As state and federal agencies work to address the causes and effects of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and chemical release, broader questions about the safety of rail transport have risen. At the top of the discussion is the safety of transporting potentially dangerous materials, including liquefied natural gas (LNG), by rail.
LNG is not currently approved by federal regulators to be transported on railcars in the United States, except for a small pilot program in Florida. The topic has been contentious in the last decade and was a key part of the Trump administration’s larger energy policy, which had approved a rule to allow LNG transport by specialized railcars. This new rule was never finalized, as the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) halted its implementation until it could be finalized, with a deadline of June 20, 2024.
LNG is “natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid state (liquefied), at about -260° Fahrenheit, for shipping and storage. The volume of natural gas in its liquid state is about 600 times smaller than its volume in its gaseous state in a natural gas pipeline. This makes it possible to transport natural gas to places natural gas pipelines do not reach and to use natural gas as a transportation fuel,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Using railcars to transport LNG has been floated as a possible solution to the U.S.’s ongoing energy transport issues, especially as an alternative to constrained capacity for natural gas transport by pipelines. However, safety remains a concern. ”Natural gas is combustible, so an uncontrolled release of LNG poses a hazard of fire or explosion. LNG also poses hazards
because it is so cold,” A Congressional Research Service briefing paper indicates.
Natural gas is moved mostly by pipeline to LNG processing facilities, where is it super cooled and compressed. The LNG can then be transported using specially built ships with cryogenic tanks to other areas. Railcars that are refrigerated and meet certain specifications can also be used for transport.
The situation in East Palestine has led some lawmakers to act, as seven Democratic members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives urged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to cancel the rule, citing the events of East Palestine as an example of the dangers of rail transport of hazardous materials. The Department of Transportation has not responded to their request.
Much of the U.S. LNG supply is now exported by ship to other countries, most notably Europe, to help meet the ongoing energy crunch there due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. While rail transportation of LNG within the U.S. could help move more natural gas to markets where transport by pipeline is not feasible, safety questions must first be answered.