For the first time ever, liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been shipped by railroad in the U.S., prompting concerns about risks of accidents and a lack of state or federal regulation for the new and hazardous cargo.
The 40-foot long cryogenic tanks owned by the Japanese company Hitachi, built to be transported by rail, truck, and barge, will each carry more than 7,000 gallons of natural gas, which has been chilled down to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit, from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska. The company Alaska Railroad will do the carrying.
It's being closely watched by both the oil and gas and railroad industries, which say that shipping LNG by rail is cheaper and more efficient than hauling it by truck. Alaska Railroad points to Japan as a successful example of the robust transport ofLNG-by-rail.
But it's also raised concerns among environmentalists, who argue that not only is the process potentially dangerous, but that it represents a further build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure as the climate crisis worsens.
“We know LNG facilities and oil trains both have deadly histories of explosions, and the public deserves to know more about this expansion of the country’s fossil fuel infrastructure,” Dune Lankard, senior Alaska representative for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in a press release. “Rather than finding new ways of burning more fossil fuels, this country needs to address climate change and convert to clean energy.”
CBD has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to learn more about the Alaska Railroad proposal earlier this year and to date, has not received anything but what it describes as a “non-responsive reply.”
In October 2015, the FRA granted Alaska Railroad a two-year permit allowing it to send a dozen LNG cars per train on trips across the state. After this fall's pilot run, the railroad will make a decision about whether it's worth pursuing LNG shipments as a new line of business, a company representative told the Associated Press.
“Seven more round-trips over four weeks will follow,” Tim Sullivan, manager of external affairs for Alaska Railroad told the industry publication LNG Global. “We're going to take the information that we get in terms of our efficiencies, the logistics of moving this stuff, find out where we can improve, what we can improve, and the things we can't improve, and start making decisions as to whether we can make this a line of business.”