Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series about the Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant.
Last week, the Puyallup Tribe and nonprofit law firm Earthjustice filed separate appeals to the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board to stop Puget Sound Energy from completing work on a liquefied natural gas facility in Tacoma.
That comes after the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued the energy company a long-awaited notice of construction permit this month to continue the project, built on a peninsula in the Tacoma tide flats on land contested by Puyallup Tribal members. They argue the facility, bordering reservation land, violates a centuries-old treaty protecting their fishing rights in Commencement Bay, and that its potential emissions of harmful pollutants would impact the health of their members.
Moreover, according to the Tribe’s appeal, PSE’s intention to bring gas to the facility by way of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — delivered via underground pipelines from wells in British Columbia — will perpetuate the effects of climate change, ultimately pushing the coastal-adjacent reservation to the brink if storm severity worsens and sea levels rise.
Activists and organizations have fought the development of the LNG facility for years on the grounds that PSE did not adequately consult the tribe and that the process was fraught with deception, outdated science and conflicts of interest. Islanders, meanwhile, have expressed concern over the safety of the plant, after the group Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma obtained emergency response models from the Tacoma Fire Department last summer showing a possible 12-mile wide fallout zone in the event of a catastrophe where LNG was released.
The appeals to the Control Hearings Board will not automatically stay or withdraw the permit from PSCAA. Any decision to put a hold on construction that remains will likely come in January, said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for Earthjustice.
Stacy Oaks, an organizer of the group 350 Seattle, which opposes the LNG facility, said she believes the city of Tacoma should never have been allowed to assess the project’s environmental impact, and that the responsibility should instead have been entrusted to the Washington Department of Ecology. She is hoping Gov. Jay Inslee will take the lead and set a new course for the project with additional oversight.
“It doesn’t look like there’s a lot of construction left, but what is left is a lot of fight in Tacoma and in the Salish Sea. I feel like people will show up and try to make that happen,” Oaks said.
Jim Hogan, the consulting project manager for the LNG facility, told The Beachcomber in a recent interview that the project is 60% completed. Now with the last of more than a dozen state and federal permits in place, he said the plant is expected to be operational by the first quarter of 2021. Hogan also spoke about what he said are misconceptions surrounding the facility, what its construction will mean for PSE customers and the maritime industry it was built to supply gas to, and whether the facility will be truly safe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Beachcomber: Can you explain exactly what this facility is? In layman’s terms, it’s holding reserves of LNG via an underground pipeline, correct?
Hogan: LNG is just normal natural gas, like what you have feeding your furnace by your hot water heater, and we run it through a refrigerator and cool it down to -260 degrees and it turns into a liquid. The only reason for doing that is so we can store a larger volume of gas in a smaller space. When you convert it to a liquid, it makes the gas 600 times smaller.
So we take gas right out of our distribution system and we run it through this big refrigerator and then we keep it in the tank. The plant serves two purposes for the utility — [one], it serves as a backup. So in the wintertime, when there’s high demand, we take that liquefied natural gas, run it through a hot water tank, heat it up, and turn it back into gas and send it out to the customers. And then the other portion of the plant is to be used as a fuel source for ships and trucks and things like that. The reason for that is because there are new regulations in place internationally around reducing the sulfur content of fuel. [Natural gas is] really a new fuel source for the marine industry because they use a lot of fuel. And so Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) maritime, which operates two ships out of the Port of Tacoma, decided to convert their ships to LNG, and that was kind of the impetus that started this whole project back in 2012.
BC: How much power will PSE customers see come from this facility? It will be used to offset heating needs on peak days, correct?
Hogan: That’s a little hard to say because, across our entire system, we have about 850,000 gas customers right now. So it’s all tied together, and different customers see more, but generally speaking, the days that we use this plant it will be basically acting like a battery for north Pierce County and the south King County area.
BC: One argument from critics is that PSE is “passing the buck” onto consumers by raising rates to pay for this. Is that true?
Hogan: It is somewhat accurate, but let me try to explain how it works. So we’re a regulated utility. We’re regulated by the Washington State Transportation Commission. So everything we do, we have to demonstrate the value of the utility to the customer and the city for approval.
So we started this facility because, as I mentioned, part of it is for the utility customers and part of it is to sell marine fuel. We went through a very lengthy process with the Utilities Commission that lasted about a year and a half looking at both the cost of the facility, every single piece of equipment in the facility, and what benefits would be derived from it. And at the end of the day, the Utility Commission determined that 47% of the plant benefits PSE’s customers — the utility customers — and 53% of the plant was this other side business of selling fuel to TOTE and other customers. So yes, it’s true that utility customers will pay for 43% of the plant.
