LNG facilities: siting, safety, regulation

An August 19 fire and gas leak at the Tilbury Island LNG facility reminds of the fuel’s inherent dangers. Luckily, Delta’s Firehall No. 7 is only 1,500 meters from the Fortis property and the situation resulted in minimal damages and injuries.

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However, consider what might result if the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant suffered a fire related incident at the site where firefighters are not two minutes away.

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The following discussion of LNG issues was published here three years ago:

When British Columbia conducts LNG negotiations behind closed doors, without public statements of principles or bargaining frameworks, citizens should worry. I have written about our government’s willingness to provide the gas industry with 9-figure production subsidies and Liberal aversion to collection of natural gas royalties but there is another subject to consider.

It is the safety and security of LNG facilities, which is vital, particularly if government allows construction without, in the words of Jefferson, the consent of the governed.

I examined much recent political and business reporting in BC and found only one article that briefly discussed LNG safety issues. While there is not much in the Canadian press, there is more to be found elsewhere. These are extracts from a report by the Congressional Research Bureau, written four years ago:

Physical Hazards of LNG

Natural gas is combustible, so an uncontrolled release of LNG poses a hazard of fire or, in confined spaces, explosion. LNG also poses hazards because it is so cold. The likelihood and severity of catastrophic LNG events have been the subject of controversy. While questions remain about the credible impacts of specific LNG hazards, there appears to be consensus as to what the most serious hazards are.

Pool Fires

If LNG spills near an ignition source, evaporating gas will burn above the LNG pool. The resulting “pool fire” would spread as the LNG pool expanded away from its source and continued evaporating. A pool fire is intense, burning far more hotly and rapidly than oil or gasoline fires.

It cannot be extinguished—all the LNG must be consumed before it goes out. Because an LNG pool fire is so hot, its thermal radiation may injure people and damage property a considerable distance from the fire itself. Many experts agree that a large pool fire, especially on water, is the most serious LNG hazard.

Flammable Vapor Clouds

If LNG spills but does not immediately ignite, the evaporating natural gas will form a vapor cloud that may drift some distance from the spill site. If the cloud subsequently encounters an ignition source, those portions of the cloud with a combustible gas-air concentration will burn. Because only a fraction of such a cloud would have a combustible gas-air concentration, the cloud would not likely ignite all at once, but the fire could still cause considerable damage.

An LNG vapor cloud fire would gradually burn its way back to the LNG spill where the vapors originated and would continue to burn as a pool fire.

Other Safety Hazards

LNG spilled on water could (theoretically) regasify almost instantly in a “flameless explosion,” although an Idaho National Engineering Laboratory report concluded that “transitions caused by mixing of LNG and water are not violent.”

LNG vapor clouds are not toxic, but they could cause asphyxiation by displacing breathable air. Such clouds may begin near the ground (or water) when they are still very cold, but rise in air as they warm, diminishing the threat to people.

Due to its extremely low temperature, LNG could injure people or damage equipment through direct contact. Such contact would likely be limited, however, as a major spill would likely result in a more serious fire. The environmental damage associated with an LNG spill would be confined to fire and freezing impacts near the spill since LNG dissipates completely and leaves no residue.

Terrorism Hazards

LNG tankers and land-based facilities could be vulnerable to terrorism. Tankers might be physically attacked in a variety of ways to release their cargo—or commandeered for use as weapons against coastal targets. LNG terminal facilities might also be physically attacked with explosives or through other means. Some LNG facilities may also be indirectly disrupted by “cyber-attacks” or attacks on regional electricity grids and communications networks which could in turn affect dependent LNG control and safety systems…

Key Policy Issues

Proposals for new LNG terminal facilities have generated considerable public concern in many communities. Some community groups and government officials fear that LNG terminals may expose nearby residents to unacceptable hazards…

General Accounting Office (GAO) in 1979 testimony to Congress supporting remote siting in the Pipeline Safety Act:

We believe remote siting is the primary factor in safety. Because of the inevitable uncertainties inherent in large-scale use of new technologies and the vulnerability of the facilities to natural phenomena and sabotage, the public can be best protected by placing these facilities away from densely populated areas.

Terror Attractiveness

Potential terrorist attacks on LNG terminals or tankers in the United States have been a key concern of policy makers because such attacks could cause catastrophic fires in ports and nearby populated areas. A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office states that, “the shipbased supply chain for energy commodities,” specifically including LNG, “remains threatened and vulnerable, and appropriate security throughout the chain is essential to ensure safe and efficient delivery.”

To date, no LNG tanker or land-based LNG facility in the world has been attacked by terrorists. However, similar natural gas and oil assets have been terror targets internationally. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) included LNG tankers among a list of potential terrorist targets in a security alert late in 2003.

The DHS also reported that “in early 2001 there was some suspicion of possible associations between stowaways on Algerian flagged LNG tankers arriving in Boston and persons connected with the so-called ‘Millennium Plot'” to bomb targets in the United States. Although these suspicions could not be proved, DHS stated that “the risks associated with LNG shipments are real, and they can never be entirely eliminated.”

The 2004 report by Sandia National Laboratories concluded that potential terrorist attacks on LNG tankers could be considered “credible and possible.”

Former Bush Administration counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke has asserted that terrorists have both the desire and capability to attack LNG shipping with the intention of harming the general population.

Public Costs of LNG Marine Security

The potential increase in security costs from growing U.S. LNG imports, and the potential diversion of Coast Guard and safety agency resources from other activities have been a persistent concern to policy makers.

…Coast Guard staff have acknowledged that resources dedicated to securing maritime LNG might be otherwise deployed for boating safety, search and rescue, drug interdiction, or other security missions.

Developer Employee Disclosure

Some policy makers have been concerned that LNG terminal developers may engage in nonpublic community lobbying or other similar activities promoting individual LNG terminals. Concern arises that these activities may limit public information and awareness about proposed terminals and, therefore, may impede the federal LNG siting review process. Accordingly, legislation proposed in the 110th Congress would have required an applicant for siting approval for an LNG terminal to identify each of its employees and agents engaged in activities to persuade communities of the benefits of the terminal. Supporters of such a policy view it as a means of ensuring public transparency in LNG terminal siting.

Categories: LNG, Natural Gas

4 replies »

  1. Sometimes our health and and safety is determined by events completely out of our control such as the Hope Slide. Sometimes our health and safety is determined by events within our control such as the Challenger disaster (flying in a rocket ship built by 'lowest bid'). Sometimes we choose a little poison over a long time to deny our inheritors their inheritance such as an oil spill like the Exon Valdez. As of yet, we have not experienced a big 'poison' over a very short period of time such as an LNG explosion. The end result is similar, no heirs and no inheritance.


  2. And we used to say, one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. From this read, it would appear, one LNG explosion could ruin your whole life.

    Good article.


  3. One LNG tanker blown up in Douglas Channel and there wouldn't be any need for dredging for a long time.
    Also a terrorist attack on an LNG terminal facility in Kitimat and you could say goodbye to all the oil port facilities.
    Maybe we can all be employed as security guards. Chuckle


  4. And the Woodfibre LNG shipping route is very weak on current international safety standards, schools, communities & 3 major ferry routes, all in the potential “blast zone”…


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