As U.S. LNG Expands in Europe, a Hidden Threat Grows

Yves here. Lovely. Those of you who worry about nuclear waste might need to bone of on the radiation risk posed by American LNG.

By Justin Nobel, who writes on issues of science and the environment for Rolling Stone and has a book on oil and gas radioactivity forthcoming with Simon & Schuster entitled PETROLEUM-238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

In March, President Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a joint task force with the goal of getting Europe off Russian gas and onto more of America’s fracked gas. Most Russian gas reaches Europe via pipeline, so getting U.S. gas to Europe will involve liquifying it and then shipping it across the Atlantic. And as shipments of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the United States increase, so too do the threats from an unwelcome intruder inherently part of America’s natural gas mix — radioactivity.

That’s because government figures indicate that much of the gas that will be shipped to Europe may come from the Marcellus and Utica, black shale formations in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. About 40 percent of natural gas produced in the United States comes from these formations, and, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, they have particularly high radioactivity levels.

Radioactivity is a problem at multiple points along the natural gas production chain, and oilfield workers and communities in the Marcellus and Utica have been beleaguered by an array of radiological concerns, from fires and spills at facilities processing radioactive oilfield waste to the discharge of this waste into drinking water supplies to high levels of radioactivity found on public roads near a high school football field.

But radioactivity is a problem not only in the production of natural gas; it also haunts the distribution chain. The radioactive gas radon, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer deaths in the United States, travels with the natural gas stream itself. Radon will break down into radioactive lead-210 and polonium-210, one of the most toxic substances on earth, which was famously used in 2006 by Russian assassins to kill the former spy Alexander Litvinenko. Academics and industry professionals alike are concerned about the potential for these radioactive isotopes to build up along the LNG distribution chain and harm workers and communities in the United States and Europe.

“It is entirely appropriate to be discussing the radioactivity levels in LNG,” says Mark Baskaran, a geologist at Wayne State University in Michigan and a world-renowned expert on radon who has studied oilfield radioactivity in the Marcellus and Utica.

However, it appears nobody in the United States or European governments behind the recent LNG deal is discussing radioactivity. Enesta Jones, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said, “EPA does not regulate radioactivity in oil and gas production, processing and transport systems.” Similarly, a representative from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said the agency does not track oilfield radioactivity and “is also not involved in monitoring which countries, ports, or facilities receive US LNG.”

Detailed questions on the matter sent by DeSmog to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and to Matt Hill, who handles climate communications for the White House, have all gone unanswered.

“I can already tell you that no one in Europe is looking into LNG from a radioactivity point of view,” said Andy Gheorghiu, who is based in Germany and closely monitors LNG imports into Europe as co-founder of the Climate Alliance Against LNG.

Radioactive Natural Gas’s Journey to Europe

Liquified natural gas begins its journey as natural gas. Smaller pipelines typically take the gas from the wellhead to processing plants that remove impurities and separate out other hydrocarbons. From there, the natural gas is moved through larger transmission pipelines to LNG export terminals where it is cooled until it liquifies and reduces in volume. Once it has been liquified, it is loaded onto ships to be moved around the globe.

The whole process requires an extensive network of storage tanks, vessels, compressors, and pipes — each of which represents a place where radiation can build up and risk harming workers, communities, or the environment. And as the demand for LNG grows, so does the network of export terminals — and the potential for inadvertent radiological exposure in the United States and Europe.

The LNG export industry has been expanding for several years. In 2016, Houston-based Cheniere Energy opened the first LNG export terminal in the continental United States. Now there are eight facilities nationwide, with an additional 15 export terminals approved by FERC and seven more with applications pending. While many of these projects were inked before the war in Ukraine, the White House has promised a favorable regulatory environment for LNG projects to help wean Europe off of Russian gas.

