Guest Commentary: Project could bring gas tankers to the Delaware River


Before retirement, Coralie Pryde carried out research in polymer chemistry and materials science. She has been studying issues related to fracking since 2008.

Would you like to see tankers filled with liquefied natural gas floating under the Delaware Memorial Bridge, past the Salem Nuclear Power Plant and through the Delaware Estuary and Bay, with all their scenic views, abundant wildlife, sandy beaches and other tourist attractions?

Delawareans faced a similar problem about two decades ago, when there was a proposal to construct a facility in Crown Landing, New Jersey, to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). The response was a rousing no: Delaware’s Administrative Code prohibits LNG terminals in its Coastal Zone.

We are again faced with the possibility that large tankers will carry LNG down the river for export. Delaware River Partners, a subsidiary of the hedge fund New Fortress Energy, received permission in June 2019 from the Delaware River Basin Commission to deepen and modify an existing dock in Gibbstown, New Jersey, to berth two tankers nearly 1,000 feet long. Construction has not yet begun.

Many hurdles stand in the way of this plan.

First, the natural gas would come from the Marcellus Shale in northwestern Pennsylvania. Currently, there is almost no new drilling there because the combined costs of obtaining vast quantities of water for fracking operations and disposing of contaminated fracking waste make gas from this area too expensive to be competitive.

It was intended that the gas would be liquefied (chilled to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit) in a facility planned for Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, and then shipped by rail to Gibbstown. Local organizations argued that a proposed air permit would allow the plant to emit pollutants that would endanger both human health and the environment. That plan is currently shelved.

A third hurdle is transportation of the LNG to Gibbstown. Federal agencies are reviewing safety issues and the possible environmental consequences of accidents involving LNG rail tankers. They have not yet issued a decision as to whether, and under what conditions, shipment of LNG by rail would be permitted.

Shipping Marcellus liquefied natural gas by train raises several concerns: The most probable rail routes to Gibbstown would go through or near major cities, as well as small towns and rural areas with dangerous at-grade crossings. Possible routes through Philadelphia go through densely populated areas, where the damage from derailments, whether accidental or caused by terrorists, could be incalculable.

Safety analyses of LNG in tankers indicate the chances of accidental breaches leading to major releases are low but not zero. Terrorist strikes resulting in heavy damage to infrastructure and/or major loss of life would be difficult to pull off but not impossible. The transfer of the gas from train cars to ocean carriers at Gibbstown presents the greatest opportunities for spills. The resulting vapor clouds, mainly methane, are easily ignited by sparks. In worst-case scenarios, they could interfere with planes landing and taking off from Philadelphia airport. Flames could spread to refineries in Chester, Pennsylvania, and down to Claymont, endangering densely populated areas and major roads, bridges and railways.

No existing or planned export terminal presents so many hazards to so many people and so much infrastructure. The numerous densely-populated areas along the river simply can’t be evacuated quickly in an emergency. Based on rules set by the Coast Guard for LNG tankers entering Boston Harbor, we would expect that bridges would be closed before tankers pass under them and northbound vessels would be banned from the main channel while loaded tankers proceed south. Along with disrupting land traffic, LNG tankers could interfere with port commerce. Their presence will likely discourage tourism in and around the Delaware Bay.

Permitting and construction hurdles make it unlikely that the Gibbstown infrastructure will be completed and the terminal placed in operation in the near future. Many Delaware River Basin residents hope it never gets started. In addition to the safety concerns already listed, a rapidly increasing body of medical evidence indicates that air pollutants near fracking sites and along pipelines lead to serious health problems for residents, as do contaminants getting into drinking water. In Delaware and southern New Jersey, many are worried that the Delaware River Basin Commission will allow fracking waste to be imported into our watershed, resulting in toxic and radioactive materials contaminating the Delaware River and Bay.

Finally, new drilling in the Marcellus Shale could reverse our efforts to combat global warming. Current measurements indicate that methane emissions from fossil fuels are 70% higher than officially reported, while new studies suggest that we still aren’t measuring all the leaks. Methane is destroyed rapidly in the atmosphere but, until that happens, it is about 86 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Experts say diligently curtailing leaks from existing natural gas sources and restricting future gas use are necessary to limit global warming before catastrophic damage occurs.

In this situation, should we simply hope that LNG won’t be allowed on railroads? Perhaps we need some answers from Gov. John Carney: Why is he supporting proposed Delaware River Basin Commission regulations that would allow dangerous wastes into the Delaware River Basin? Why does he support plans to ship LNG down the Delaware River when that is contrary to the intent of current Delaware law? Exactly how will Delawareans benefit from plans that put our safety, our environment and our economy at risk?

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