Feds delay rewriting rail rule for gas transport, irking environmentalists
The rule impacts a plan in South Jersey to move liquefied natural gas by rail
Thirty-eight cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed on Feb. 3, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, causing widespread fears of long-term environmental and health impacts. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. EPA)
Federal authorities missed a deadline Monday to suspend a Trump-era rule that allows liquefied natural gas to be transported by rail nationally.
In New Jersey, that means the limbo will continue for an energy company’s controversial proposal to build a terminal and rail line in Gloucester County to transport the flammable gas 200 miles from northeastern Pennsylvania to a deep-water port in Gibbstown, where it would be loaded onto ships for export to overseas markets.
Such gas, known as LNG, historically has been moved in large super-cooled tanks by ships and trucks. But in a rule finalized in 2020, the Trump administration, in an effort to expand natural gas exports, reversed longstanding federal policy that had banned LNG rail transport without a special permit.
New Fortress Energy’s Gibbstown plan would have been the first rail route nationally to operate under the Trump administration rule. But Biden administration officials in 2021 announced they would suspend that rule and issue an amended one with additional safeguards, leaving the fate of the Gibbstown proposal uncertain.
Since then, the Biden administration has repeatedly postponed suspending the rule, typically without explanation.
In response to a New Jersey Monitor query, an official from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration declined to detail any rule changes but said the agency is now reviewing more than 10,000 comments it received during a public comment period on its proposal to suspend the Trump rule.
Those comments included letters from Republican leaders urging authorities to keep it, signed by 24 GOP state attorneys general and 20 GOP members of Congress, including South Jersey’s Rep. Jeff Van Drew.
The official suggested the feds are in no hurry to make the changes, pointing out that no LNG is now being transported by rail anywhere under Trump’s rule.
The official added the federal government is unaware of any concrete commercial interest in building the type of tank cars permitted to transport LNG by rail under the Trump administration rule.
Environmentalists say they’re baffled by the delay.
“It’s really disappointing to see that they have yet again failed to act. As long as the rule remains in effect, developers can move forward with these plans,” said Sahana Rao, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Now is the perfect time to finalize the suspension, given the lack of “concrete” development, Rao added.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “should take this opportunity to provide regulatory certainty on this issue, especially now when the public is looking to the agency for action to prevent disasters like the one in East Palestine from happening again,” Rao said.
She added: “LNG transport by rail is not currently taking place at scale, and that is lucky for the communities living near freight rail lines and for the environment — but without the suspension, there is nothing stopping the natural gas industry from changing that and putting these communities in danger without an opportunity to object.”
New Fortress’ plan calls for two 100-car trains to transport LNG 200 miles every day through dozens of communities from Wyalusing, PA, to Gibbstown, which is located roughly across from Philadelphia’s airport. Each car would carry 30,000 gallons of LNG.
There are four proposed routes, and they cross through cities like Camden, Allentown, Trenton, and Philadelphia, Rao said.
Critics of the Gibbstown plan warn that any problem with the line could be catastrophic, because 22 train cars of LNG hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb, prompting environmentalists to dub such transports “bomb trains.” Any breach of a rail car carrying it could result in flammable leaks, noxious vapor clouds, explosions, and fires, critics warn.
A New Fortress spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
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