Given this rapid expansion of LNG infrastructure, Baskaran feels more study of radioactivity in LNG and the general gas network is urgently needed. He and one of his graduate students, Bobby Manion, have performed a calculation to better understand the potential amounts of radiation and associated risks. While their analysis remains unpublished and has not been peer-reviewed, they believe the exercise is an important first step in trying to understand the scale of the problem.

Baskaran and Manion considered natural gas originating in the Marcellus formation, traveling through 350 miles of pipeline directly to an export terminal in Cove Point, Maryland, and then by ship to the LNG import terminal at Montoir de Bretagne on France’s Atlantic Coast. They assumed that this gas contains average levels of radon based on worldwide readings. Given the swiftness with which radon decays into radioactive isotopes, including lead-210 and polonium-210, and the tremendous load of the radioactive gas packed with the fuel onto the LNG ship, Baskaran and Manion found that the ship essentially becomes a massive lead-and-polonium-generating machine.

In the course of its transatlantic voyage, this ship’s load of natural gas would produce more than 134 million picocuries of lead-210 and nearly 17 million picocuries of polonium-210. (For context, a gram of soil anywhere on earth may contain between 1 and 5 picocuries of either isotope.) These radioactive isotopes would likely be dispersed throughout the ship, but the concern is that the tanks of the ship may overtime accumulate a radioactive sludge, and as the liquified natural gas is transformed back into natural gas on European shores this radioactivity could accumulate in certain places and pose dangers.

“These high levels of lead-210 and polonium-210 may result in contaminating the environment,” including any workers who clean radioactive sludge from the ships, containers, or facilities in Europe where the LNG is transformed back into natural gas, Baskaran explained. 

Nazrin Babashova, an engineer living in Sweden, came to similar conclusions in her master’s thesis at Linnaeus University, which studied detecting radioactivity contamination in LNG systems. She predicted that significant amounts of lead-210 and polonium-210 could accumulate at an LNG export terminal inside pipe elbows, valves, joints, and any spot where the flow of gas suddenly expands, contracts, or changes direction. Her research showed that radioactivity would be expected to accumulate in the same types of places at LNG import facilities in Europe and elsewhere.

Babashova concludes her thesis by saying that to her knowledge, no formal study on the matter has been done and, as a result, it remains to be seen whether radioactivity “can pose a risk to the health of employees.”

But this is not just an academic issue. In September 2019, Alan McArthur, a leading industry expert on oilfield radioactivity, told a group of U.S. regulators at a symposium of the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors that exceptional levels of radon, radioactive lead, and polonium are coursing through the natural gas pipeline system.

In a presentation, he warned of the dangers of inhaling or ingesting this radioactivity, advised that workers should wear respirators, and said that air monitoring should be required “on ALL” natural gas projects involving radioactivity. LNG is mentioned in McArthur’s presentation, although it does not detail how much radioactivity would accumulate in this part of the natural gas chain. McArthur did not reply to questions on the issue.

“Maintaining an Enabling Regulatory Environment”

Despite the known threats from radioactivity in natural gas and LNG, the hunger for LNG shows no sign of slowing. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the United States to eclipse Australia and Qatar to become the world’s largest exporter of LNG at some point this year. And the spate of new projects coming online in the next few years will further widen that gap.

“This is not a new relationship,” Gheorghiu said of the United States as a supplier of LNG to Europe. “It started back in July 2018, but has increased by 2,240 percent since then. So, this is definitely a deepening of the existing relationship, maybe this time with long-term contracts as icing on the cake for the US.”

“It is interesting to see that Russian LNG exports into the EU also grew exponentially in the same time,” he added. “[The] US and Russia have been main rivals for the EU LNG market.”

The recent U.S.-EU agreement calls for the United States and other partners to supply Europe with an additional 50 billion cubic meters of LNG a year “until at least 2030.” The European Union has pledged to swiften regulatory approvals for LNG import terminals and regasification units, while the United States has declared that supplying LNG to Europe is an “emergency energy security objective” and committed to “maintaining an enabling regulatory environment.”

