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TX - ‘Hubris’: LNG plant officials saw trouble days before blast

For at least two days before a pipe exploded at its Texas gas export terminal, Freeport LNG had been trying to figure out what was wrong, records show.

The June 8 blast forced the plant to close and took almost a fifth of U.S. liquefied natural gas exports offline.

But there is no indication in an investigatory report obtained by E&E News that the company stopped operating to fix the problem before the explosion. An industrial safety expert called that an expensive mistake.

“Why wouldn’t they have taken a shutdown action?” said Faisal Khan, director of the process safety center at Texas A&M University.

The managers didn’t halt operations because they didn’t want to acknowledge there was a problem in the plant, according to a consultant hired by the company to do an in-house investigation.

“It was hubris,” the consultant said in a recorded conversation with investigators from the fire marshal’s office in Brazoria County, where the plant is located. E&E News obtained the recordings and the report under the Texas Public Information Act.

The plant’s managers seemed to assume “‘I know everything, and I couldn’t possibly be running a facility that had a line blocked in,’” the consultant added.

The managers brought in an outside engineer to troubleshoot the problem with the pipe the day before the explosion. But the fire marshal’s report says that “someone did not listen to him and react to the pipe moving.”

The pipe was filled with liquefied natural gas and was likely blocked for four days by an improperly closed relief valve, causing pipes to move on their support structure as pressure built up, according to the investigator’s report.

The explosion caused the price of natural gas in the United States to fall, and it cut off about 17 percent of domestic gas exports at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine has made American energy a crucial worldwide commodity.

The plant is on the tiny barrier island of Quintana near the town of Freeport, about 70 miles southwest of Houston. It has equipment that can process up to 2.1 billion cubic feet of gas a day, refrigerating it to negative 260 degree Fahrenheit, which turns the gas into a liquid that can be easily exported on ships.

No one was killed or injured in the explosion. Freeport LNG officials declined to comment for this story, and the county investigators didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

Freeport LNG hired the consulting company, the Houston-based IFO Group, to investigate the cause of the explosion. The county fire marshal’s report relies primarily on the consultant to determine the cause of the fire.

The fire marshal’s report shows how serious the explosion could have been. The plant’s internal fire control system ran low on water during the aftermath of the explosion. Plant officials and local firefighters asked for departments in the surrounding towns to send tanker trucks; more than a dozen responded.

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