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What You Should Know About Liquefied Natural Gas and Rail Cars

Under current federal law, it’s considered too dangerous to carry liquefied natural gas in tank cars. The Trump administration is attempting to change that.

Homes on E. 61st. street engulfed in flames caused by East Ohio Gas Co. explosion.
Joseph E. Cole / The Cleveland Press Collection
Fires burn in the deadly 1944 Cleveland liquefied natural gas disaster.
The aftermath of the crude-by-rail disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.
Transportation Safety Board of Canada
The aftermath of the crude-by-rail disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.
Fires engulf homes in Cleveland, Ohio, during a liquefied natural gas disaster in 1944 (left).

The aftermath of the crude-by-rail disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.

Aug. 18, 2020

The explosion risk of transporting volatile liquefied natural gas in vulnerable tank cars through major population centers is off the charts.

Yet the Trump administration is finalizing a rule that would allow trains to travel the country filled with an unprecedented amount of explosive liquefied natural gas. The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Association of State Fire Marshals have objected to the proposed rule.

Earthjustice has filed a legal challenge to stop these “bomb trains.”

Here’s what you should know:

How dangerous is it to transport liquefied natural gas by rail tank cars?

The liquefied natural gas from just one rail tank car — without even considering a whole train — could be enough to destroy a city.

It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb. A train of 110 tank cars filled with liquefied natural gas would have five times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.

In the event of any loss of containment, liquefied natural gas rapidly expands by six hundred times its volume to become a highly flammable gas — and can turn into a “bomb train.”

Since liquefied natural gas must be contained in a pressurized and temperature-controlled storage unit, it can also produce a BLEVE — “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.”

During a BLEVE, pressurized liquid ‘explodes’ both chemically and physically (simultaneously vaporizing and combusting). A BLEVE creates three primary dangers:

  1. A blast wave,
  2. Projections of the container fragments, and
  3. In the case of flammable vapors, a fireball.

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What is the current law?

Under current federal law, it’s considered too dangerous to carry liquefied natural gas in tank cars.

Liquefied natural gas can only be transported by ships, truck, and — with special approval by the Federal Railroad Administration — by rail in approved United Nations portable tanks.

A UN portable tank.
TCC1 / CC BY-SA 3.0
A UN portable tank.

UN portable tanks are relatively small tanks that can be mounted on top of semi-truck trailer beds or on railcars.

By contrast, tanker rail cars can hold roughly three times the volume of the UN portable tanks.

The government has allowed two isolated experiments on Alaska and Florida rail lines with companies transporting liquefied natural gas inside the UN portable tanks, but not in rail cars. In December, the Trump administration gave approval for one company to transport the dangerous cargo in rail cars — the first time in U.S. history — through populated areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The new proposed rule would expand that approval for companies to transport liquefied natural gas throughout the entire nation.

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Tanker rail cars.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
Tanker rail cars.

Have there been disasters involving liquefied natural gas?

Yes. In one of the worst examples of this danger, 131 people were killed, countless people were injured, and a square mile of Cleveland, Ohio, was destroyed when liquefied natural gas escaped from a tank farm, flowed into the city's sewer system and ignited in 1944.

In the numerous explosions that followed, temperatures soared to 3,000°F, streets blew up, with one explosion opening a crater 25 feet deep, 30 feet wide, and 60 feet long.

Firefighters and volunteers are helpless onlookers as they survey the billowing black smoke and flames from the 1944 East Ohio Gas Company explosion.
Edward Dork / Special Collections / Cleveland State University Library
The aftermath of Cleveland’s 1944 deadly liquefied natural gas disaster.
James Thomas / The Cleveland Press Collection
Scenes from Cleveland’s 1944 deadly liquefied natural gas disaster.
The site of the tank explosion.
Byron Filkins / The Cleveland Press Collection
Historical marker in Grdina Park, Cleveland, near the original site of the tank farm.
Tim Evanson / CC BY-SA 2.0
Today, a historical marker in Grdina Park, Cleveland, memorializes the original site of the liquefied natural gas tank farm.
The liquefied natural gas tank farm in 1944 (left), in the aftermath of the explosion. Today, a historical marker in Grdina Park, Cleveland, memorializes the original site of the tank farm.

Are rail tanker cars vulnerable to explosive disasters?

Yes. In 2013, a train carrying crude oil — less explosive than liquefied natural gas — derailed in Lac Mégantic, Quebec.

