Earlier this month, the Trump Administration issued Energy Transport Solutions a special permit to ship up to 100 shipments per day of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, the first interstate permit of its type. 

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The permit comes despite concerns by environmental groups, the head of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the National Transportation Safety Board about putting LNG on the tracks. They all say it could lead to a danger for communities living near rail lines if a train carrying the substance derails or gets into an accident.

“New Fortress Energy’s speculative project to export LNG from the shale fields of Pennsylvania to the Delaware River and then overseas for sale is turning the proposed project’s footprint into a sacrifice zone since it is the only place in the nation where it will be allowed,” said a coalition of environmental groups called Empower New Jersey—which includes Food and Water Watch, the New Jersey Sierra Club and Delaware Riverkeeper Network—in a press release. “In addition to hundreds of miles across the two states, along rivers and streams, including the Delaware River, the freight trains could travel through densely populated areas such as Allentown, Reading and Philadelphia.”

LNG is natural gas super-chilled to a temperature of -260°F (-162°C). In the United States, the vast majority of gas turned into LNG exists due to the horizontal drilling hydraulic fracturing technique, or fracking, for gas in shale rock beds. Pennsylvania is home to the most prolific shale basin in the U.S., the Marcellus Shale. 

Energy Transport Solutions is a wholly owned subsidiary of the finance firm Fortress Investment Group, owned by Milwaukee Bucks owner and Democratic Party donor Wes Edens. Edens also serves on the finance committee for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, while also taking over as owner of the USA Today network of newspapers this past summer. 

Organizers attuned to the seemingly insurmountable issues introduced by the climate crisis often stress that it should be a “bipartisan issue”—but this recent permit flips that on its head and shows the Republican, climate crisis-denying president and a major Democratic donor working together against the demands of activists. And the demands of climate science, as well.

According to a recent study by the Global Carbon Project, natural gas now releases more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than coal into the atmosphere in the United States. Natural gas production and marketing also can also methane leakage. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Even before Energy Transport Solutions applied to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration—part of the U.S. Department of Transportation—to carry LNG by rail, many in the environmental advocacy community had raised safety concerns about coastal LNG export terminals for years. They have doubled down on those concerns as it pertains to LNG-by-rail and the permit received by Edens’ company, calling it a “bomb train.”

Empower New Jersey also expressed concerns about the LNG-by-rail trains crossing through “rivers and streams, including the Delaware River,” stating that they could also pass through a big city like Philadelphia. And the coalition pointed to a lack of safety precautions taken by PHMSA, as well, in issuing the permit. Among other things, that includes a lack of an in-depth analysis about the type of tank cars on which the LNG will be carried.

“The DOT 113 tank car is a 50-year-old design that has not previously been used for LNG, which is only allowed currently on rail in two small projects in the U.S. in ISO containers, not DOT 113 rail cars,” the group further explained of their concerns. “The Special Permit does not limit speed or other provisions such as routing around populated areas, or special design specifications for containing LNG, classified as a hazardous, flammable liquid. LNG has unique and highly dangerous properties if the container is breached, including potential explosion with a wide impact zone and a fire so hot it cannot be extinguished.”

Yet, New Fortress Energy is enthusiastic about receiving the permit: “This special permit is a significant milestone that establishes requirements for moving domestic LNG in a safe and efficient manner,” the company told the publication New Jersey Advance. “We look forward to continuing to work with PHMSA, other regulatory agencies and the railroad industry as this project advances.”

Global Resistance

Frontline activists who live near the proposed liquefaction facility that would create the LNG to be carried by rail have organized against it. On the other end of the rail line, New Fortress Energy will, in the coming weeks, have a rehearing in front of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) for a dock that would allow export tankers to sail from a former dynamite production site owned by the company DuPont in Gibbstown, New Jersey. In June, the DRBC issued a permit to another subsidiary owned by Edens, Delaware River Partners.

Activists in Ireland, the country which would likely receive gas from New Jersey also has raised concerns about the prospect. Ireland-based New Fortress Energy subsidiary Shannon LNG has faced protest from groups such as Friends of the Earth-Ireland. It has also attracted words of disapproval from luminaries such as actor Mark Ruffalo, singer Cher and even Pope Francis.

Broader Permit Push, Agency Speaks Out

Beyond the Energy Transport Solutions special one-off permit, PHMSA under Trump is now also considering allowing the entire rail industry to ship LNG by rail nationwide with aims to corner the global export market. The public comment period for that proposal ends on December 23. This came in the aftermath of an Executive Order signed by President Donald Trump in April calling for federal agencies to have a regulatory structure in place for LNG by rail by May 2020. 

The American Association of Railroads, the lobbying trade association for the rail industry, praised Trump’s Executive Order: “Our sector, which plays a fundamental role in moving not only energy products but many of the inputs to the energy development process, particularly welcomes the sections in the Executive Orders that allow companies to get products to market quicker,” said AAR, which is the group that requested the new regulations from PHMSA, in a press release. “This includes the potential to safely move liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail and efforts to modernize the project planning and permitting process, which has sometimes been used as a tool to slow and block critical infrastructure projects.”

In its petition to create a regulatory framework to permit LNG by rail shipments, the AAR wrote that “customers have expressed interest in shipping LNG by rail from Pennsylvania to New England, and between the U.S. and Mexico” and that a PHMSA green light “likely would stimulate more interest.”

But another federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board—which independently investigates civil transportation accidents—raised safety concerns with the proposal in a December 5 letter submitted as a public comment by NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt III. The letter pointed to previous instances of explosions of trains carrying oil by rail, which among others, included the 2013 eruption of one in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that left 47 people dead and 30 buildings destroyed.

In the letter, Sumwalt III called for a halt in the permitting process: “Recent history with unit train shipments of ethanol and crude oil demonstrate how unprepared federal regulators were to address the spate of fiery flammable liquids accidents that occurred between 2009 and 2015,” Sumwalt III wrote. “NTSB believes that it would be detrimental to public safety if PHMSA were to authorize the transportation of LNG by rail with unvalidated tank cars and lacking operational controls that are afforded other hazardous materials such as flammable liquids.”

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has long critiqued the notion of LNG by rail. In September, he introduced legislation calling for an in-depth federal safety study on the issue before any permits are issued. DeFazio said a press release responding to the PHMSA decision that the special permit is “deeply disturbing” and also called for a pause.

“This reckless move by the Administration puts communities in harm’s way. For months I have been sounding the alarm on this dangerous plan,” he said. “Not only has PHMSA failed to take the proper steps of testing, analyzing or reviewing this unprecedented plan, it failed to provide Congress and the public the opportunity to consider whether the permit’s operating conditions sufficiently address the potential safety implications–an opportunity that’s required by law.”

Production: Lisa Snowden-McCray

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.