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President Donald Trump wants to allow natural gas to be shipped in railroad cars, a move that would open new markets hungry for the fuel but could risk catastrophic accidents if one were to derail.
Trump on Wednesday ordered the Transportation Department to write a new rule permitting super-chilled natural gas to be shipped in specialty tank cars. The order follows a multiyear lobbying campaign by railroads and natural gas advocates, who argue it is needed to serve customers in the U.S. Northeast, where there aren’t enough pipelines, and making it possible to use the gas to power ships and trains.
“There are all sorts of new opportunities where you can use rail much more efficiently,” said Charlie Riedl, head of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas trade group.
The effort, which could help offset falling rail shipments of coal, mirrors how the oil industry turned to trains to ship crude when there weren’t enough pipelines to meet demand. But a series of spills and other accidents — including a runaway oil train that derailed and killed more than 40 people in a small Quebec town in 2013 — have safety advocates warning against putting gas on the rails.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Emily Jeffers, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, who added that Trump’s initiative evokes earlier concerns about crude-filled “ bomb trains” traveling through American cities. “You’re transporting an extraordinarily flammable and dangerous substance through highly populated areas with basically no environmental protection.”
LNG is natural gas that has been chilled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 167 Celsius) in a process that removes water, carbon dioxide and other compounds, leaving mostly methane in a fluid that takes up less than 1/600th the space it previously occupied as a gas. It is already shipped across oceans around the globe, ferried across the U.S. in trucks and stashed in storage tanks to ensure natural gas is on hand when demand escalates.
LNG does not burn on its own, and it can’t ignite in its liquefied state. The risk comes if a tank car were ruptured and LNG were exposed to the air, triggering the LNG to rapidly convert back into a flammable gas and evaporate.
This article first appeared on fortune.com
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