A new Trump administration rule relaxing guidelines that govern the transport of liquefied natural gas could create “bomb trains” with enough explosive power to level whole cities, environmental groups say. A coalition of organizations led by the nonprofit Earthjustice has sued the administration, challenging the rule, which is scheduled to go into effect on Monday.
Separately, 14 states and the District of Columbia are also suing the Trump administration to review the rule and declare it unlawful. The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Association of State Fire Marshals oppose it as well.
Under the new rule, trains would be allowed to transport up to 30,000 gallons of liquified natural gas (LNG) per tank, significantly more than has ever been allowed in the U.S., and there will be no restrictions on the number of LNG tanker cars in a particular train, nor on the routes these trains may travel, so they will be free to pass through dense population centers.
According to figures cited in Earthjustice’s challenge, just 22 tank cars could produce the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb.
LNG is the same as natural gas — the kind typically extracted through fracking — just cooled to -260℉ to achieve liquid form. The risk comes if that gas escapes its container: When that happens, the highly-flammable substance can expand by more than six hundred times its volume.
“Ships carrying LNG have been characterized as floating bombs,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who’s leading a coalition of states fighting the rule, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Rolling tank cars filled with LNG through our neighborhoods are vastly more dangerous. This proposal is heedless of the risks to the safety of our families and our natural resources posed by moving massive quantities of LNG by rail through our cities, towns.”
It’s not just a theoretical danger, either, Earthjustice asserts. In 1944, 131 people were killed when liquefied natural gas escaped from a tank and ignited. “In the numerous explosions that followed, temperatures soared to 3,000°F, streets blew up, with one explosion opening a crater 25 feet deep, 30 feet wide, and 60 feet long,” the organization says.
Right now, LNG can only be transported by ship, truck, or in special approved United Nations portable tanks — containers that are about one-third the volume of the train tankers that would be authorized under the new rule, called DOT-113 tanks. DOT-113 tanks are untested and unproven carriers of LNG, according to the Earthjustice report, and have a less than perfect safety record in carrying other cargo: PHMSA found 14 instances of damage to DOT-113 tanks between 1980 and 2017, a high number considering there are only 405 DOT-113 tanks in North America altogether. Out of three derailments, two breached and lost their entire cargoes.
Worse, says Earthjustice’s Jordan Luebkemann, the rule would allow for so-called “unit trains” — up to 100 tanker cars linked together — dramatically increasing the risk. “If you have just one tank fail catastrophically and explode, it becomes very, very likely that the tank that’s right next to it is going to be harmed in a way that makes it likely or inevitable to also explode. This is known as a cascading failure: the idea that, like a set of dominoes, you could have one after the other, tanks exploding like bombs.”
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does not comment on ongoing litigation, Ben Kochman, director of governmental, international and public affairs for PHMSA, told Rolling Stone.
The rule change, fast-tracked by the administration after being introduced by Trump in an executive order in April 2019, comes as part of the president’s reckless agenda to expand America’s fossil fuel exports. “The United States will continue to be the undisputed global leader in crude oil and natural gas production for the foreseeable future,” Trump wrote in the executive order.
The push also coincides with successful efforts by environmentalists to shut down existing pipelines and prevent the construction of new ones. “In Pennsylvania or West Virginia, it is very difficult to build a pipeline there,” Luebkemann says. “Pipelines that were sure bets a few years ago completely fell apart under political pressure and consistent scrutiny.”
But shifting LNG transport to the railways could be a catastrophe, the lawsuits assert. “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,” said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, which joined the lawsuit with Earthjustice. “I don’t want these dangerous trains going through my neighborhood, and trust me, you don’t either.”