LNG development puts Wyalusing, Pennsylvania in the cross-hairs

New Fortress Energy plans to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, but residents in close proximity to the extensive facility and those along the transportation routes are pushing back due to health and safety concerns.

Overview

North America has an excess of fracked gas. The price of gas continues to plummet, due largely to an oversupply that exceeds market demand from Americans who want to enjoy their so-called “energy independence.” According to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), there is almost 18% more stored gas at the end of 2019 as there was at the end of 2018, translating to an increase of over 500 billion cubic feet over the course of a year.

What was once a promised economic boom to many communities has given way to bust. This is due, in part, to less production across the fracking fields, to the cancellation of numerous pipelines, and to the lack of domestic markets for fracked gas.

As costs for wind, solar, and grid-scale battery storage continue to drop, people are increasingly less reliant on fossil fuels. Aside from underground storage, what can industry do with all that excess product so industry has a justification to keep drilling?

Rather than cutting back on production, industry chooses to relieve domestic over-saturation by sending the gas off-shore for export.

While gas is typically moved from source to consumer via pipelines, transporting gas long distances overseas presents a technical challenge. Industry chooses to compress the gas under pressure or cryogenics so that it takes up less space. Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is simply super-cooled methane, stored at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit.

A new LNG project in northern Pennsylvania

A little more than a year ago, New Fortress Energy announced plans to invest $800 million to develop a liquefied natural gas plant along the scenic Susquehanna River in the Bradford County, Pennsylvania community of Wyalusing. In this quiet community of fewer than 600 people, formerly open fields and woodland are slated to be converted into massive LNG complex spanning 260 acres. The plant would produce approximately 3.6 million gallons of LNG each day.

Located on the site of the proposed LNG project is a historic marker, memorializing the pre-Colonial settlement of Friedenshütten. Here, indigenous Mahican, Lenape, and Haudenosaunee converts to Christianity lived with Moravian missionaries. The village was active between 1765 and 1772. According to Katherine Faull of Bucknell University “the Friedenshütten mission was dissolved in 1772, ostensibly because of the uncertainty of the land deals that had been made with the Cayuga who had jurisdiction over that part of Pennsylvania.” Portions of the settlement structure area visible in the 1768 map (Figure 1) are 700 feet from the New Fortress methane liquefaction buildings.

Figure 1. Map by Georg Wenzel Golkowsky, 1768 (TS Mp.213.13, Unity Archives, Herrnhut)

New Fortress Energy has plans to cut a 50-foot-wide stormwater drainage ditch directly through this historic site. Construction of the plant would reportedly create up to 500 temporary jobs, and 50 permanent ones.

Figure 2. Aerial view of site preparation work at the New Fortress LNG plant site. Source: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance

The site plan for the new facility, developed in October 2018, includes large gas engines, a liquefaction facility, a hydrocarbon impoundment basin, LNG storage and pumps, a gas treatment facility, transformers, and tanker staging areas. Some features are sited within 500 feet of the railroad.

Figure 3. Proposed site plan of the New Fortress LNG facility in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. Map by FracTracker Alliance.

An air quality plan for the New Fortress LNG facility was approved in July, 2019. Although construction was well underway starting in spring 2019, work is currently paused on the site. New Fortress has not indicated when work would resume, but expects the construction process to span two to 2.5 years.

Where to, after Wyalusing?

Without an adequate market for the gas in the United States, LNG is destined for shipping overseas in specially-designed LNG carrier ships. In 2018, according to US government data reported in rigzone.com:

“….28 countries in total received LNG exports during 2018. However, just ten countries accounted for 82 percent of the U.S. LNG direct tanker exports that year and the top four markets shared 187 shipments between them. South Korea, the top destination, received 73 cargoes in all, followed by Mexico with 53, Japan with 37 and lastly China with 24. Of the remainder, Jordan, Chile, India, Turkey, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil took only a small number of shipments each. In addition to the standard large shipments of LNG in dedicated tankers, small shipments of LNG in special containers known as ISOs were sent to the Bahamas and Barbados.”

Presently, plans are in the works for the construction of a new LNG export facility in Gibbstown, New Jersey, located just downstream from Philadelphia on the Delaware River. The Gibbstown site was formerly the home of Dupont Repauno Works, where dynamite was manufactured from 1880 to 1954. Later, the main products made there were commodity chemicals such as nitric acid. The proposed export terminal design includes two 43-foot-deep docks that would accommodate LNG tankers.

The advocacy organization “Empower NJ” provides a comprehensive description here of the proposed expansion of the deepwater LNG export terminal at Gibbstown. LNG delivered to the site would be stored in an old underground cavern previously used by Dupont. While dredging for a single dock at Gibbstown was approved by the Delaware River in 2019, new plans to build two more loading berths at a second dock are now under consideration.

Modes of transportation from Wyalusing to Gibbstown

In collaboration with Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), FracTracker looked at potential overland routes for how the LNG produced in Wyalusing would reach the nearest export terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey, a distance of 200 or more miles away.

While transportation by rail of liquefied natural gas had not been permitted by federal regulations, a significant change in rules occurred in June 2020. Under pressure from the current administration in Washington, DC, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a final rule that authorized the bulk transportation of LNG by rail.

Plans on how to deliver the LNG from the plant in Wyalusing to the export terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey have not been finalized, and could be by roadway or railway, or both. According to the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania-based Citizen’s Voice:

In its assessment, PHMSA concluded that transporting LNG via roadways carries the same inherent risks as railways, but there is a higher likelihood of an accident because of the larger number of trucks needed compared to train cars.

The DOT-113 tank cars New Fortress received approval for can carry nearly 30,700 gallons of LNG — three times more than a single tanker truck. But, because train cars carry significantly more LNG and are transported together along railways, an incident “could lead to higher consequences,” according to the environmental assessment.

