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LNG: The Next Energy Battle Line
by Patrick Eytchison, Eureka Greens
The United States derives 23% of its consumed energy from natural gas, and an increase to 28% is expected by 2020. Presently, 85% of US consumption is from domestic wells, with a little less than 15% piped from Canada. Only a fraction of a percent comes from liquefied natural gas (LNG), imported by ocean tankers.
Today, however, this pattern is changing. Domestic wells are showing production decline. New finds are smaller and rapidly depleted. Obviously, from a ruling class point of view, the answer is to import more natural gas, just as 63% of US oil is now imported. An alternate solution through conservation, life-style change, and conversion to wind/solar energy is unacceptable to the ruling class. In a July 10, 2003 statement to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Alan Greenspan said, “As the technology of LNG liquefaction [sic] and shipping has improved, and as safety considerations have lessened, a major expansion of US import capability appears to be underway.” A flurry of corporate proposals for new US LNG port terminals has surfaced, many for the West Coast where no such facilities now exist. An Institute of the Americas’ conference held in La Jolla, California on January 29–30, 2004, considered a “boom in liquefied natural gas consumption in the United States, Mexico and Canada” (The Washington Times).
As Greenspan alluded, safety is a primary concern with LNG terminals. Liquefied natural gas is both super-cooled to -260° F and compressed to 1/600 of its gaseous volume. It is then placed in tankers as long as three football fields (there are presently 130 ships in the LNG fleet with 50 more on order) and stored in holding tanks which may be as tall as a 15-story building. Mass amounts of such flammable methane under pressure are a first class hazard for any community. The LNG industry touts the “safeness” of LNG but defines an LNG “accident” in the narrowest of terms: the ignition of a massive quantity of stored LNG. In Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944, a leak from the first US LNG facility and the resulting fires killed 128 people. No further LNG construction took place in the US until the 1970s under the impact of OPEC.
The risk to a community is not just the LNG vapor fire, but other hazards attendant on mass fossil gas storage and production.
LNG vapors ignite at 500° F at a gas-to-air mixture in the range of 5–15%. In the case of such an event, a low hanging vapor cloud could burn at a thermal temperature capable of producing second-degree burns within a two-mile radius. A study by the Oxnard, CA, City Council in 1977 found that an LNG accident in the Oxnard area could take 70,000 lives.
It must be kept in mind, however, that LNG is simply a liquid form of a range of hydrocarbon fossil gases, all of which trail long histories of wellhead accidents, pipeline breaks, leaks, spills, fires, explosions, property damage, injury, and death. All of these hazards should be evaluated by a community before the placement of an LNG terminal. The risk to a community is not just the LNG vapor fire, but many other hazards attendant on mass fossil gas storage and production. A facility leak of liquid petroleum gas (LPG or butane) near Mexico City in 1984 took 500 lives. Pipeline accidents are a constant problem: in 1994, in Edison Township, NJ, a pipe leak caused a tower of flame 500 feet high and destroyed 8 buildings; a leak at Carlsbad, NM, in 2000, killed 12 people.
LNG terminals have currently been proposed for Baja California; Humboldt Bay, California; Harpeswell, ME; Weavers Cove (Fall River, MA); Freeport, Grand Bahama Island; Point Tupper, Nova Scotia; Malibu, California; Sabine Pass, Texas, and at least 10 other locations in the Western Hemisphere. The Freeport terminal includes plans for a 90-mile underwater pipeline to Florida. Local opposition has surfaced but no strong nationwide network of LNG resistance has been formed. Here is certainly an opportunity for the Green movement should it choose to take a leadership role.
…the greatly stepped-up pace of natural gas extraction outside the US envisioned by LNG proponents threatens native ecosystems and cultures around the world.
Opposition to LNG terminal construction is more than “not-in-my-backyard.” Any increase in the United States’ dependency on foreign fossil fuels can only intensify the nation’s existing imperialistic politics. Furthermore, the greatly stepped-up pace of natural gas extraction outside the US envisioned by LNG proponents threatens native ecosystems and cultures around the world. In Bolivia (with gas reserves of 52.3 trillion cubic feet), two in-the-works pipeline projects, Yabog and Gasyrg, will open forest ecosystems to commercial exploitation and Pacific LNG (a consortium made-up of British Gas Group, BP-Amoco, Bridas, and Spain’s Repsol-YPF) plans to construct a 700 km pipeline from Bolivia to a port in Chile from which LNG will be shipped to a Baja California LNG terminal proposed by the American corporation Sempra, a project hardly popular with the Bolivian people. On October 17, 2003, Bolivia’s President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was forced to resign from office and flee to Miami after tens of thousands of workers, farmers and indigenous people marched on the capital in protest of Lozada’s give-away of Bolivian resources. 74 protesters were killed. Bolivia’s unemployment rate is 30% and 70% of Bolivians live in poverty.
Some Greens have hesitated to come out strongly against LNG for fear this will slow down the conversion of “dirty” coal-fueled to “clean” gas-fueled plants. Here we see the shallowness of Green reformism. Aside from the issue of how clean mass methane-powered generation really is—or how large the world’s fossil gas reserve really is—not to oppose LNG terminal construction is to forego one of the few opportunities available to move society closer to the mass conversion to solar energy that Greens have supposedly always held as a principal goal.
…not to oppose LNG terminal construction is to forego one of the few opportunities available to move society closer to the mass conversion to solar energy…
The new role for LNG forced on the ruling class by the depletion of US domestic wells in fact offers the same leverage for activism that opposition to nuclear power did in the 1970s. With fossil fuel reserves moving towards peak and decline around the world (whatever timeframe one accepts), resistance to anything less than full conversion to democratically controlled renewable energy will, in effect, eat up the time global corporations have to work out their plans for conversion to mass coal burning, plutonium breeder reactors, or (if it is ever possible) fusion power, all of which are intrinsically centralized, exploitative technologies. Here, in other words, is an area where decentralized, peoples’ resistance—such as the Green movement has pioneered—can have an effect on a much wider social field than that of the immediate points of confrontation, in fact on the nature of our total future society. In this sense, the LNG issue has the potential to be the next major battle line.
Fay, James A, “Model of Spills and Fires from LNG and Oil Tankers”, Journal of Hazardous Materials, B96, 171–188, 2003
Karen Luyckx, “David Versus Goliath: The Selling of Natural Resources, Corporate Interests and Popular Interests in Bolivia”, http://www.leeds.ac.uk/union/socs/greenaction/lakes/Bolivia.doc.
[15 oct 04]