Too close for comfort?

BROWNSVILLE — In the wake of the Sept. 1 explosion that destroyed a SpaceX rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wants to know what impact a failed launch from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site could have on LNG facilities at the Port of Brownsville.

FERC, which is reviewing proposals for three proposed liquefied natural gas export terminals, on Oct. 27 sent a letter to each of the LNG companies asking that they hire outside experts in space-launch safety to determine whether having a rocket launch site next door is an issue for the LNG terminals and LNG shipping.

Environmentalists and other opponents of the LNG projects have cited the proximity of the planned SpaceX launch site as a reason FERC shouldn’t allow the plants’ construction.

The closest of the proposed LNG plants would be roughly five miles from the SpaceX site, which is under construction and estimated to be complete sometime in 2018. FERC said it needed more information than Annova LNG, Texas LNG and NextDecade LLC have provided so far “to provide an adequate analysis on impacts from potential failed rocket launches.”

The agency gave the companies 90 days to submit a complete response to the request, and said the additional information is necessary for FERC to continue preparation of the environmental impact statement for each project.

Specifically, the agency wants the companies to provide proposals from third-party consultants who can help FERC staff with engineering reviews of the proposed LNG terminals. The consultants must be able to conduct detailed, highly technical “space launch related projectile and debris analysis” and have prior experience as third-party experts evaluating space launch activities for the federal government.

The analysis should take into account every type of launch vehicle SpaceX might use at Boca Chica, including but not limited to the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Interplanetary Transport System launch vehicle, according to the FERC letter.

FERC said the “consequence analysis” should consider any impact a failed launch could have within the LNG plant boundaries, including the impact on personnel and facilities if design limits of occupied and unoccupied buildings, tanks, piping and other equipment are exceeded due to projectiles, explosions, etc.

All potential impacts on LNG ships docked and in transit (and associated personnel) should be considered as well, as should potential “cascading failures and consequences” resulting from an event involving a failed launch, FERC said.

The agency also requested descriptions of “mitigation measures and design features that would reduce risk of irreversible and fatal injuries to personnel” and damage to buildings, tanks, piping and other equipment.

Annova spokesman William Harris said the company is working on fulfilling the FERC request.

“This is part of the overall FERC filing process and we have been discussing it on a regular basis,” he said.

Langtry Meyer, Texas LNG’s chief operating officer, said his company has been meeting with FERC, the Federal Aviation Administration and SpaceX to exchange information on the topic.

“The potential impact of a failed SpaceX launch on the LNG facilities will be assessed once the necessary information has been gathered,” he said.

James Markham-Hill, spokesman for NextDecade, said there’s no reason to believe the company’s timeline for project completion would be affected by the FERC request. NextDecade expects to begin construction of its Rio Grande LNG project in 2017 and commence initial operations in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Markham-Hill noted that the project’s closest boundary is roughly five miles from where SpaceX will be launching rockets, which he described as “a significant distance away.”

“This request from the FERC is yet another example of the regulatory process working the way it is supposed to, being responsible, looking out for the interest of the public and taking all prudent steps necessary to ensure that the public and the environment is protected,” he said.