THE US’s Freeport LNG has received regulatory approval to partially restart commercial operations, after a pipeline rupture and explosion in June 2022 took its Texas terminal offline.
Following an almost five-month long investigation into the incident by federal regulators, a review found that a pressure safety valve which had been improperly closed for several weeks after routine testing was primarily to blame. Overworked operators and other shortcomings such as “alarm fatigue” from “excessive alarms” — some from equipment that had been “placed out of service years ago” — were also uncovered during the investigation.
The terminal had been expected to return to full plant operations in late 2022, but reopening dates were delayed when investigators sought more details on operations and staffing. The firm has since increased staffing levels, by taking on additional employees with “extensive LNG and petrochemical operating experience to reduce overtime, enhance operational excellence, and improve quality assurance and business performance,” Freeport LNG said.
The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which amongst other things regulates natural gas terminals, has now given the go-ahead for the full return to service of one liquefaction train that has already restarted, and the incremental restart and full return to service of a second train.
Freeport LNG said that the restart and return to service of its third liquefaction train will require subsequent regulatory approval once certain operational conditions are met. A fourth liquefaction train which has received all regulatory approvals for construction will be added as part of expansion plans, the firm said.
Two of Freeport LNG’s three LNG storage tanks and one of its two LNG (shipping) berths have also returned to operation, while the second LNG berth and third LNG storage tank are expected to return to service in May.
However, it will be "several weeks" before the plant can reach full processing capacity of about 2.2bn ft3/d of gas. At its peak, the country’s second-largest such facility accounts for about 20% of US liquified natural gas (LNG exports).
The closure of Freeport’s terminal was seen as a significant blow to European LNG supplies last year, as countries sought to find replacements to Russian gas following its invasion of Ukraine.
“Returning to liquefaction operations is a significant achievement for Freeport LNG,” said Michael Smith, Freeport LNG founder, chairman and CEO. “Eight months of diligence, discipline and dedicated efforts by our teams, working collaboratively alongside the regulatory agencies and local officials, have positioned us to resume LNG production and commence ramp-up to the safe establishment of commercial operations of our liquefaction facility.”
Despite the approval, local residents are said to be worried that not enough has been done by the company and federal and local regulators to safeguard the facility. “We don’t feel like they’re ready to reopen at all. You know, there’s still so many unanswered questions,” said Melanie Oldham, a resident of the city of Freeport told The Financial Times. “They didn’t even show up for the meeting where we could ask them some questions and make comments directly.”
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