A Texas developer’s plan to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility just miles away from a SpaceX rocket launch pad has alarm bells ringing at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
NextDecade, developer of the Rio Grande LNG project near the spaceport east of Brownsville, Texas, already faces huge financial risks if it proceeds with its export plans despite volatile prices and an anticipated gas glut, says IEEFA. “But the financial risks pale in comparison with the safety, health, and environmental risks of putting two risky projects so close together.”
The main safety issue arises from the potential for explosion shared by both LNG plants and spaceships. SpaceX reportedly experienced explosions in eight of 15 prototypes for its Starship Rocket. And in its inaugural launch, the Starship rocket itself blew up in an explosion of unexpected force that hurled “chunks of concrete and rebar up to a mile away, while dispersing a plume of pulverized concrete as much as 6.5 miles (around 10 kilometres) from the launch site.”
LNG plant explosions can also be shockingly severe. In June 2022, human errors in valve management and safety monitoring at an LNG terminal near Freeport, Texas, exploded and “sent a fireball 450 feet into the sky.” That explosion did not damage the terminal’s storage tanks or liquefaction trains, and the outcome would have been much worse if it had.
An LNG terminal explosion caused by an unplanned rocket launch or landing event would be worse than the Freeport explosion, IEEFA says. But Rio Grande proposed its location despite this risk.
In response to questions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2016 about the location, Rio Grande commissioned ACTA Inc. to evaluate the risks. ACTA estimated a one-in-100,000 chance that debris from a launch would strike a critical area of the LNG terminal.
But those calculations—which concluded that 99% of debris from a ground explosion would be contained within 4,800 feet—”based its risk calculations primarily on an assessment of the two Falcon rockets in service at the time of the report, which are much smaller than the Starship rocket,” says IEFFA. The fuel used by the Falcons is also different.
Overall, the “greater hazardous intensity” of the recent launches is directly related to the increasing size of SpaceX rockets, which should serve as a warning to investors in the Rio Grande project. A final investment decision is expected by the end of June.
In light of the Starship explosion, IEEFA says, there is “compelling reason to recompute the risks posed by the Rio Grande LNG terminal’s proximity to SpaceX.”