But the other process we have to get through is, as a utility, we have to do what’s called an Integrated Resource Plan for our electric supply and for our gas supply. That’s specifically done every other year, and you have to show the Utility Commission that whatever you’re doing is the least cost solution. So in this case, as our customer [base] grows, our pipeline system gets taxed — not taxed like money — but it gets strained as more and more and more customers [get PSE gas]. So we’re always having to add more pipelines.
Now, for something like the Tacoma LNG facility, we only need that facility maybe when it’s 25 degrees out or 30 degrees out and the system is heating more hot water in homes. What we had to demonstrate to the Utility Commission was [that] it is cheaper to build this facility than it to put in a bunch of more pipelines and add to the capacity. So regardless of whether the customers are paying for 47% of the utility or paying for more pipelines, one way or another the customers pay for the infrastructure that delivers their gas to them.
BC: As far as danger from the facility is concerned, in the event of an earthquake or catastrophic emergency, what would the risk be to the surrounding area if the tank ruptured? What is the chance of that happening?
Hogan: It’s a nickel steel tank. So that’s just the type of material that the tank is made of. So cold things like liquid oxygen or liquid nitrogen or LNG, you use stainless steel or nickel steel containment because they’re made for cold temperatures.
So our tank is what’s called a cold containment tank, which is the most robust type of LNG tank that’s made, and so it’s a nickel steel tank inside of a concrete tank. Most LNG tanks are just single-wall tanks. In our case, it’s a full containment tank. And none of these have ever failed anywhere in the world, I should add. They’re very robust.
BC: Is that in part due to where in the world this LNG plant is being built, that we are due at some point for the big one?
Hogan: It is in parts. Typically, [LNG plants] are much bigger than ours, like the Gulf Coast where they import and export LNG — those are a lot bigger, and so usually they’re out in big areas, and they’ll just have a single wall tank. And then if the tank fails then there’s an area around the tank and the LNG spills out in that area.
We’re on a 30-acre site in an urban industrial environment, so we chose to go with something more robust. And then in terms of earthquakes, the regulations for LNG facilities mandate that they have to survive an earthquake — and it gets a little technical, so bear with me — but they have to survive an earthquake that happens on average every 2,450 years. And to put that into perspective, up until about 10 years ago, bridges and overpasses in the United States were designed for a 600-year earthquake, and now they’re designed for a 1,000-year earthquake. But LNG regulations call for this earthquake that happens with even less frequency, so it’s a larger earthquake. And we have to be able to go through that earthquake without spilling a single drop of LNG. So all of the piping, the tank, the equipment, everything is designed to go through an earthquake that is essentially pretty catastrophic for the Puget Sound region. And that’s just a federal requirement. That’s what the code requires.
BC: In a scenario where a natural disaster or a potential terror attack occurs, if there’s some sort of a situation where both shells of the tank are ruptured and you have LNG dispersing or releasing from that, what happens at that point?
Hogan: If we were to have a release of LNG immediately, LNG boils and turns into vapor because it’s at -260 degrees. So as soon as it reaches ambient temperatures it will boil off. Now one of the nice things about methane is it’s not particularly flammable, so it’s only flammable when it’s mixed with air in a range of five to 15%. If there’s less than five percent methane mixed with the air, it won’t burn. If there’s more than 15% it won’t burn. So what happens is the plant is designed as such that we capture the spill of LNG and it boils off, and you have a very narrow range of areas where there is a flammable cloud. And the federal regulations require that those flammable clouds stay on our site, and even then, methane is not explosive like gasoline. There are no scenarios where there could be an explosion.
When you hear about a natural gas explosion, those are times when natural gas and air mix and are trapped inside of enclosed surface areas, like someone’s garage. And so those big spectacular gas explosions that you see on the news every so often, that’s because of the enclosed space. Our entire plant, the piping, everything is outside. If we had a release, it would boil off, and any area of flammability would stay within our property line. We’ve had to do extensive modeling that the federal regulations require. There is vapor software we have to use and how you run the models and all of that had to be done for the approval agencies. There’s really not so much that could happen at the plant that would be catastrophic.
BC: Is there any chance that the vapor cloud that may be released in that scenario would be big enough to reach Vashon Island?
Hogan: No. The models that have been done show that we have to control that cloud. So we have to show that they dissipate and it’s not in a flammable [state] when it leaves our property line.