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Worried by Ukraine war impacts, environmentalists petition feds to dump LNG by rail

Tanks and pipes move product through the MarkWest Bluestone Gas Processing Plant in Evans City, Pa. in Oct. 17, 2019.
Keith Srakocic
Tanks and pipes move product through the MarkWest Bluestone Gas Processing Plant in Evans City, Pa. in Oct. 17, 2019.

Environmental groups are urging the Biden administration to reverse a Trump-era rule that allows rail shipments of liquified natural gas (LNG). The groups say the war in Ukraine, and the subsequent plans by the White House to increase LNG exports, should not derail the Department of Transportation’s proposal to reinstate limits on LNG-by-rail.

“We cannot let an energy crisis that comes out of Ukraine turn into a blanket thrown over the climate crisis,” said Tracy Carluccio, of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, during a virtual press conference Wednesday. “The climate crisis is the fight of our lives, it’s the fight of our time.”

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, along with half a dozen other advocacy groups, petitioned the Department of Transportation on Wednesday to follow through on their plan to suspend a Trump-era rule that opened up the nation’s railways to LNG.

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While industry advocates say rail transport is safe, aleak of LNG carries risk of explosion.The petition also urges the Biden administration to outright ban any LNG-by-rail due to both safety hazards, and the climate impacts of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and development.

Carluccio says the groups are against all forms of LNG production and transport, including pipelines. “We leave it in the ground, that’s basically the answer,” Carluccio said. “We’re not going to be able to ever safely move it, process it, or export it.”

Prior to a new Trump administration rule enacted in 2020, LNG rail transport permits faced steep hurdles, and only a few were approved through a “special permit,” including a plan to send LNG via rail across the Delaware Riverto Gibbstown, New Jersey. But in an effort to encourage natural gas infrastructure and expand LNG transportation beyond pipelines, the Department of Transportation under Trump reversed long-standing practice to allow a regular permitting procedure. No permits have been issued for LNG-by-rail since that 2020 rule change.

The Biden administration decided to study the safety and environmental impacts of LNG-by-rail and has proposed rescinding the new rule. Public comment ended in December and the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), a division of the Dept. of Transportation, is expected to issue a decision at the end of June. But the advocates worry the administration’s push to expand LNG exports as European countries seek to halt use of Russian natural gas, could mean it changes its decision on LNG-by-rail.

Republicans in Congress, and in some states, urged PHMSA to keep the new rule allowing greater LNG-by-rail. While 15 attorneys general, including those in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, urged PHMSA to suspend the current rule, another group of 25 state attorneys general submitted comments in favor of maintaining the expanded LNG-by-rail rule.

“Current geopolitical events involving Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine show with painful clarity the need for the United States to maintain its energy independence through multiple distribution points throughout our country,” read the comments submitted by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. Landry calls the climate impacts of new natural gas infrastructure “speculative” and “untethered” to PHMSA’s regulatory scope.

Meanwhile, the special permit for the Gibbstown project has expired. The developer, Energy Transfer Solutions, a subsidiary of New Fortress Energy, reapplied, and it’s unclear if PHMSA will re-issue it. The special permit issued by PHMSA would allow two, 100-car trains to transport the gas each day 200 miles south — down the I-95 corridor from Northeast Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River to Gibbstown, New Jersey, where the company wants to build an export terminal at the site of a former DuPont dynamite manufacturing plant.

The petitioners also want PHMSA to reject the Gibbstown LNG-by-rail permit. But plans for a liquefaction plant in Bradford County that would feed the export terminal have run into their own permitting roadblocks that could put the project on hold, if not derail it altogether.

New Fortress Energy did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. She has worked as a reporter for WHYY since 2004. Susan's coverage of the 2008 Presidential election resulted in a story on the front page of the New York Times. In 2010 she traveled to Haiti to cover the earthquake. That same year she produced an award-winning series on Pennsylvania's natural gas rush called "The Shale Game." Along with her reporting partner Scott Detrow, she won the 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. She has also won several Edward R. Murrow awards for her work with StateImpact. She recently returned from a year as at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.