US blast leads to questions on storing gas

2014-04-07 08:38
 The Williams Northwest Pipeline plant is seen after a large explosion and fire at the plant in Plymouth, (Sarah Gordon, AP)

The Williams Northwest Pipeline plant is seen after a large explosion and fire at the plant in Plymouth, (Sarah Gordon, AP)

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Washington - An unexplained blast this week at a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in rural Washington state, which injured workers, forced an evacuation and raised the alarm about a potentially large second explosion, could focus attention on the risk of storing massive gas supplies near population centres.

The Monday incident at Williams Co massive gas storage site is a rare safety-record blemish among the dozens of US LNG plants and storage sites, including towering tanks in packed neighbourhoods of New York City, and near Boston.

Energy industry experts and opponents of new LNG plants alike said it may spur debate about safe handling of gas for cities increasingly reliant on the clean-burning fuel. At least a dozen new US LNG export facilities are seeking government approval, and some have faced opposition on safety grounds.

Early on Monday, a "processing vessel" at the Williams facility near the small town of Plymouth, Washington, exploded, spraying chunks of shrapnel as heavy as 113kg as far as 274m, according to local emergency responders.

The flying debris pierced the double walls of a 134-foot LNG tank on site, causing leaks. Five workers were injured, and local responders warned that vapours from the leaks could trigger a more devastating, second explosion.

A county fire department spokesperson said authorities were concerned a second blast could level a 1.2km"lethal zone" around the plant.

Unlikely Scenario

Everyone within a 3km radius of the site was evacuated, and a bomb-squad robot was deployed to snap photos of the damaged tank to avoid putting workers at further risk. Some who did approach were reportedly sickened by fumes.

By late Tuesday residents were allowed to return and responders said the risk of a secondary explosion had been averted. Williams is investigating the incident alongside government agencies. What caused the explosion is not clear.

"This type of event raises the public's awareness that we're dealing with a combustible commodity", said Teri Viswanath, a natural gas market strategist at BNP Paribas in New York. "We take a lot of precautions in the industry to avoid them, but they do infrequently occur."

US consumption of natural gas rose 12% between 2008 and 2013, fuelled in part by the strong endorsement of the cheaper and cleaner-burning fuel by the administration of President Barack Obama. New shale drilling has also led to record natural gas output.

But delivering fuel safely is no small task. Concerns about gas distribution adds to controversy around oil shipments in railcars after recent fiery derailments, fertilizer plant safety following last year's West Texas disaster, and reports about the US power grid's vulnerability to sabotage.

The blast in Washington came a day after utility PG&E was hit with federal criminal charges for alleged safety lapses in a deadly 2010 gas pipeline explosion in California, and weeks after a building in Manhattan was razed by a natural gas explosion, killing eight.

Stephen Maloney, a senior risk consultant at Moody's Analytics with a background in LNG risk analysis, said the Washington incident could trigger a review of the risks posed by LNG facilities, including a fresh look at the probable frequency of accidents. Companies and regulators use risk models when considering permitting projects.

"While notable, the Plymouth event was not especially severe", Maloney said. "But, when you are dealing with very low frequency events, even for an event of limited severity, one data point has the potential to really change statistics."

To be sure, industry experts say US LNG plants have a nearly spotless safety record.

At the Washington facility, Williams cools gas to around -160°C, making it non-flammable. Leaked LNG would likely vaporise and dissipate, posing little explosion risk, several experts said. But vapours that are contained in a closed space or gather into a cloud could ignite.

"It's a very unlikely scenario", said Kent Bayazitoglu, an LNG expert with the Gebler & Associates consultancy in Houston, adding gasoline is a riskier fuel.

Companies hoping to build new US LNG plants and other LNG facilities say safety technology, including containment dams around storage tanks, has improved in recent years.

"LNG is safer than many of the gases we use every day", said Darren Seed, vice president of investor relations at Westport Innovations Inc, which is currently working with seven engine manufacturers to design LNG-powered trucks and locomotives.

Most proposed LNG export plants would also be located far from population centres, reducing the risks from an incident.
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