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LNG: New physicians’ report debunks clean fuel myth

Fossil Fool Bulletin • 21 February 2020

Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), an American group, has released a 12-page report on the health impacts of liquid natural gas (LNG).

Australia is currently the world’s top exporter of LNG, and the comments in PSR’s assessment apply similarly in Australia, which uses the same technology and the same contractors as the American industry.

Climate health emergency

LNG contributes heavily to the health emergency created by climate change. LNG is primarily methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

In addition, LNG may be more carbon-intensive than piped gas. To be liquified, the gas is stripped of any carbon dioxide (CO2) it may be carrying; that CO2 is then generally released through venting to the atmosphere. Furthermore, the liquefaction process itself requires a high amount of energy. This, in combination with gas releases and leaks from the gas wellsite and the compressor stations that keep gas flowing through the pipelines, results in an estimated 12-13% of the original fuel being lost or consumed throughout the entire LNG supply chain.

Extreme heat and weather

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on climate change documents that human activities, primarily the use of fossil fuels, have already increased the earth’s temperature by 1°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

The 2018 Lancet Countdown outlined the health impacts at the then-current levels of warming. In the US, 24 million more Americans were exposed to extreme heat in 2011 than in 2010, and 12.3 million more in 2016 when compared to the same baseline. Heat exposure can cause potentially lethal heat stroke.

Extreme weather events like hurricanes resulted in damage to healthcare infrastructure and increases in waterborne illnesses and mental health illnesses. Wildfires increased mortality. Coastal areas saw an increase in Vibrio bacteria due to warmer oceans, as other regions experienced an increase in mosquito- and flea-borne illnesses. The IPCC, the US Global Change Research Program and the Lancet have all called for a rapid, unprecedented shift away from all fossil fuels in order to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change effects.

LNG is not a clean fuel

LNG and methane in general are marketed as a “clean” fossil fuel. But this is a relative term and applies only when comparing combustion emissions of methane to combustion of coal, a notorious polluter.

A full assessment of LNG’s pollution impacts must consider the upstream effects of methane extraction, processing and transport.

The hydraulic fracturing extraction process injects a slurry of chemicals and millions of gallons of water thousands of feet underground at high pressure. Many of the chemicals used in fracking are not disclosed, but of the ones that are known, many have significant health effects. In 2016, a Yale study found that of the 1,021 chemicals identified in fracking fluids, only 241 had toxicity information available. Of these, 157 were deemed toxic to the reproductive system or human development, and of those, 67 had federal guidelines regulating them.

However, due to passage of the “Halliburton loop-hole” in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, fracking operations are exempt from meeting the federal standards set in the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. Regulation is left to the states, and restrictions on fracking chemicals are weak to non-existent.

The fracked gas itself, like any other fossil fuel, is a source of pollutants, some of which are major health concerns. Fracked gas as it comes out of the ground is a mixture containing methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Among the VOCs are the BTEX group, consisting of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Benzene has been classified as a carcinogen and major human health concern with no safe levels of exposure. Meanwhile, toluene and xylene both have detrimental impacts on the nervous system, and long-term exposure to ethylbenzene may lead to blood disorders.

Particulate matter, especially PM 2.5 and smaller particles, contributes to heart disease and is implicated in strokes, asthma, and cancer.

Nitrogen oxides are a reactive chemical that can combine with VOCs to form ground-level ozone, which contributes to lung diseases and asthma attacks and can aggravate pre-existing heart diseases. Nitrogen oxides also contribute to the formation of nitric acid vapor, acid rain, particulate matter and other harmful chemicals.

Toxic leaks at every stage of production

Emissions of methane and toxic gases can occur when fracked gas is transported via pipelines, which are subject to leaks and explosions. Leaks also occur from compressor stations and pipelines. To be liquified, the fracked gas must undergo a process that removes CO2, mercury and some heavy hydrocarbons to create an end product that is primarily methane, which is then supercooled into a liquid.

Little public research has been conducted as to where the by-products of the “purification” process go.

These chemicals may cause serious harm. Mercury is a well-known neurotoxin; exposure in utero can result in lifelong impairments in cognitive thinking, memory, language, and attention.

The presence of LNG terminals also leads to poorer air quality. Loading and offloading tankers results in fugitive emissions of methane as well as NOx, VOCs, ozone and particulate matter. In addition, the increase in traffic from trucks and tankers, often fuelled by diesel, adds to air pollution.

With LNG terminals often sited in areas that fail to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards, these extra air pollutants exacerbate the health risks that already face heavily burdened communities.

Finally, when LNG is returned to a gaseous form in the importing country, it can again leak into the atmosphere, and, when used to generate electricity, can displace the development of clean, safe, renewable forms of energy.

Safety & security threats

LNG is a volatile and potentially explosive material, so plants pose challenges to safety.

In 2014 in Plymouth, Washington, LNG processing equipment exploded, injuring five employees while leaking enough gas to prompt the evacuation of residents within a two-mile (3.2km) radius.

The incident highlights serious gaps in oversight of the LNG industry: The injuries were not reported, since the employees were able to leave the hospital the same day.

Shrapnel from the explosion pierced multiple storage tanks causing LNG leaks. However, these leaks went unreported. Why? The accidents are not in the reportable category because, when LNG comes in contact with the air,
it evaporates. Thus, the leaks are never reported as “spills”. 

As LNG plants are located in coastal areas, they are vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and coastal flooding – events made more frequent and stronger due to climate change.

LNG also poses grounds for concern in regard to national security. A full LNG tanker carries the energy equivalent of 55 atomic bombs, making it a potential target for terrorist attacks, especially when at port near population centers.

Environmental injustice

LNG contributes to environmental justice problems, as liquefaction and export facilities often have disproportionate impacts on minority and sensitive populations.

These facilities are often placed in areas that are predominantly home to African American, Native American and Hispanic families and families of lower socioeconomic status, and may be sited close to schools and nursing homes.

Such proximity, often reflecting these communities’ lack of political power, intensifies the impact on vulnerable populations and people with pre-existing health conditions.

• Download the report here: https://www.psr.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/LNG-WHITE-PAPER-11262019.pdf

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