Our Washington State Ferry (WSF) system, the largest in the world, burns more than 17 million gallons of diesel (petroleum) each year. WSF reports that fuel is its fastest growing operating expense, amounting to over 30 percent of its 2013 operating budget, compared to 12 percent in 2001.
In response to the rising costs, both monetary and environmental, of burning oil to run its ferries, WSF is testing the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as an alternative fuel. WSF has received preliminary approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, its oversight agency, to retrofit the propulsion systems of its six Issaquah Class ferries to use LNG. A request for proposals (RFP) for this work was due last week, March 26.
WSF also hired Det Norske Veritas (DNV) to create a safety/security plan, an assessment of risk, and an operations manual for its LNG conversion project. It expects DNV to complete these materials by this spring. DNV has experience developing international standards for the use of LNG in passenger vessels.
What Is LNG?
Natural gas is what many of us use for heating and cooking. In its liquefied state, it has been cooled to -256 degrees F and condensed into a colorless, odorless, nontoxic, and noncorrosive liquid. Its liquefied form occupies 1/640 of its original volume, making it relatively easy to transport and store.
The Virtues of LNG
LNG would (1) reduce fuel costs, (2) decrease ecologically damaging pollution and CO2 emissions, and (3) be obtained in the Northwest, supporting local economies and reducing shipping expenses and reliance on foreign oil sources.
- Reducing Fuel Costs: WSF estimates the fuel cost savings of moving from diesel to LNG to be about 40-50 percent at today’s pricing.
- Reducing Emissions: WSF estimates that moving from diesel to LNG would cut all particulate matter and sulfur oxide emissions, at least 90 percent of nitrous oxide emissions, and approximately 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
- Going Local: According to WSF, natural gas as a transportation fuel presents an opportunity to improve U.S. energy security because about 90 percent of natural gas is produced domestically, compared to an estimated 40 percent of oil. WSF says it would truck LNG from British Columbia or the U.S. Northwest.
The Downside of LNG: Fracking
According to WSF accounts, LNG sounds swell. Who can argue with replacing a costly and ecologically damaging fuel like oil? But, like most things that sound too good to be true, LNG has a potentially big downside—fracking. No, this is not the word “frakking“ that Battlestar Gallactica fans like to toss around. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the method by which natural gas is extracted from the earth. The practice dates back to the 1940s but has gotten much more technologically proficient in recent years and also, many contend, more environmentally hazardous. Critics of modern-day fracking say it contaminates drinking water, releases dangerous gases into the atmosphere, creates poisonous liquid waste, and causes seismic instability.
A May 2012 study by the University of Colorado School of Public Health concluded that the types and levels of contaminants measured in the air near fracking sites created an increased risk for cancer, respiratory illness, and neurological problems.
According to a March 13, 2013, New York Times article (“The Facts on Fracking”), “The fracking cocktail includes acids, detergents and poisons that are not regulated by federal laws but can be problematic if they seep into drinking water.” Fracking can release methane gas into the environment, contributing to global warming and creating the possibility of explosions. Gas well water can rise to the earth’s surface, bringing up radioactive elements and massive quantities of brine. Efforts to dispose of brine by injecting it back into the wells have been known to trigger small earthquakes.
Some countries with the biggest shale reserves, including France and Bulgaria, have banned fracking; protesters are blocking proposed drilling sites in England and Poland; and Germany is considering limiting fracking and banning it in some areas to protect drinking water. People in New York City are trying to ban fracking in their state for fear it will contaminate their water supply.
Inside Bainbridge contacted WSF to ask what their rationale is for investing in an alternative fuel source with damaging long-term ecological consequences. WSF did not respond to our requests for comments.
Images courtesy of Rose Braverman, WSF, David Lowe1970, and Daniel Foster437.