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Concerns Raised Over Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas


And the U.S. may soon be a big exporter of natural gas. Some say that would boost America's economy and its strength on the world stage. But there are also worries that environmental risks presented by this new industry are not being taken seriously enough. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Right now the U.S. doesn't export natural gas overseas but companies are eager to convert existing import terminals to export instead in places like Lusby, Maryland, where Sue and Dale Allison live.

As Sue makes a cup of coffee, she can see a huge storage tank out her kitchen window. It's part of Dominion Energy's import terminal on the Chesapeake Bay. It's never bothered the Allisons before. But now Dominion wants to turn it into an export terminal where it will liquefy natural gas before shipping it overseas. And the Allisons can't stop talking about it.

SUE ALLISON: We don't think the policy makers have really considered the dangers that come with switching to export.

SHOGREN: Their biggest concern is liquefied gas leaking from a tank and forming a vapor cloud that catches on fire. There are a lot of homes near the terminal. A study by the state of Maryland says there's a very small risk that the existing facility could leak vapors and injure or kill people living nearby. The report concludes that risk is acceptable.

Dale Allison is an aerospace engineer. He points out that the new facility would include lots of new equipment that may significantly increase the risk.

DALE ALLISON: I've asked them: Do the quantitative risk assessment. Tell me what my risk is.

SHOGREN: The federal government is undertaking a limited environmental review. But Allison points to two major accidents at export terminals in other countries in the past decade. In one, 27 workers were killed. Then just recently, a powerful explosion rocked a LNG storage facility in Washington State. The Allisons fear their concerns will be muffled because the U.S. wants to use LNG exports as a geopolitical tool, especially since Russia annexed part of Ukraine.

S ALLISON: It's like they're sort of drafting us into a new cold war against Russia. We've got to get gas to these customers so Russia can't sell it to them.

SHOGREN: A White House advisor says it's understandable that people have concerns, since LNG exports is a new industry. Dan Utech is a special assistant to President Obama for Energy and Climate Change.

DAN UTECH: We've got several review processes in place. Everywhere we can, we're taking steps to ensure that natural gas and all other forms of energy that we're producing is being done in a safe way.

SHOGREN: But environmental groups say the government's reviews aren't rigorous enough, and ignore effects exports would have here in the U.S. For instance, exporting natural gas would mean more drilling in the U.S. using a technique called hydraulic fracturing.

Bill Snape is a lawyer for Center for Biological Diversity.

BILL SNAPE: Where is this gas going to come from? It's going to come from fracking operations. And these fracking operations have huge clean water issues.

SHOGREN: The industry, however, argues that clean water issues and other drilling impacts don't belong in a review of an export terminal. Energy companies and their political backers are pushing hard not to let environmental reviews slow down approval of their projects. A couple dozen projects are seeking governmental approval. But only the frontrunners will be able to attract investors.

Sue Tierney is from Analysis Group, an energy consulting firm.

SUE TIERNEY: The reason they're kind of in a horse race is there will not be enough money to fund all of these projects.

SHOGREN: So delay might mean a company's multi-billion dollar project will never get built. So far, the government seems to be giving the new industry a big green light. Two projects already have cleared environmental reviews. The review of the project on the Chesapeake Bay near the Allisons' house is expected next month.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.

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