Taking Pride in LNG's Safety Record
Vol. 20 No. 6
With this issue, IFW is initiating a column devoted specifically to liquefied natural gas (LNG). We intend to keep readers informed on LNG because it provides clean burning energy for power plants, chemical plants and anywhere methane is used in large quantities.
Simple economics are at work. The growing demand for natural gas is rapidly exceeding the supply available from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. You couldn't drill enough wells in the U.S. to have an adequate supply. The only solution is to find other sources -- Indonesia, Algeria, Malaysia, Nigeria, Australia, Oman, Brunei Darussalem, United Arab Emirates, Russia and Trinidad and Tobago. But you can't just fill a ballon and fly it home. You have to be able to handle it, i.e., compress it, in some manner.
The most logical way is to liquify it. Some liquification plants already exist. LNG is natural gas that has been processed to remove impurities and heavy hydrocarbons, then condensed into a liquid at atmospheric pressure to cooling it to approximately -260 degrees F. This reduces LNG to about 1/600th the volume of natural gas in standard atmospheric conditions, making it much more cost effective to transport.
Worldwide, the safety record of LNG has been phenomenal. There have been fires but no disasters. The largest recent emergency at an LNG facility involved a natural gas leak that filled a high-pressure steam boiler with gases via a combustion fin fan. The explosion inside the boiler fire box resulted in a larger explosion of vapors outside the box. The cause of the explosion was natural gas, not LNG.
Some critics have LNG confused with U-328. From Boston to California, the destructive potential of LNG in large quantities has been equated with an atomic bomb. After 9/11, LNG tankers were temporarily barred from Boston Harbor. Some studies suggest that an accident involving an LNG tanker could create a giant plume of methane that might stretch miles before igniting, spreading damage and fatal injuries. Hogwash.
If reseach done at the BP LNG training facility in Texas has taught us anything it's that LNG can be a lot more reasonable and forgiving than a shipload of gasoline or propane. Most experts agree that since LNG is a liquid rather than a compressed gas, spilled LNG would vaporize from its liquid form, then disperse or burn slowly if ignited, rather than explode. Only one serious accident has involved LNG since long distance transportation started in the 1960s. It was at a LNG liquefaction plant. No accidents have yet occurred involving LNG tankers or their fueling terminals.
Critics fall back on several important historical incidents in their opposition to LNG. In 1941, the East Ohio Gas Company built the first commercial LNG peakshaving facility in Cleveland, OH. In 1944, a new storage tank was added to the facility. The design had shortcomings. Because stainless steel alloys were scarce during World War II, the new tank was built using steel with a low nickle content. This made the tank suceptible to turning brittle at sub zero temperatures. Shortly after tank was placed in service it failed, spilling LNG into the street and storm sewer system.
The resulting fire undermined supports for a second tank which toppled and released its contents. All told, 128 people died from spreading fire, not overpressure from an explosion. A government report placed the blame squarely on poor tank engineering. Still, the event set LNG back decades.
Next comes the LNG incident that did not involve any LNG. A massive concrete LNG storage tank had been built. In 1973, after three years of use, the tank was taken out of service and emptied for internal repairs. Designed like a giant thermos bottle, the tank had a lining of mylar and polyurethane foam. Ten months into the rehab program, the tank lining caught fire. A buildup of pressure from expansion of hot gases lifted the tank's concrete dome and brought it crashing down into the tank. All 37 workers inside died. Using flammable polyurethane as a liner represented another engineering blunder that gave LNG an undeserved black eye. Although operating procedures called explosion-proof equipment inside the tank, it is believed that heat from an iron heater caused the fire.
Despite the fact that no LNG was involved in the Staten Island disaster fire officials slapped a moratorium on the construction of any new LNG facilities in New York. Legislators still debate lifting the ban lifted despite steadily increasing fuel costs. Fire Chief John O'Hagan made it his personal business to keep LNG out of New York in the ensuing decades.
Unfounded fears are what we have to fight -- NIMBY, for Not In My Back Yard. At the 2005 Industrial Fire World Conference and Exposition we presented a two-day seminar on LNG that included live burn demonstrations on how LNG can be controlled using high expansion foam and dry chemical. Attending were government and elected officials from across the country. What we heard from our attendees can be summerized in one line -- "That's not nearly as bad as I thought it was."
A repeat of this seminar is set for March 30-31, 2006, at our next conference and exposition in Baton Rouge, LA. o