LNG II: Safety History
In my last post, I began the process of trying to seperate fact from hyperbole in an attempt to begin to understand the real issues surrounding building or expanding an LNG storage facility in Rhode Island or somewhere on Narragansett Bay. From that post I concluded that the central issue was safety and that it was a real concern. I took a few steps down the path of assuming that there would be no palatable on-shore solution. As such, I considered the efficacy of off-shore facilities, though these are not without their own issues. With that being said, I think it worthwhile to go back and consider the safety history of LNG.
First, I’ll address the safety of LNG tankers because it will be short. According to the University of Houston Institute for Law, Energy and Enterprise
Overall, the LNG industry has an excellent safety record compared to refineries and other petrochemical plants. Worldwide, there are 17 LNG export (liquefaction) terminals, 40 import (regasification) terminals, and 136 LNG ships, altogether handling approximately 120 million metric tons of LNG every year. LNG has been safely delivered across the ocean for over 40 years. In that time there have been over 33,000 LNG carrier voyages, covering more than 60 million miles, without major accidents or safety problems either in port or on the high seas. LNG carriers frequently transit high traffic density areas. For example in 2000, one cargo entered Tokyo Bay every 20 hours, on average, and one cargo a week entered Boston harbor.(1) The LNG industry has had to meet stringent standards set by countries such as the U.S., Japan, Australia, and European nations.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy,(2) over the life of the industry, eight marine incidents worldwide have resulted in spillage of LNG, with some hulls damaged due to cold fracture, but no cargo fires have occurred. Seven incidents not involving spillage were recorded, two from groundings, but with no significant cargo loss; that is, repairs were quickly made and leaks were avoided. There have been no LNG shipboard fatalities.
Sources: (1) Phil Bainbridge, VP BP Global LNG, LNG in North America and the Global Context, IELE/AIPN Meeting University of Houston, October 2002; (2) Juckett, Don, U.S. Department of Energy, Properties of LNG. LNG Workshop, MD, 2002.
As far as facility safety, there have been more notable instances (from the same web site)
Isolated accidents with fatalities occurred at several onshore facilities in the early years of the industry. More stringent operational and safety regulations have since been implemented.
Cleveland, Ohio, 1944
In 1939, the first commercial LNG peakshaving plant was built in West Virginia. In 1941, the East Ohio Gas Company built a second facility in Cleveland. The peakshaving plant operated without incident until 1944, when the facility was expanded to include a larger tank. A shortage of stainless steel alloys during World War II led to compromises in the design of the new tank. The tank failed shortly after it was placed in service allowing LNG to escape, forming a vapor cloud that filled the surrounding streets and storm sewer system. The natural gas in the vaporizing LNG pool ignited resulting in the deaths of 128 people in the adjoining residential area. The conclusion of the investigating body, the U.S. Bureau of Mines, was that the concept of liquefying and storing LNG was valid if “proper precautions were observed.”(1) A recent report by the engineering consulting firm, PTL,(2) concluded that, had the Cleveland tank been built to current codes, this accident would not have happened. In fact, LNG tanks properly constructed of 9 percent nickel steel have never had a crack failure in their 35-year history.
Staten Island, New York, February 1973
In February 1973, an industrial accident unrelated to the presence of LNG occurred at the Texas Eastern Transmission Company peakshaving plant on Staten Island. In February 1972, the operators, suspecting a possible leak in the tank, took the facility out of service. Once the LNG tank was emptied, tears were found in the mylar lining. During the repairs, vapors associated with the cleaning process apparently ignited the mylar liner. The resultant fire caused the temperature in the tank to rise, generating enough pressure to dislodge a 6-inch thick concrete roof, which then fell on the workers in the tank killing 40 people.
The Fire Department of the City of New York report of July 1973(3) determined the accident was clearly a construction accident and not an “LNG accident”.
In 1998, the New York Planning Board, while re-evaluating a moratorium on LNG facilities, concluded the following with respect to the Staten Island accident: “The government regulations and industry operating practices now in place would prevent a replication of this accident. The fire involved combustible construction materials and a tank design that are now prohibited. Although the exact causes may never be known, it is certain that LNG was not involved in the accident and the surrounding areas outside the facility were not exposed to risk.”(4)
Cove Point, Maryland, October 1979(5)
Finally, in October 1979, an explosion occurred within an electrical substation at the Cove Point, MD receiving terminal. LNG leaked through an inadequately tightened LNG pump electrical penetration seal, vaporized, passed through 200 feet of underground electrical conduit, and entered the substation. Since natural gas was never expected in this building, there were no gas detectors installed in the building. The natural gas-air mixture was ignited by the normal arcing contacts of a circuit breaker resulting in an explosion. The explosion killed one operator in the building, seriously injured a second and caused about $3 million in damages.
This was an isolated accident caused by a very specific set of circumstances. The National Transportation Safety Board(6) found that the Cove Point Terminal was designed and constructed in conformance with all appropriate regulations and codes. However, as a result of this accident, three major design code changes were made at the Cove Point facility prior to reopening. Those changes are applicable industry-wide.
(1) U.S. Bureau of Mines, Report on the Investigation of the Fire at the Liquefaction, Storage, and Regasification Plant of the East Ohio Gas Co., Cleveland, Ohio, October 20, 1944, February 1946;(2) Lewis, James P, Outtrim, Patricia A., Lewis, William W., and Perry, Lui Xin, PTL: LNG, The Basics, Report prepared for BP, May 2001;(3) Fire Department of the City of New York, Report of Texas Eastern LNG Tank Fatal Fire and Roof Collapse, February 10, 1973, July 1973;(4) New York Energy Planning Board, Report on Issues Regarding the Existing New York Liquefied Natural Gas Moratorium, November 1998;(5) The content in this section is taken from CH-IV International Report Safety History of International LNG Operations, June 2002;(6) National Transportation Safety Board Report, Columbia LNG Corporation Explosion and Fire; Cove Point, MD; October 6, 1979, NTSB-PAR-80-2, April 16, 1980.
Thus, the subsequent safety record speaks for itself. This is why I suspect that the opponents of LNG wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if the spectre of terrorism didn’t loom. It’s a substantial leg. I fully appreciate the legitimate worry surrounding that aspect of safety concerns and in my next entry will endeavor to look at the safety steps being taken….and whether they will really be enough.