Enviro groups fight plans to bring explosive natural gas in untested train cars into NJ

How do you feel about a train carrying a massively explosive substance in 100 untested rail cars rolling through your neighborhood every day? How about two of them?

Decide quick, because there’s a plan in the works to take natural gas from the Marcellus field in Pennsylvania, pump it to a liquefaction plant, load it onto train cars and transport it—through Allentown, Philadelphia, Camden and other densely populated communities—to an export facility in Gibbstown, New Jersey, where it would be pumped on the dock onto ships for foreign export. 

It would be the first major instance of transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail, after the Trump administration opened the door for such a process in 2020. 

For years, rail cars carrying crude oil have travelled through New Jersey, often from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota—some 30 million gallons of the substance come to the region every week. Though that’s not safe, LNG transport by rail potentially poses even more risks. Twenty-two tank cars carrying LNG hold the power of the Hiroshima bomb, according to Earthjustice, which filed a legal challenge to the rule last year with Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) and other environmental groups. 

“There’s a very good reason liquefied natural gas has never been shipped by rail in this country, and that’s because it’s wildly unsafe,” says Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council, which is part of the suit. “I don’t want these dangerous trains going through my neighborhood, and trust me, you don’t either.”

Because LNG must be pressurized before transport in a rail car, in the event of any loss of containment (that is, via a derailment, crash or imperfection in a train car), LNG would expand 600 times, likely creating what’s known as a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE). Think: massive blast wave, flying shrapnel and fireballs. 

Too, the LNG would be transported in rail cars that have not been tested to carry the substance. 

“This is very novel and unique, that’s one of the reasons it’s a dangerous project,” says Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of DRN. “This is the first time a project with liquefied gas would be built way up into the shale field and then transported over lands in the U.S. It’s one of the reasons we’re so concerned about it. … These rail cars have never been used, have never been tested for LNG. So to say they thought it would be safe… they didn’t do an environmental impact study [EIS], Army Corps did not do an EIS, PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] did not do an EIS. What that really means is the safety of environmental impacts have not been [tested].” 

So: When did we sign up for this? And: Who allowed this project to progress as far as it has?

It’s been a piecemeal process, Carluccio says. The quick backstory (though, read this DRN report for a more detailed summary) is that New Fortress Energy (NFE) bought the old Dupont plant in Gibbstown, sited on the Delaware River, with stated plans to develop one dock. DRN and other groups opposed the plan because of the history of pollution at the site—dredging the area to build the new dock would release chemicals in an area now used by protected wildlife species.

Carluccio says NFE, at that time, did not propose bringing in LNG. But over time, the message appeared in the tea leaves. Plans for a liquefaction plant, where natural gas is condensed, were proposed in Pennsylvania. A second dock was proposed at the old Dupont plant, and was passed by the Delaware River Basin Commission (made up of a federal rep and the governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware). Recognizing that this could be a terminal for LNG export, DRN and other groups did some digging, determined the direction this was heading, and appealed the DRBC approval. They got another hearing, but ultimately, the commission gave its final approval late last year.

However, Carluccio says, the efforts to delay approval by the DRBC pushed back the time construction could begin on the new terminal—due to protections of the Atlantic sturgeon, infrastructure projects can’t occur between March and Sept. 15. 

It also opened a window for federal regulators to double-back on the plans. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is charged with overseeing LNG transportation infrastructure, among other duties. It’s a little complicated, but because NFE built an LNG import facility in Puerto Rico, where LNG exported from Gibbstown would ostensibly go (among other places) without FERC’s approval, the agency ruled several months ago that NFE must apply for a permit. NFE is challenging that ruling.

Still, NFE, via its subsidiary Energy Transfer Solutions, has a permit to transport LNG by rail: in fact, up to two 100-car trains a day, which would sit at the export dock before being loaded onto ships. This week, DRN and other groups sent an updated letter to President Biden to rescind the approval, citing the untested rail cars in which LNG would transported—they were designed 50 years ago and intended to be filled with other materials—and the lack of environmental impact studies done on nearly all parts of the greater transportation and export plan.

Too, the lawsuit challenging the rulemaking that allows LNG transport by rail is still ongoing. Former New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal joined the lawsuit, but Carluccio says more weight can be given to the fight if others get involved.

“We said to Gov. Murphy, ‘Hey, you’re opposing the federal rule-making and yet you’re not opposing the special permit; are you going to join with us and work to get these special permits rescinded?’ That special permit expires in November. We are hoping the Biden administration does not allow the permit to be extended.”

And, for a state pushing renewable energy, and for a commission (DRBC) that acted strongly on banning fracking and fracking-related operations in the Delaware River Basin earlier this year, it would seem counterintuitive to not put their resources into preventing LNG by rail—or at least ensure it has done everything to do it “safely.”

Another bare-minimum measure that could at least ensure a few safety protocols should this project come to fruition—passage of SB-991, which would require train operators in NJ to have cleanup and contingency plans on the books for rail spills and accidents. But, you know, let’s hope it never comes to that.