Federal regulators overlooked substantial threats to public safety before approving a new rule that would allow trains to deliver liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the Lower 48, environmental groups and a coalition of states argue in separate lawsuits filed this week.

LNG

An alliance of environmental advocates led by Earthjustice allege that, should a train derailment result in punctured tank cars and LNG escaping containment, the gas would expand rapidly and become highly flammable, posing explosion risks.

“It’s unbelievably reckless to discard the critical, long-standing safety measures we have in place to protect the public from this dangerous cargo,” said Jordan Luebkemann, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on behalf of six other groups.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) finalized the new rule in June. Barring legal delays, the rule is scheduled to take effect next week.

The rule authorizes the transport of LNG in Department of Transportation-113C120W tank cars, which have thicker outer tanks made of steel and are more resistant to puncturing, PHMSA said. The agency said the cars have “an established track record of safety” in transporting other flammable liquids, and it added that LNG transport by rail would face greater safety scrutiny and tighter operational controls such as enhanced braking requirements and remote monitoring.

Publication of the new rule in the federal register on July 24 culminated a regulatory process that dated to 2018, when the PHMSA was tasked with developing a framework to transport the compressed gas by train. President Donald Trump issued an executive order in early 2019 to hasten the process.

Proponents say a shift to more rail-hauled LNG could bolster small-scale projects in remote areas, offset development challenges at larger export terminals or assist with projects such as those in the Permian Basin, where producers have flared off natural gas at record rates in recent years.

The PHMSA said it does not comment on pending litigation. Administrator Skip Elliott, however, previously touted rail transport as a “safe, reliable, and durable mode of transportation” for LNG. 

Under current federal law, LNG can be transported in trucks and, only in special cases, in rail cars. To move LNG by train, a company needs to secure a waiver from the FRA. The agency has in the past granted special permits, but they are rare.

The environmental groups argue in their legal claim that the PHMSA neglected to draft an environmental impact statement and, as such, violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The suit alleges that an analysis required to complete an impact statement would have required an examination of derailments, leaks and other potential risks.

“These railcars are moving bombs,” said Becky Ayech, president of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, one of the groups that joined the legal challenge.

Fourteen states and Washington, DC, also have filed suit against the federal government, citing similar concerns. State and city attorneys general who initiated the suit said they plan to argue that the PHMSA failed to fully examine the rule’s environmental and safety risks.

People who “live, work, or go to school near train routes are not interested in being specimens in a crash-test laboratory for the Trump Administration,” said California Attorney Xavier General Becerra. “We’re going to court because our families expect our government to put their safety first, not put them in harm’s way.”

In filing the lawsuit, Becerra joined the attorneys general of New York, Maryland, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington state and the District of Columbia.