Fatigue among employees due to understaffing played a role in the blast that has shut down one of the largest U.S. natural gas export terminals since June, according to an investigative report released on Tuesday.
Freeport LNG operators generally worked 12-hour shifts, and nearly three-quarters had worked at least 20 percent more than their scheduled hours in the first half of 2022, according to the report by consultancy IFO Group for the company. He considered fatigue a “likely contributing factor” to the incident.
“Fatigue can increase errors, delay responses and make decisions in the cloud,” the report states. It added that operators often worked overtime on their days off and found problems with the plant’s warning systems.
Freeport LNG officials had predicted the facility would reopen in early to mid-November. However, an official with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Tuesday the company has not applied for permission to restart.
Analysts from several research and banking firms have said a November launch looks unlikely. Company officials do not provide information about the schedule.
“If we have an update on communications, it will be provided accordingly,” Freeport LNG spokeswoman Heather Browne said in an email.
The findings of the investigation are important in part because the PHMSA is attempting to update its 42-year-old safety rules for the fast-growing industry (energy wire, June 28th). PHMSA sent a proposal to the head of the Department of Transportation, its parent agency, in September. It could go to the White House by the end of November.
The heavily redacted investigative report was released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It blamed the Freeport fire and explosion on human error and said company employees were aware of the problems days earlier. E&E News previously reported similar issues raised in another investigative report (energy wire1 Nov).
Freeport LNG hired Houston-based IFO Group to investigate the cause of the blast under an agreement with PHMSA. The terminal cannot reopen without the approval of the agency and other regulatory bodies.
IFO investigators told Brazoria County officials, where Freeport is located, that managers didn’t shut down operations at the terminal because of “hubris” — they didn’t want to acknowledge there was a problem at the facility.
In response to the IFO report, the company said it plans to expand its workforce by more than 30 percent and committed to other recommended changes.
“Freeport LNG is committed to emerging from the June 8 incident with an unmatched focus on safety, operational integrity and operational excellence,” the company said in a statement in response to the report.
The blast shut down nearly 20 percent of the country’s liquefied natural gas export capacity and hampered a crucial aspect of the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine.
“Clearly Freeport put profits ahead of safety by running a facility at full speed when staff were exhausted from overwork,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis who advocates Accelerating the transition to sustainable energy. “LNG is explosive and safety must not be neglected.”
Valves, Explosions and “Alarm Fatigue”
The facility is located on the tiny offshore island of Quintana near Freeport, about 70 miles south from Houston. Its equipment can process up to 2.1 billion cubic feet of gas per day and cool it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, shrinking the gas into a liquid that can be exported on ships.
No one was killed or injured in the explosion, which occurred when an LNG-filled pipe exploded. It had been blocked by a valve that was not properly closed. Freeport has a “long-standing practice of calling in operators for overtime” to staff valve inspections, the report said. The report also found that excessive alarms in the facility’s control room led to “alarm fatigue” while other systems appeared to have dead batteries. It also highlighted issues with the displays that controllers use to monitor systems at the facility.
In Tuesday’s company statement, Freeport said it was improving its valve testing process and that it had changed procedures to prevent LNG from being blocked and made changes to its control room system to notify controllers of valve positions or temperature readings that may occur indicate LNG blockages. The company said it was also updating its training to address the causes of the incident and identify abnormal conditions at the facility.
“The safety of our workforce and the surrounding community, as well as protecting the environment, are Freeport LNG’s top priorities,” the company said in its statement.
But for environmental groups, the explosion and revelations about why it happened is another reason to divest natural gas.
“The greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants released from the operation of LNG plants are terrible for the climate and harm communities already overloaded with high levels of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds,” said Bekah Hinojosa, a Brownsville, Texas resident activist for the Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. “The truth is that US consumers have benefited from the Freeport LNG shutdown.”
The original liquefied natural gas terminals in the United States, including Freeport, were built to import the fuel. With the advent of the country’s oil and gas boom, American companies began exporting gas in 2016, and seven export terminals are now operational.