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WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is moving to allow railroads nationwide to ship liquefied natural gas as part of a push to increase energy exports -- a practice that has been banned until now because of the uncertain hazards it presents.

A proposed Transportation Department rule allowing liquefied natural gas shipments and imposing no additional safety regulations has drawn widespread criticism from local elected officials, attorneys general from 15 states and the District of Columbia, firefighters' organizations, unions that represent railroad employees, environmentalists, and the National Transportation Safety Board. President Donald Trump has set a deadline of May 10 to put the rule into effect, nearly eight months before results are expected from a Federal Railroad Administration study of the safety of the tank cars that would be used.

Small amounts of liquefied natural gas have been transported by rail on a trial basis in Alaska and Florida. But if the new rule is adopted, trains of 100 or more tank cars, each with a capacity of 30,000 gallons, could start carrying the gas, primarily from shale fields to saltwater ports, where it would be loaded onto ships for export. They could traverse dozens or hundreds of jurisdictions across the country, some that rely on volunteer firefighters as the first emergency responders, while others are major population centers.

While the proposed rule has caught the attention of regulators and public-safety experts, it has largely escaped notice by the general public, and the window to comment on the rule recently closed.

Energy companies and railroads have been pushing to lift the ban at a time when a domestic gas glut has depressed U.S. prices. Trump, to prop up exports of fossil fuels, ordered the Department of Transportation last April to devise the rule and imposed a 13-month deadline. Critics say that leaves nowhere near enough time to assess the dangers and design the safeguards that should be required.

"The risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate," the transportation safety board, an independent federal agency, wrote in a comment on the proposed rule.

"The whole thing in my mind is very dangerous," said Susan Mehiel, director of the Florida Alliance for Safe Trains, which opposes a plan to ship gas on the Florida East Coast Railway through her hometown of Vero Beach. "It's a really dangerous corridor. It goes through very densely populated areas."

In his April executive order, Trump said the rule was necessary as one of a string of measures that would help the United States fully realize the economic potential of its energy resources. For the sake of efficiency, he wrote, the country has to "reduce regulatory uncertainties."

Supporters of the rule, including the Association of American Railroads, say trains have fewer accidents than trucks, which can currently carry liquefied natural gas. They point out that ships have carried liquefied natural gas for 60 years without catastrophes. Rail transit would allow large amounts of gas -- as much as 3 million gallons in one train -- to be delivered to terminals for export, as well as to areas such as the Northeast that have limited pipeline capacity.

American railroads "have an excellent safety record in transporting hazardous materials," and relying on their own voluntary safety policies, as envisioned by the proposed rule, is appropriate, Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of the Association of American Railroads, wrote in a comment also endorsed by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

Taking liquefied natural gas trucks off the highway in favor of rail "has the potential to increase fuel economy and cut greenhouse gas emissions associated with the movement of liquefied natural gas by 75%, and particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions by significant quantities, as well," Mike O'Malley, president of the Railway Supply Institute, wrote in a comment.

Opponents, pointing to numerous fires and explosions that have occurred in accidents involving oil-carrying trains, argue the haste in drawing up the rule hinders any meaningful consideration of safety.

"President Trump surely knew this when he issued his executive order," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat and short-lived presidential candidate, wrote in a comment. "To move forward without an adequate review is to place the public's safety at significant risk."

Liquefied natural gas and petroleum have different characteristics, but spectacular accidents involving trains of oil tank cars have given critics ammunition.

In 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed when a runaway train derailed and exploded into flames. Six months later, an oil train rammed into the derailed cars of a grain-carrying train in Casselton, N.D., unleashing exploding fireballs and forcing the evacuation of more than 1,400 people from the area. The crews of the two trains were on different radio frequencies.

On Feb. 6, a Canadian Pacific train carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames outside Guernsey, Saskatchewan. A CSX train carrying ethanol ignited after it derailed in eastern Kentucky on Feb. 13.

Liquefied natural gas is not as likely to detonate as crude oil, experts say, unless after escaping a damaged tank car it gathers in a confined space, such as a tunnel. But even in the open, if a car was breached, an escaping vapor cloud could ignite and burn at extreme temperatures while it potentially drifted downwind from the scene of the accident. There is no way to extinguish such a fire other than to let it burn out, as noted in the joint statement by the state attorneys general, citing a 2010 study.

Another danger would be presented by the sudden failure of a tank car's "thermos," which must maintain a temperature of minus-260 degrees to keep the gas in a liquid state. Above that temperature, it expands. If safety valves fail, what engineers call a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion would follow, probably blowing the damaged tank car apart and putting anyone nearby at risk.

Business on 03/04/2020

Print Headline: Rule on track for rail transit of LNG

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