Thursday, July 26, 2007

LNG Inkblot

Yesterday my wife returned from the gym and suggested I turn on the TV. "An LNG facility in Dallas exploded. I saw it on the news," she said. The terms "LNG" and "Dallas" struck me as mutually exclusive, but I did as she suggested and saw the burning wreckage on CNN, which mentioned natural gas and cylinders. A quick Google search turned up dozens of reports from local Texas television stations and newspapers running leads such as "Liquefied natural gas tanks explode; send debris onto highway." Of course a day later we know that the accident involved acetylene tanks at a facility that has no connection to LNG. Aside from the fact that the technology involved was in use for decades before anyone even dreamed of liquefying natural gas for commercial purposes, what does the confusion over this event tell us?

For starters, it provides a sort of Rorschach test for the public's perception of LNG. If there are explosions and fire at a facility that has something to do with gas, then it must involve LNG, because LNG is inherently so hazardous. A variety of news organizations didn't bother to check their facts or even refer to their common sense before reporting yesterday's explosions as an LNG accident, which automatically made it national news. I learned a long time ago that it's unreasonable to expect reporters to recognize the visual profile of different industrial sites, but how long would it have taken them to ascertain that LNG facilities are normally found near deepwater ports where LNG tankers--which are pretty large vessels--can dock, not 300 miles inland? Or to do as I did, and search the Dallas area phone directories for industrial gas companies, discovering that there were none that handled LNG? If they had to guess at what was going on, exploding propane tanks would have made a much better working hypothesis than LNG, aside from being more commonplace.

Without inflating a media error into a conspiracy, it does seem remarkable that the initial explanation for yesterday's incident should involve a fuel that most Americans--reporters included--have never encountered outside the press, which has given equal time to the hysterical arguments of LNG opponents who can't differentiate between a chemical fuel and an atomic bomb. To say that LNG has a serious image problem in this country is an understatement, but the consequences of that are affecting consumers' gas bills. The proposed LNG facilities with the best chances of surviving the permitting process are those planned for the Gulf Coast, which is awash with gas, rather than near markets a thousand pipeline miles away, on the wrong side of costly distribution bottlenecks. As long as LNG provokes the kind of response we saw on display yesterday, that's unlikely to change.

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