Never mind that exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Asian markets would cause U.S. energy prices to rise. Never mind that opening up an export facility on the Maryland Eastern Shore would create incentives to open up Marcellus Shale deposits for gas production in the western region of the state. Even if we look past the massive greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and other environmental catastrophes associated with natural gas production, the planned LNG export facility in Cove Point raises a serious and immediate concern: safety.
In April, the assistant fire chief of the Solomons Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad stepped down from his post after expressing safety concerns over the Cove Point project. The concerns arose from the fact that the department had not received any formal LNG safety training, and was not prepared to deal with a potential catastrophic explosion. While responding to an LNG emergency would first be the responsibility of Calvert County, any volunteer without proper equipment or training is at a serious risk in doing so. A representative from Dominion stated that they were working with the county to educate volunteers on the hazards and risks of LNG.
So what exactly makes LNG so dangerous? Converting natural gas into its liquid form requires chilling the gas to -161.5o C (258.7o F) using massive refrigerant compressors. These compressors, powered by natural gas themselves, circulate the gas at close to atmospheric pressure until it becomes a liquid, making it easier to store and transport by ship. LNG can vaporize and form highly explosive clouds in pipelines and other parts of the facility if its container leaks. In a phenomenon called rapid phase transition, the heat transfer from spilling enough water at room temperature on the subzero LNG can cause a tremendous “cold explosion.”
Explosions in the last decade in Algeria and as recently as this past April in Washington state have left environmentalists, emergency responders, and citizens living near proposed facilities in the U.S. understandably concerned. So far there are two approved export facilities in Louisiana, with one already under construction. While the LNG industry maintains a respectable track record in taking safety measures to prevent explosions, leaks, and spills throughout the process, further expansion of liquefaction facilities situated around populated areas only increases the risk of an avoidable catastrophe. The bottom line is it only takes one mistake to create a devastating explosion, and irreparably harm a community.
Residents of Lusby, Maryland have organized and are demanding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC conduct a full environmental impact assessment to weigh the risks against the rewards of the Cove Point facility as touted by Dominion Resources. While Dominion dangles the prospect of 3000 construction jobs and 75 permanent positions to local power brokers, Calvert County residents are speaking up in defense of their delicate bay ecology, and the economy that depends on it. The risks posed by sea level rise, potential explosions, and large-scale environmental damage due to expanded fracking operations have many Marylanders in favor of clean energy development, such as offshore wind and solar.
Independent studies often find more hazards associated with the proposed facility than those commissioned by regulatory agencies. While the economic benefits of a liquefied natural gas export terminal in Cove Point have been presented loud and clear, it is also clear that those benefits would do little for a Bay town that’s lost its bay. After picketing the FERC building, submitting thousands of public comments demanding a full risk assessment, and gathering en masse on the streets of Washington, DC to protest the project, Lusby residents remain uneasy about what the future holds for their slice of the Chesapeake.