with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  However, studies show the reductions in carbon dioxide achieved by switching from coal to natural gas are more than offset by methane leaks from natural gas operations.

Delegates from India, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea were asked whether their nations are in a position to use the latest and best technology to ensure natural gas operations within their borders could be conducted safely without pipeline spills or other forms of pollution.  India’s deputy chief of mission and Singapore’s ambassador to the U.S. assured the subcommittee that they are focused on using the best available technology in developing import infrastructure.  South Korea’s ambassador to the U.S. and Japan’s minister of energy policy both said they are confident that they have the technology in place to satisfy environmental concerns, touting their years of experience with LNG imports and safety record to date. 

However, it is still unclear whether these and other importing nations have the adequate infrastructure and regulatory systems in place to mitigate the health, safety, and environmental risks associated with importing and transporting LNG.  Despite typical claims from industry that importing and exporting natural gas is perfectly safe, many risks are involved at every stage of operations.  The chart below lists past accidents involving LNG operations around the world. 

Year Location Description Fatalities Cost (in millions)
1944 Cleveland, OH Tank failed and no earthen berm in place.  A vapor cloud formed and filled the surrounding streets and storm sewer system.  Natural gas in the vaporizing pool ignited and caused explosion; destroys 1 square mile of Cleveland 130 890
1965 Canvey Island, UK Explosion during LNG transfer operation 1 2
1971 La Spezia LNG Import Terminal, Italy LNG Vessel Esso Brega leaked 2,000 tons of fuel.  First documented LNG rollover accident.  Tank developed sudden pressure increase and LNG vapor discharged from the tank safety valves and vents.  Tank roof slightly damaged. 0 1
1973 Staten Island, NY

LNG tank taken out of service and emptied due to suspected leak.  While repairing tears in tank lining, the liner ignited and caused explosion; concrete roof dislodged and fell onto workers

40 15
1977 Arzew, Algeria LNG released from storage facility; fire and explosion 1 1
1979 Cove Point, MD LNG leaked into electrical substation and was ignited by a circuit breaker; fire and explosion 1 9
1988 Boston, MA LNG facility spilled 30,000 gallons 0 12
1993 Bontang, Indonesia LNG liquefaction facility leaked fuel into underground sewer system and underwent rapid vapor expansion that ruptured sewer pipes; substantial damage to sewer system 0 15
2004 Skilda, Algeria Explosions and fire at LNG facility; blast spread outward, damaging surrounding structures and facilities, including a nearby power plant, a berth at the harbor and numerous homes and other buildings in the community 27 54

Source: Center for Energy Economics, LNG Safety and Security, tbl 4, 5: “Major Energy-related Incidents Worldwide, 1907-2007” (June 2012)

Before the U.S. moves forward on LNG export projects, we must perform a thorough assessment of the potential risks posed by LNG operations, both within our borders and in importing nations.  Given the history of LNG accidents, it would be irresponsible for the U.S. to move forward hastily without ensuring that the proper systems are in place to protect public health and safety and the environment.

Editor's Note (10/21/13): This article has been updated since its original publication date.

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Katie: As just about anyone in the industry or in journalism could tell you, the Staten Island incident did not involve LNG. Please note this in your blog and get your facts straight. Also, while the Cleveland incident was a tragedy and over a hundred people lost their lives, changes have been made to materials and processes over the last almost 70 years to prevent this from occurring again (meaning facilities are no longer designed using Cleveland materials). Please make these corrections and notes. Thank you.