The explosion and fire in Texas last week that shut down about one-fifth of the country’s liquefied natural gas export capacity wasn’t the first time flames have bedeviled the Freeport LNG facility.
When an electrical fire broke out in an enclosure at the terminal in 2020, the company’s call for help was routed to Houston, more than 60 miles away.
After that delay, local firefighters responded. But they couldn’t find their way into the facility. Federal regulators would later say there weren’t enough Freeport personnel helping direct them.
The mix-up is part of a record of safety lapses at Freeport, a massive facility that handles a product that currently is crucial to meeting the world’s energy needs. The terminal has had a string of incidents in recent years, and federal regulators have hit it with more enforcement actions than any of its competitors along the Gulf of Mexico.
“The question is, what’s going on here? Is it something systemic?” said Richard Kuprewicz, a chemical engineer who worked for years in the oil and gas industry and now consults on safety. “Is there a recurring theme coming up?”
Freeport LNG announced yesterday that the facility would be shut down for about three months (Greenwire, June 14). That’s a dramatic increase from the estimate, on the day of the explosion, that it would be at least three weeks. Considering the facility’s size and the current gas crunch, the development has been wreaking havoc on gas prices.
But the three-month estimate is for only partial operations. The company’s statement said it did not expect a return to full operations “until late 2022.” The shutdown deals a blow to President Joe Biden’s efforts to help Europe wean itself quickly from Russian gas by expanding LNG exports from the United States. The U.S. oil and gas industry has also promoted its role in supplying gas to Europe before and after the invasion. But a significant portion of that supply is now unavailable.
Before last week’s blast, federal inspectors had conducted six “failure investigations” of the operation since the beginning of 2015, according to federal records reviewed by E&E News. One opened just last month when, according to a National Response Center report, a spill of 100 gallons of triethylene glycol sent an employee to the hospital.
Freeport has been hit with 11 enforcement actions from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) since early 2015, agency records show, more than any other Gulf Coast LNG facility.
Problems at the facility have affected shipments and customers, as well. Last year, industry media reported that persistent concerns about the quality of gas going into the plant and loading issues caused Freeport to reduce the number of cargoes available for export.
The explosion last week was the fourth incident reported to PHMSA since mid-2019 at the plant, which began operations in 2008 as an import terminal. The site began exporting gas in 2019.
A safety expert called the frequency of incidents “alarming,” and possibly a sign of poor planning.
“LNG is a beast when it comes to hazard and particularly fire and explosion,” said Faisal Khan, director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University. “It can easily escalate.”
A Freeport spokesperson yesterday declined to respond to detailed questions about the company’s safety record. But in a statement yesterday, Freeport said it “is mindful of the impact this incident and our suspension of operations has on our personnel, our surrounding community, and the domestic and international gas and LNG markets.”
Industry representatives have said LNG terminals operate under stringent safety and environmental standards and have an impressive safety record.
“The overall safety record of U.S. LNG is outstanding,” Daphne Magnuson, spokesperson for the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, said in an email in the wake of the explosion last week. “The U.S. LNG industry is world-class in its safety measures and invests millions annually in state of the art equipment and safety practices. Safety guides the entire LNG process from construction of a facility to the liquefaction process itself, as well as plant security, loading, unloading and transportation.”
Officials at PHMSA, a Department of Transportation branch that is investigating the explosion, provided no update yesterday and said no timing has been discussed on when the agency’s investigation will be finished.
‘It’s a big deal’
LNG is supercooled methane, its volume reduced six hundredfold by bringing it to a temperature of minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit before it is shipped overseas in giant tankers.
Regulators consider LNG explosions to be low-frequency, high-consequence events. They don’t happen often, but when they do, they can cause mass destruction because facilities handle immense amounts of natural gas that can become explosive when exposed to the atmosphere.
A 2004 explosion at an LNG terminal in Algeria killed 30 people and injured 70, fueling critics of what was then an emerging import industry in the United States (Greenwire, Feb. 12, 2004).
Domestically, the industry has not suffered such a tragedy. But five workers were injured in a 2014 explosion at a liquefaction plant in Washington state. The explosion caused $72 million in damage and led to the evacuation of a 2-mile radius around the plant (Energywire, May 6, 2016).
Freeport released a statement yesterday explaining that the explosion resulted from “the overpressure and rupture” of part of an LNG transfer line. That released a gas vapor cloud, which ignited. The fireball touched off a fire that burned other equipment in the plant. The company release said the LNG vapor cloud was contained within the fence line of the plant and lasted only 10 seconds, while the secondary fire burned for 40 minutes.
Kuprewicz found little comfort in those assurances, and said the explosion should not be minimized.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “Whether it’s within the fence line or not is academic.”
The description of last week’s accident, attributed in part to “overpressure,” offers similarities to an earlier incident at the site. In August 2019, Freeport personnel were opening the first production line, or “train.” PHMSA officials say a pipe failed because the supercooled liquid was being forced, at 917 pounds per square inch, through a pipe designed to handle no more than 90 pounds per square inch.
Further investigation revealed the pipe was flawed and possibly not fit to handle the cryogenic temperatures of LNG. In an enforcement report, agency officials said there were hundreds of feet of such pipe in the facility.
That was one of two incidents that month. Twelve days later, the company reported to PHMSA, a flange gasket failed, allowing the refrigerant that supercools the gas to leak into the atmosphere.
The miscommunication in 2020 about getting firefighters to the plant suggested to Khan that the company hadn’t conducted drills with the local fire department.
“When you’re dealing with chemicals like LNG, you do require foolproof planning, because you’re dealing with hazards that can easily escalate and cause a catastrophe,” Khan said.
Freeport yesterday declined to answer questions about whether it has its own fire crews and whether it does training with local first responders.
After the incident, PHMSA issued a compliance action directing Freeport to improve its fire response coordination. Freeport reported back to the agency that it had improved its procedures. PHMSA officials said yesterday that the response by local firefighters appears to have been timely and effective.
In 2020, PHMSA fined Freeport $22,800 after finding that two people inspecting valves at the facility had expired qualifications. Earlier this year, PHMSA issued a warning to the company for inadequate procedures for its underground gas storage facilities.
Other problems have disrupted production at the facility. RBN Energy reported that after planned maintenance in April, operational issues with two production lines during the restart “delayed the return to full utilization.”
ICIS, an energy information outlet, reported last year that problems with the gas coming into the plant were causing problems with cargoes.
The closure of the terminal is sending shock waves through natural gas markets, domestically and internationally.
The price for gas in the United States dropped quickly starting the day of the explosion, because with less being exported, domestic supply went up. Gas prices in Europe and Asia shot up.
Analysts have said the global market can weather a short-term outage. But they caution that a long-term shutdown could send price shock waves through the market, which for months has been seeing LNG cargoes get rerouted from Asia to Europe (Climatewire, June 14).