For at least two days before a pipe exploded at its Texas gas export terminal, Freeport LNG had been trying to figure out what was wrong, records show.
The June 8 blast forced the plant to close and took almost a fifth of U.S. liquefied natural gas exports offline.
But there is no indication in an investigatory report obtained by E&E News that the company stopped operating to fix the problem before the explosion. An industrial safety expert called that an expensive mistake.
“Why wouldn’t they have taken a shutdown action?” said Faisal Khan, director of the process safety center at Texas A&M University.
The managers didn’t halt operations because they didn’t want to acknowledge there was a problem in the plant, according to a consultant hired by the company to do an in-house investigation.
“It was hubris,” the consultant said in a recorded conversation with investigators from the fire marshal’s office in Brazoria County, where the plant is located. E&E News obtained the recordings and the report under the Texas Public Information Act.
The plant’s managers seemed to assume “‘I know everything, and I couldn’t possibly be running a facility that had a line blocked in,’” the consultant added.
The managers brought in an outside engineer to troubleshoot the problem with the pipe the day before the explosion. But the fire marshal’s report says that “someone did not listen to him and react to the pipe moving.”
The pipe was filled with liquefied natural gas and was likely blocked for four days by an improperly closed relief valve, causing pipes to move on their support structure as pressure built up, according to the investigator’s report.
The explosion caused the price of natural gas in the United States to fall, and it cut off about 17 percent of domestic gas exports at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine has made American energy a crucial worldwide commodity.
The plant is on the tiny barrier island of Quintana near the town of Freeport, about 70 miles southwest of Houston. It has equipment that can process up to 2.1 billion cubic feet of gas a day, refrigerating it to negative 260 degree Fahrenheit, which turns the gas into a liquid that can be easily exported on ships.
No one was killed or injured in the explosion. Freeport LNG officials declined to comment for this story, and the county investigators didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Freeport LNG hired the consulting company, the Houston-based IFO Group, to investigate the cause of the explosion. The county fire marshal’s report relies primarily on the consultant to determine the cause of the fire.
The fire marshal’s report shows how serious the explosion could have been. The plant’s internal fire control system ran low on water during the aftermath of the explosion. Plant officials and local firefighters asked for departments in the surrounding towns to send tanker trucks; more than a dozen responded.
The force of the bursting pipe was strong enough to crack concrete and send debris flying throughout the plant, according to the fire marshal’s report. Several pieces of electrical equipment were also damaged, and they likely created the sparks that ignited the leaking gas.
“You take a look at this and you think, ‘Thank God it wasn’t a person standing right there doing their normal duties,'” an unidentified speaker says on one recording.
Parts of the fire-control system worked properly. The plant was designed to allow any leaks of liquefied gas to flow into trenches, draining it away from sensitive equipment. In a July report to regulators, the company estimated damage at nearly $67 million.
The county investigators ruled that the explosion was accidental and likely caused by human error.
However, the county investigators’ report doesn’t indicate that they interviewed any witnesses. They also weren’t able to examine the valve that was at the center of the investigation because Freeport LNG was moving the damaged equipment to a warehouse, the report says.
The county investigators weren’t able to obtain photos that the consultant at IFO Group took of the blast damage or the consultant’s final report. An attorney for the law firm King & Spalding LLP declined to release the report and photographs to the county investigators in late August, saying the information was “private” and that the county would receive a copy “as soon as it was released.”
Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program, said the company’s secrecy is a bad sign.
“They have an obligation to be more forthright with the public,” Slocum said.
The results of the investigation are important because the federal agency that regulates LNG safety, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is working on updating its 42-year-old safety rules for the rapidly growing industry (Energywire, June 28). PHMSA sent a proposal to leadership at the Department of Transportation, its parent agency, in September. The agency website says the proposal should go to the White House by the end of November.
The original liquefied natural gas terminals in the United States, including Freeport, were built to import the fuel. With the advent of the fracking boom, American companies began exporting gas in 2016, and there are now seven export terminals operating.
The industry’s relative youth represents a challenge for regulators, because there isn’t enough of a record to determine what sort of long-term hazard the new plants represent, said Alex Ing, an engineer with the National Fire Protection Association.
A fire at an LNG plant “certainly has the potential to get very serious very fast,” Ing said. “There haven’t been enough incidents to get data on the failure rate.”
Freeport LNG has said it plans to reopen the plant in mid-November. The company has not sought the permission it needs from federal regulators to restart operations, according to officials at PHMSA.
In a call Thursday, Freeport officials discussed with regulators from PHMSA and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission details about repairing and restarting operations at the terminal, according to a report made public Monday by FERC officials. FERC said the regulators “reiterated” the need for Freeport to provide information as soon as possible to allow time for it to be reviewed.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the organization that Alex Ing works for.