Monday, May 17, 2004

The LNG Disaster Movie

The front page of last Friday's Wall St. Journal and the first page of the NY Times Business section both featured articles on the obstacles companies face in attempting to build LNG import terminals around the country. The Times article included a nice graphic showing where the proposed terminals would be, and what their current status is. Seven have already been cancelled in the face of public opposition.

I find two things remarkable about all this. The first is that these projects would face such overwhelming opposition at a time of genuine energy insecurity, and with crude oil at record high nominal prices. Domestic natural gas commands a price equivalent to the high crude price, and since this doesn't seem to be stimulating much new production, the only alternative is to increase imports.

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know I don't consider LNG to be quite the panacea that some claim, but it is certainly part of the answer--a big part as long as we insist on steadily increasing our gas demand while holding discovered US gas reserves off the market for environmental reasons. (See my blog of March 11.)

The other remarkable feature of this situation is the degree of fear being instilled by those opposed to the LNG terminals. Although I don't fault communities for wanting a say in the kind of industrial facilities that will be in close proximity to them, those discussions should still be based on fact and not wild ravings. The Wall Street Journal cited one LNG opponent who claimed that the destructive potential of an LNG tanker was equivalent to 55 Hiroshima bombs (see analysis below). This reflects an irrational fear, bolstered by junk science. It's hard to argue with, but we cannot base the nation's energy policies on paranoia.

Many have picked up on the explosion at the LNG plant in Skikda, Algeria (see my blog of January 21) as evidence of the risks of handling LNG, but even if that were a fair comparison--and there are good reasons why it is not--it is actually a pretty good illustration that the risks are similar to those associated with many kinds of industrial facilities and not orders of magnitude greater, as activists assert.

Having recently seen prosaic and trusted objects turned into deadly weapons, it is natural to worry a bit more about LNG than we might have a few years ago. Every LNG tanker--along with every crude oil or gasoline tanker, tank truck, or rail car--has the potential for destructive misuse. Yet we have not grounded all airplanes for fear they will be turned into cruise missiles, nor can we shun every link in the energy chain on which we all rely. While we can minimize risk, we cannot eliminate it. And if you don't want the LNG terminal in your neighborhood, for reasons that seem perfectly valid to you, just exactly whose neighborhood are you proposing as an alternative? Or are you and your neighbors prepared to take your houses off the gas grid and heat them with something else?

Finally, for anyone interested in the atomic bomb comparison, a few facts:
1. A fully loaded LNG tanker of 120,000 cubic meters capacity holds about 50,000 tons of methane.
2. The yield of the Hiroshima bomb was equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT.
3. Conservatively assuming that TNT and methane have the same energy content gives you a ratio of 2.5, not 55, but we are not done yet.
4. An atomic bomb releases its energy (from the conversion of matter into energy, via our old friend e=mc^2) in 1/1000th of a second. This makes for a stupendous flash and explosion, with a surface temperature comparable to that of the sun. This is why every H-bomb has an A-bomb trigger.
5. A chemical explosion of methane requires a narrow range of air/fuel mix (5-15%) that could not be achieved all at once for the entire volume of an LNG tanker. In the real world, it would take many seconds and probably minutes to consume all the available fuel.
6. The difference between points 4 and 5 above is analogous to the difference between going from 60-0 mph by hitting a brick wall, compared to a panic stop using the brakes. The same energy is released, but in very different ways.
7. If it were easy to liberate nuclear weapon yields from large quantities of fuel, people would be doing this routinely. The closest we get is something like this. And note that there is an enormous distinction between achieving A-bomb-like overpressures in a very limited radius with a fuel/air device vs. the kind of wide-scale effects of an actual nuclear explosion.

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