In its attempt to become more independent of Russian natural gas, Germany is increasingly relying on liquid gas, which has to be transported here by ship, primarily from the Arab states. But the new infrastructure is tricky: accidents or even attacks could have catastrophic consequences.

It happened last week: The Islamist militia Hezbollah in Lebanon threatened Israel with attacks to prevent the extraction and transport of gas from Israel. It was about a ship on which the gas was to be loaded and stored and owned by the British company Energean. The conflict continues to smolder.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, in Texas, a large-scale liquefied natural gas (LNG) production facility explodes. She’s been out for weeks now. The cause of the fire is unclear. An anchored LNG tanker is hurriedly towed to a safe distance. News of the explosion caused the value of some securities used to trade natural gas on the exchange to fall; by about six percent. Traders apparently believe that shipping gas is not without risk.

LNG is the abbreviation for “Liquefied Natural Gas”. This is nothing more than natural gas, which is cooled to below minus 162 degrees Celsius and thus assumes a liquid state. This process compresses the gas by a factor of 600, making it easier to transport and store. In liquid form it can then be pumped into storage tanks or tankers. These tanks must be thermally insulated to a large extent so that the liquid gas also stays cold. To use it, the gas is reheated; it can then be used as fuel.

The global demand for liquefied natural gas has increased significantly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, increasing the risk of accidents or even attacks. European countries in particular are trying to reduce their dependency on Russian energy sources. Germany is currently building several LNG terminals on the North Sea coast. First of all, floating camps are to be built, which will have to help until the actual terminals on land are completed. But how vulnerable is this new energy supply infrastructure? Are the gas ships floating bombs?

A few years ago there was a conference on the subject in Duisburg, where the largest inland port in Europe is located. The experts wanted to know how dangerous it is to transport LNG in ships. Your scenario: A ship collision causes a leak in the LNG tank, the cryogenic liquefied natural gas escapes, forms a puddle in the water and quickly evaporates. If the steam cloud hits any source of ignition, it will explode, setting everything on fire, including the ship that is leaking.

Although experts, such as the Rotterdam fire brigade specialist Brian Paul Mo-Ajok restricted: “It takes a lot of force to get through a ship’s hull and the LNG tank.” But with a weapon that is designed, for example, to stop tanks , it might be possible.

Mo-Ajok and others describe what then happens as follows: If the ship does not explode immediately, the pool fire may cut off escape routes for the ship’s crew and rescue teams. Where the methane gas displaces the oxygen, there is a risk of asphyxiation.

What is a danger for barges is a disaster for ocean liners. The “Mozah” is as long as three soccer fields and as high as a medium-sized town church. It is the largest natural gas tanker in the world. She has a tamed cargo on board: 266,000 cubic meters of liquid natural gas, cooled to minus 162 degrees Celsius. This could supply Hamburg with energy for almost a year. The “Mozah” has been swimming the world’s oceans for more than a decade. Now more than ever, she represents the future of energy transport.

A gigantic infrastructure has emerged worldwide, because the natural gas first has to be liquefied, then shipped and finally converted back into a gaseous state so that it can be fed into the supply network. Some countries such as Japan or South Korea cover their gas requirements almost entirely with LNG. In addition to Malaysia and Indonesia, the desert emirate of Qatar is an important player. The “North Field”, one of the largest natural gas fields on earth, lies off its coast. The Arabs have been developing the deposit since the late 1990s. They do without pipelines because they do not want to be dependent on the rigid network of gas lines.

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Instead, they focus on ship transport. When it is cooled down to minus 162 degrees, the volume of the natural gas shrinks by a factor of six; so it can be shipped in large quantities. Qatar has founded the Nakilat shipping company specifically for this purpose. It now owns 14 ships of the “Mozah” type.

The ships are expensive custom builds. There are up to five huge spheres fueled with LNG on deck. Each is at least 40 meters in diameter and well insulated. The protective shell is necessary to prevent the natural gas from boiling and evaporating. For physical reasons, however, cooling is never perfect. Some of the natural gas on board is flared off or used for propulsion.

The science journalist Marlies Uken examined the dangers posed by these ships for the “Spiegel”. Her finding: there are now protests against LNG projects worldwide. Apparently people are scared. Residents of Long Island, for example, have long opposed three LNG projects on the US east coast. In France, four terminals were criticized. Uken came across a citizens’ initiative called “Safe Haven”, which has been protesting against the construction of the terminals in England for years. In the event of a ship collision or even an attack, the critics of “Safe Haven” fear that the gas that was released could catch fire and set fire to cities.

Uken, on the other hand, quotes Gerd-Michael Würsig from DNV-GL, a kind of ship TÜV: An explosion is extremely unlikely because many factors have to come together for it. The vaporized LNG only ignites when it mixes with the oxygen in the air in a very specific ratio. “The safety statistics of LNG tankers are excellent, so far there have been no total losses.”

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In view of the increasing number of transports, even the LNG industry association Society of International Gas Tankers and Terminal Operators (SIGTTO) is warning. “We have many newcomers to LNG shipping and we urgently need to ensure that they operate the business as safely as the old hands.”

In Ireland, the “Safety Before LNG” initiative has been fighting for years not to build LNG tanks in ports because they consider them too dangerous. Activist Johnny Mc Elliot says: “We have nothing against economic development, but you have to Assess the risks of such a system beforehand and inform the population.” As an alternative, he proposes a floating platform on the high seas, on which the LNG is converted back into gas and fed directly into the pipeline network. “Safety Before LNG” has a prominent comrade-in-arms: Ex-James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, whose father lived in Ireland for many years, supports the initiative. He has already planned the construction of a huge LNG terminal off the coast of California with other Hollywood stars prevented.

The all-clear comes from the industry, which operates mining and transport and makes money from it. The mineral oil company Shell is one of the pioneers in the business: “Experience shows,” says Peter Blauwhoff, long-standing CEO of Shell Germany, “that LNG does not pose a greater risk than fuels such as petrol and diesel when handled properly.”

The post “266,000 cubic meters, minus 162 degrees: How dangerous are Habeck’s new gas tankers?” comes from WirtschaftsKurier.