How much risk?

Because there is little to no precedent of transporting such high volumes of liquefied natural gas on roads or railroads, the extent of the disaster that could occur from a leak or crash is generally unknown. However, Delaware Riverkeeper has cited research warning about the unique characteristics of supercooled gas if it rapidly expands and spreads across terrain:

“….transport of LNG has unique safety hazards, exposing those along this particular rail route to unprecedented and unjustifiable risk. An LNG release boils furiously into a flammable vapor cloud 600 times larger than the storage container. An unignited ground-hugging vapor cloud can move far distances,[1]  and exposure to the vapor can cause extreme freeze burns. If in an enclosed space, it asphyxiates, causing death.1 If ignited, the fire is inextinguishable; the fire is so hot that second-degree burns can occur within 30 seconds for those exposed within a mile. An LNG release can cause a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion.[2]  The explosive force of LNG is similar to a thermobaric explosion – a catastrophically powerful bomb. The 2016 U.S. Emergency Response Guidebook advises fire chiefs initially to immediately evacuate the surrounding 1-mile area.[3]  No federal field research has shown how far the vapor cloud can move chiefs initially to immediately evacuate the surrounding 1-mile area.[4]  No federal field research has shown how far the vapor cloud can move…”

You can read Delaware Riverkeeper’s full statement of the organization’s opposition to the transportation of LNG in rail cars here.

Visualizing the routes

FracTracker mapped the most likely transport routes by road and by rail, along with demographic information (Figures 5 – 9). In collaboration with DRN, we also assessed minority and low-income population density along each route, using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s environmental justice (EJ) screening dataset, EJSCREEN. “Minority” as defined by the United States Census data used by EPA, refers to individuals who reported their race and ethnicity as something other than “non-Hispanic White” alone.

On average, around 21% of the population along the truck routes, and about 25% of the population along the train routes, is part of an EJ community. EJ communities are those that are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards and with increased vulnerability to said hazards. Due to systemic racism, injustice, and poverty, EJ communities tend to have higher proportions of residents who are low-income and/or minorities.

  Total Population Minority Population Low-Income Population
Truck Route A 612,747 123,071 (20%) 122,830 (20%)
Truck Route B 929,236 207,924 (22%) 183,420 (20%)
Rail Route A 1,649,638 477,816 (29%) 392,577 (24%)
Rail Route B 1,947,544 479,500 (25%) 411,536 (21%)

Figure 4. Demographics of Environmental Justice (EJ) communities along New Fortress Energy’s liquified natural gas (LNG) transportation routes in the eastern United States.

Click here to view this map fullscreen, in its own window.

And click through the tabs below to see static images of the various routes.

Figure 5. Rail Route A passes within 2 miles of a population of 1,649,638. 29% (477,816 individuals) are minorities, and 24% (392,577 individuals) are low income, according to 2010 US Census data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of their EJSCREEN program. Map made by FracTracker Alliance and published by Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Growing municipal and regulatory opposition to transport of LNG through communities

Municipal opposition against the plan to construct the LNG facility at Wyalusing is mounting. On Wednesday, September 2, 2020, the Borough Council of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania (Lackawanna County) voted in opposition to the New Fortress Energy LNG project. Their resolution asked the Delaware River Basin Commission to vote to disapprove Dock 2, the cargo destination of the LNG trucks and trains that will be traversing Lackawanna County with their hazardous content.

And in most recent news, on September 10, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted to delay approving an application to expand the port facilities at Gibbstown, NJ that would have enabled LNG tankers to dock there. In this important turn of events, the representatives from New York, Delaware and New Jersey voted for the delay, while the Pennsylvania representative abstained, and the Federal representative from the US Army Corps of Engineers voted to deny it. The vote was preceded by a comment period in which the public expressed unanimous desire to stop the project, citing impacts to human and environmental health, as well as impacts from methane on climate catastrophe.

In the upcoming months, prior to when they meet again until December, the DRBC will more deeply consider the details of the application. Until that time, forward progress on the LNG plant and the export terminal is effectively halted.

In conclusion

As communities start to consider the impacts to health and safety posed by massive fossil fuel infrastructure—whether that is pipelines, compressor stations, drilling operations, or rail and road transport—clean energy alternatives like solar, wind, and geothermal become the sensible option for all. We applaud the elected officials in Clarks Summit for their vote early this month, and look forward to more following suit.

To stay up to date on the regional pushback against LNG and engage your voice in resistance, learn more at protectnorthernpa.org or sign-up to become an E-activist with Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial support by Lighthawk

[1] “Immediate ignition with liquid still on the ground could cause the spill to develop into a pool fire and present a radiant heat hazard. If there is no ignition source, the LNG will vaporize rapidly forming a cold gas cloud that is initially heavier than air, mixes with ambient air, spreads and is carried downwind.” P. 10 “Methane in vapor state can be an asphyxiant when it displaces oxygen in a confined space.” P. 11. SP 20534 Special Permit to transport LNG by rail in DOT-113C120W rail tank cars. Final Environmental Assessment. Docket No. PHMSA-2019-0100. December 5, 2019. P. 10.

[2] “LNG tank BLEVE is possible in some transportation scenarios.” Sandia National Laboratories, “LNG Use and Safety Concerns (LNG export facility, refueling stations, marine/barge/ferry/rail/truck transport)”, Tom Blanchat, Mike Hightower, Anay Luketa. November 2014. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1367739  P. 23.

[3] US DOT Emergency Response Guidebook. https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/hazmat/erg/emergency-response-guidebook-erg

[4] US DOT Emergency Response Guidebook. https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/hazmat/erg/emergency-response-guidebook-erg

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