LNG Rising

Shipping liquefied natural gas is safe, but the number of shipments has exploded

2 min read
LNG Rising


Illustrations: Michael Newhouse

Click on image for a larger view.


Illustrations: Michael Newhouse

Click on image for a larger view.

Exporters have been shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG) since the first specialty carrier—the MV Methane Princess—was built in 1964.

But although LNG is twice as dense as compressed pipeline gas, the high costs of first cooling the gas to –162 °C to liquefy it for shipment and then regasifying it at the import terminal kept the market tiny for three decades.

Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, a confluence of factors opened the market up: Gas-fired power plants became popular, owners of oil fields became more interested in the extra income natural gas offered, and the terms of LNG trade contracts shifted from cumbersome 20-year arrangements to short-term sales agreements. 

Since 2001, the total volume of LNG shipped has doubled to reach 496 million cubic meters, the energy equivalent of about one and a half billion barrels of oil. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, world trade grew by 22.6 percent.

Qatar single-handedly exports about a quarter of the world’s LNG—all of which travels through the recently troubled Strait of Hormuz. The country harvests its supply from the South Pars/North Dome gas field, the largest in the world, which it co-owns with Iran.

On the receiving end, Japan is responsible for nearly a third of total imports. Gas-fired power has risen so sharply that it recently edged out oil-fired generation in terms of megawatts of electricity produced. Post-Kyoto and post-Fukushima, that trend will surely continue.

About the Author

Ritchie S. King, formerly dealt with numbers full-time as a chemical process engineer. Unlike most engineers, though, he enjoyed writing reports and making charts more than any other aspect of the job. In 2009, King decided to make writing about science and technology a full-time gig. He landed an internship at Spectrum last year and is currently a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.


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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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