The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration moving to allow railroads to haul liquefied natural gas. Opponents say it’s a risk.

State and local politicians, firefighters, safety experts, Native American tribes, and the NTSB are critical of the proposed rule

Pedestrians walk past train tank cars in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

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 hasn’t been permitted until now because of the uncertain hazards it presents.

A proposed Transportation Department rule allowing liquefied natural gas, or LNG, 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 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 LNG 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 LNG, primarily from shale fields to saltwater ports, where it would be loaded onto ships for export. They could traverse dozens or hundreds of different jurisdictions across the country, some that rely on volunteer firefighters as first 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.

White House pulls rule that would require two-member crew in locomotives

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, eager to prop up exports of fossil fuels, ordered the Transportation Department last April to devise the rule and imposed a quick 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 NTSB, 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 Alliance For Safe Trains, which opposes a plan to ship LNG 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 LNG. They point out that ships have carried LNG 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 E. 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 LNG 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 LNG by 75 percent, 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.

Railroads, regulators clash over braking system for trains carrying flammable liquids

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.”

LNG and petroleum have different characteristics, but spectacular accidents involving trains of oil tank cars give critics plenty of grist.

In 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed when a runaway train exploded and burst 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.

LNG 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 600-fold. If safety valves fail, what engineers call a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, or BLEVE, would follow, probably blowing the damaged tank car apart and putting anyone nearby at risk.

Canadian runaway train disaster blamed on weak safety culture, poor oversight

The specific thermos cars that would be allowed under the proposed rule are of a 50-year-old design, more robust than ordinary tank cars but of the same size and with a capacity three times that of a truck trailer’s. They were “specifically designed for the safe transportation of cryogenic [very low temperature] materials like LNG and have a strong safety record,” wrote O’Malley, of the Railway Supply Institute.

One company, New Fortress Energy, has been at the forefront of proposals to carry LNG by rail, with plans to expand a small trial program underway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and to begin daily shipments on so-called unit trains between the Marcellus shale fields of northern Pennsylvania and a terminal on the Delaware River in Gibbstown, N.J. That route would necessarily cut through the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The company, which seeks to supply markets in the Caribbean and Central America, did not respond to requests for comment. Its chairman and founder is Wesley R. Edens, who is also a co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

The Pennsylvania-New Jersey project, still in the development stage, was granted a special permit by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in December that includes several significant safety requirements involving speed limits, brake capabilities and the posting of routes in advance. Yet the same agency included none of those requirements when it drew up the more general proposed rule change, which would apply to the entire country.

The NTSB wrote in a comment: “We are surprised” that the authors of the new rule “chose not to include such operation controls.”

The NTSB also argued for a regulation requiring the placement of five cars without hazardous materials between the locomotive and the LNG cars, for the safety of the train crews. It noted as well that there are only 67 tank cars that could carry LNG under the rule in the entire country. The Federal Railroad Administration has scheduled a safety test of those cars with respect to carrying LNG, but the results are not expected until a year from now.

An NTSB spokesman said the agency would not agree to an interview on the topic.

In Florida, New Fortress has been shipping small amounts of LNG from a liquefaction terminal in Hialeah to a location near the Fort Lauderdale airport, 28 miles away. It does not use full-size tank cars, but what are essentially tractor-trailer-size tanks lifted onto reinforced flat cars. The Florida East Coast Railway uses similar “tenders” to supply LNG to its fleet of natural gas locomotives.

Andres Trujillo, a Florida East Coast Railway locomotive engineer and an official with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, said the trains are limited to 10 cars and make only one trip a day. The top allowed speed is 40 mph, he said, “because they’re going through an extended urban area.” The railroad requires 10 buffer cars behind the locomotive, he said. Only specially trained employees handle the loading and unloading of the LNG, he said, and in the two years since the pilot program began there have been no significant problems.

He agrees with his union, which says the national rule should include similar safety regulations. Another union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, noted in a comment that railroads have been carrying hazardous materials since the 19th century, but it makes no sense to go ahead with the rule before properly assessing the dangers that could arise from 100-car trains full of LNG.

“Do LNG trains carry more risk as trains get longer or when communications problems occur between the front and rear of the train?” wrote Dennis Pierce, the union’s national president. His answer was that no one knows.

The most dramatic oil tank-car accidents have occurred in decidedly rural spots, but the LNG proposals involve urban areas including south Florida and Philadelphia. Trains of tank cars in Florida would share tracks with the passenger service known as Virgin Trains, also connected to New Fortress.

Virgin Trains run between Miami and West Palm Beach at a top speed of 79 mph, but the plan is to extend them to Orlando and, eventually, run them at higher speeds. Mehiel, of Vero Beach, primarily focuses on the dangers posed by the railroad’s many grade crossings and the more than 40 people who have been struck and killed by trains since the service began two years ago. But she argues that adding slower-moving LNG trains to the mix is asking for more trouble.

“It’s a bad place for a fast train, for us,” she said. “It’s a bad place for an LNG train, for us.”

A supporter of the new rule, Joshua Davidson, the editor of a trade publication called Atlantic Northeast Rails and Ports, says rail transportation of LNG would help prevent potential winter energy shortages in the Northeast, where pipelines are inadequate and millions rely on heating oil. It would also make it easier for industries to move away from coal and oil, he wrote in a comment, in favor of cleaner natural gas.

That argument has alarmed local officeholders in New Jersey who worry about the hazards of LNG trains rumbling through their towns on the way to New York and New England.

All the way across the country, another clean-fuel project, to supply natural gas to ships traveling from Puget Sound to Alaska, has the Puyallup Tribe, based in Tacoma, Wash., up in arms. The tribe has lobbied against a proposed liquefaction plant adjacent to their reservation — probably the most urban reservation in America — and now with the new rail rule, they worry the plant could be refashioned to produce LNG for trains as well as ships.

Lisa Anderson, the tribe’s attorney, said she is concerned not only about LNG releases but also about the toxic byproducts that are used as refrigerants and are much more volatile. In proposing the rule without consultation, she said, the Transportation Department has violated the treaties between the Puyallups and the federal government, as well as executive orders governing relations with Native Americans signed by presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“It impacts our culture, it impacts our members,” said Annette Bryan, a member of the Puyallup Tribal Council. “There’s a scientific component to this, and an emotional component.”