The resulting fire led to BLEVEs — “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions” — of numerous tank cars, which leveled the town center and killed 47 people.

A BLEVE of a liquefied natural gas tank car would be expected to produce a fireball up to a mile wide and would be significantly more powerful than what happened in Lac Mégantic.

The crude-by-rail explosion in Lac Mégantic killed 47 people in 2013.
Sûreté du Québec
The crude-by-rail explosion in Lac Mégantic killed 47 people.
One of the tanker rail cars involved in the Lac Mégantic disaster.
Transportation Safety Board of Canada
One of the tanker rail cars that derailed in the Lac Mégantic disaster.

Why are liquefied natural gas rail shipments now being proposed?

On April 10, 2019, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to initiate rulemaking to allow liquefied natural gas transport by rail.

On July 24, 2020, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration published a final rule to allow liquefied natural gas transport by rail in a new, untested tanker car. This untested tanker car will be heavier than almost all freight on our rails, which could have unforeseen consequences.

The class of rail cars the new tank car is based on — DOT-113 rail cars — have experienced numerous failures while transporting other, less dangerous cargoes.

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How is the rule dangerous?

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s rule proposes no restrictions on the number or distribution of liquefied natural gas tanker cars in a particular train, nor on the routes these trains may travel.

Under the rule, bomb trains would be subject to a voluntary speed limit of up to 50 mph through densely-populated cities.

Officials at the Federal Railroad Administration have noted that tank cars are unlikely to survive impacts at even 30 mph.

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Have other federal agencies expressed concerns?

The National Transportation Safety Board says that allowing liquefied natural gas to be moved in railroad tank cars “would be detrimental to public safety,” and notes that the rule would allow the explosive substance to move across the U.S. in “unvalidated tank cars and lacking operational controls that are afforded other hazardous materials such as flammable liquids.”

In addition, the National Association of State Fire Marshals commented that, in the new rule, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “is not proposing any additional safety requirements on these rail cars, or the trains which transport them, despite the potential hazards of LNG product.”

The Fire Marshals added: “The combination of a lack of information with no increased safety measures is a dangerous proposition. This only serves to put the public and our first responders at even greater risk.”

In one report, the federal General Accounting Office noted that an accident involving only five rail tank cars loaded with liquid propane gas exploded over an area half a mile by three-quarters of a mile and was felt 45 miles away. Debris from the fire and explosions covered 20 blocks of Decatur, Illinois.

The General Accounting Office only considered the risk of propane tanker car explosions in its report (since liquefied natural gas tankers are not allowed due to danger), but the General Accounting Office’s concerns are equally applicable to the concerns about carrying liquefied natural gas in rail tankers:

If large amounts of LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] or its vapor get into the sewers, subways, and other subterranean ducts in a big city, it could lead to a catastrophe.
General Accounting Office / Liquefied Energy Gases Safety: Report to the Congress, Vol. 1

“If large amounts of LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] or its vapor get into the sewers, subways, and other subterranean ducts in a big city, it could lead to a catastrophe.”

This is precisely what happened in the Cleveland’s 1944 liquefied natural gas disaster, where liquefied natural gas spilled from a facility and flowed into the storm water system, where it vaporized and spread out under a square mile section of the city.

The final rule does not adequately address these concerns.

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Sifting through the wreckage following Cleveland’s 1944 deadly liquefied natural gas disaster.
Joseph E. Cole / The Cleveland Press Collection
Sifting through the wreckage in the aftermath of Cleveland’s 1944 deadly liquefied natural gas disaster.

What’s happening now?

On Aug. 18, 2020, Earthjustice filed a legal challenge to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s rule on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Clean Air Council, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the Mountain Watershed Association, and the Sierra Club. The legal action was filed in the U.S. District Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit.

“It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb,” said Earthjustice attorney Jordan Luebkemann. “It’s unbelievably reckless to discard the critical, long-standing safety measures we have in place to protect the public from this dangerous cargo. That’s why we’re filing this challenge.”

The public comment period on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's proposed rule to allow trains to travel the country filled with an unprecedented amount of liquefied natural gas closed on Jan. 13, 2020. (See what the public had to say.)

Earthjustice attorneys submitted comments opposing the proposed rule, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Mountain Watershed Association, and Sierra Club.

Read the comments:

These comments are now part of the rulemaking record, as the agency proceeds with consideration of a final rule.