Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG): Health and Climate Impacts
Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) has emerged as a solution for the energy needs of regions that rely on imports for heat, electricity, and industrial applications. However, the shale gas infrastructure necessary for the production and export of LNG releases pollution that harms human health at every stage. Additionally, LNG export terminals pose immediate health and safety risks to those living nearby due to the volume of emissions and volatility of the production process.
The United States became an annual net exporter of shale gas in 2017 by exporting gas in pipelines to Mexico and Canada. Shale gas can be compressed into a liquid that takes up a fraction of the space gas does, making LNG easier to ship overseas. In 2021, U.S. LNG exports exceeded pipeline exports of shale gas for the first time, with Europe becoming the main destination for U.S. LNG last year.
There are currently eight LNG export terminals operating in the United States. Eleven Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-approved LNG export terminals are under construction or soon to be in construction with another seven proposed or identified as “pre-filing” status for FERC permits. One proposed project would use trains and trucks to transport LNG nearly 200 miles from a liquefaction plant in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, to an export terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey. The shale gas, sourced from the Pennsylvania Marcellus, would then be shipped to Puerto Rico and Ireland for regasification and use. Another $6.4 billion facility has been proposed in Chester, Pennsylvania. These projects seek to increase export capacity to satisfy European demand, but, notably, Ireland has called for a halt to LNG imports due to the environmental damage caused by gas extraction and global climate impacts.
Health and Safety Risks of LNG
Very high temperatures are required to combust LNG, so it is typically considered nonflammable. There is even a safety video showing a lit cigarette being put out in a glass of LNG. However, when LNG is not kept at very low temperatures, it produces highly flammable and explosive vapors. Any accidents or incidents at an LNG facility can pose a significant risk to nearby communities.
On June 8, 2022, an explosion at the second-largest LNG plant in the United States, Freeport LNG, shut down production for months. In April 2023, ten months after the accident, officials from Freeport LNG attended a Brazoria County Commissioners meeting to inform the public about the cause of the accident and the company’s plans to address problems that led to the explosion. “At 11:28 a.m. on June 8, the Freeport LNG facility experienced a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion that resulted in the release of electrified natural gas, leading to the formation and ignition of a natural gas vapor cloud and subsequent fire at the facility,” Freeport LNG President Sig Cornelius said. Operator fatigue was reportedly a contributing factor in the incident.
Freeport LNG maintains that there were no injuries associated with the explosion, but a local community group, Better Brazoria, learned through community outreach that a lifeguard and a small child were injured by the explosion while they were on a nearby beach. The force of the explosion shook homes in the neighborhood.
LNG plants emit carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Studies have shown that these pollutants are associated with a range of health impacts, including headaches, coughing, dizziness, and other respiratory illnesses. They can also irritate skin, eyes, nose, and lungs. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can lead to heart disease, certain types of cancer, and damage to the reproductive system and internal organs. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade issued a report in 2023 that found LNG facilities underreport pollution events. One facility, Cameron LNG, has had an average of two accidental releases due to equipment failures each month since beginning full operations in August 2020, according to the report.
Instead of requiring compliance with environmental laws, Gulf states have been increasing allowed limits for a variety of air pollutants. Texas has repeatedly raised pollution limits for the Cheniere LNG plant, the largest LNG facility in the U.S. As of 2022, the facility was permitted to release 353 tons per year of VOCs, twice the limit set out in its original permit in 2014. The state has raised limits on four other pollutants by more than 40%.
The construction and operation of an LNG facility endangers groundwater and surface water in several ways. The following pathways of water contamination are reported in an environmental impact statement prepared by PNG LNG, a gas production and processing facility in Papua New Guinea. LNG facilities see potential contamination from:
Fuels, lubrication oils, and chemicals due to the transport, storage, and handling of these materials during construction.
Hydrocarbon products, fuels, lubricating oils, and chemicals from the transport, storage, and handling of these materials during operations.
The operation of feed gas processing and reticulation systems for processing and transferring feed and treated gas and condensate around the LNG plant should damage occur to pipework, processing units, or transfer vessels.
The dehydration, mercury removal, and fractionation processes, with contaminants of concern including heavier VOCs in liquid form such as benzene, xylene, and toluene, and heavy metals such as mercury.
The operation of offsite and utility systems alongside the LNG plant, with contaminants of concern including hydrocarbon residues (from the hot oil and fuel gas systems), brine, and hazardous chemicals.
LNG plants utilize sound walls to mitigate the noise experienced in communities where they operate. Dominion Energy’s Cove Point gas liquefaction facility near Lusby, Maryland, is surrounded by a 60-foot sound wall. Still, residents reported being kept awake at night by nonstop noise that sounded like a slow moving freight train during the facility’s commissioning phase.
Mental Health Impacts
Living near a major pollution source increases stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms. LNG liquefaction plants and export terminals require years of disruptive, noisy construction followed by a lifetime of uncertainty over the long-term health and safety impacts of the facility. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) provides a community stress resource center to help manage stress and build resilience in communities impacted by environmental contamination.
The process of supercooling shale gas takes an extensive amount of energy, with each enormous facility in the liquefaction train requiring multiple gas turbines, each with its own emissions stack. Consequently, LNG terminals are major emitters of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that causes global temperatures to rise.
Planned releases of methane and unintentional leaks occur at every point in the process from extraction to processing to end-uses, which range from regasification for home heating or electricity to combustion by vessels powered directly by LNG. Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide for the first 20 years after it’s emitted. The climate impact of LNG is so dire, the industry is voluntarily deploying carbon capture and storage technology in an attempt to maintain a social license to operate.
Elevated methane levels are disastrous for climate change, giving rise to intensified floods, fires, storms, beach erosion, and energy outages. Rising temperatures further exacerbate ozone accumulation (smog) and increase the occurrence of heat-related injuries and fatalities. Climate change impacts agriculture and redistributes water supplies, challenging food systems. Increased average global temperature leads to more disease transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks as well as an enhanced risk of cross-species viral transmission resulting in novel illness in humans.
Last year, TotalEnergies announced plans for the development of the Hackberry Carbon Sequestration (HCS) project at Cameron LNG in southwest Louisiana. According to the plans, captured carbon dioxide will be transported about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away via pipeline before it is “permanently stored in a saline aquifer using an injection well with a capacity of up to two million tons of carbon dioxide per year.” Carbon dioxide pipelines present a significant hazard to communities. In February 2021, a carbon pipeline ruptured in Satartia, Mississippi, displacing breathable air and causing residents to collapse in their homes or wander, disoriented, until help arrived.
Permanent storage is problematic as well. Research has raised concerns about the connection between large volumes of CO2 stored in injection wells and earthquakes. Assuming carbon capture works in this application, it is unlikely to offer much to solve climate change. According to a briefing by Global Energy Monitor, “Even if all emissions from LNG export terminals were captured and stored, that would address only a small fraction of the total emissions from LNG.”
Protecting Public Health for the Future
To better protect public health, stricter pollution controls on existing sources of industrial emissions, such as LNG export terminals, are needed immediately. In the long term, only a transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energies, taking into account considerations for environmental justice communities, will offer the public health protections residents of Appalachia and the Gulf Coast, and people all across the globe, deserve.