Neither the White House nor U.S. Department of Energy has responded to questions of just how this “enabling regulatory environment” would affect the industry’s ability to remove the radioactivity from LNG. Questions to European Union spokespeople specializing in climate change and also public health also have gone unanswered. Removing radioactivity from oil and gas infrastructure can be a difficult and dangerous task, and natural gas doesn’t have to be converted to LNG for the problem to develop.

“Radioactive films, coatings, or plating can form from natural-gas production or processing,” reads an industry paper on the topic published in 1993 in the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Journal of Petroleum Technology.“Often invisible to the naked eye, these films contain radon and its decay products” and contamination “can be sufficiently severe that maintenance and other personnel may be exposed to hazardous concentrations.”

While the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ paper advises that “contaminated facilities and waste-material problems must be recognized and addressed,” it is difficult to determine just how thoroughly this advice has been followed across the United States in the decades since. There are no federal guidelines or regulations on the topic, and queries to industry groups, like the American Petroleum Institute, seeking information on worker radioactivity exposure best-practices have returned only general replies with no details.

Manion told DeSmog that Russian gas would likely have some degree of radioactivity contamination too, although estimating its potential harms to workers who interact with the fuel and consumers who use it appears to be impossible. “I’ve been reading papers on radioactive oilfield waste from all over the planet and I have not encountered any papers related to the Russian oil industry,” he said.

But research is no guarantee of action. In the United States, research into radioactivity in oil and gas goes back more than 50 years, yet no comprehensive nationwide rules exist to protect workers and communities from its potential harms.

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    1. Skip Intro

      It is interesting. I wonder if it isn’t a reflection of the staffing and expertise problems caused by covid, maybe mixing with a little post-covid brain fog cognitive impairment. In any case there are a few critical chokepoints for the genius plan that replaces Europe’s gas pipeline from Russia with LNG ships from the US.

      1. Tara

        Or, the whole operation, including Biden’s sanctions, are just a last gasp attempt at sucking money out of European and American peasants, who pay higher electricity costs from the increase in natural gas used to generate electricity.

        Don’t forget American food exporters, making real bank on those doubled food prices.

        1. Monte McKenzie

          & America could have been mostly off of all FF 40 years ago!
          perhaps sooner because as long as the FF industry is making profits they manipulate the political system & the American people’s minds to continue FF use even when it is no longer the least cost option available for that purpose.
          Google: thorium electric generation & then: SMU Geothermal electricity WV and the their several later reports! Seems TEXAS is the geothermal capitol of USA as well as oil & gas !

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          I suspect that “another” motivation for pushing American LNG into EUrope and maybe elsewhere is to create a deep enough shortage of NG in America so as to force up the price of NG in America. The ultimate goal of that engineered price-rise for NG in America is to make NG so expensive that coal will become competitive again and usher in a new dawn of coal power plants in America.

          That is my suspicion. President Manchin would be pleased with that outcome.

          Since the DC FedRegime works for the fossil fuel industry, including the coal business, the only recourse which green-minded people have is to try and reduce their own fossil fuel use so deeply, in the teeth of a civilization designed to force them to consume as much as possible, that just by their collective down-using; they can degrade and attrit revenue streams reaching the coal, gas and oil industries.

          Its not the klektiv solution which klektivists would like to achieve. Let the klektivists show us some victories in the war against the DC FedRegime PetroState and I will give them some respectful attention.

  1. Solarjay

    These articles are just so slanted its pretty impressive really. My new puppy got me up early, now he’s back to sleep, of course.

    Back to the article. Yes certain areas have higher radioactive concentrates than others, and it might be a real concern. However this radioactive byproduct is mixed in with all the drilling fluids/chemicals as well as what ever comes from the ground. This waste product is then supposed to be correctly disposed of, all really bad stuff. Just part of the unseen destruction from the fracking industry. See of course Gas Land.
    A section from the first embedded article”
    The Department of Environmental Protection summary indicates that the torpedo heater caused the explosion by igniting condensate gas and petroleum that was “mingled” with the fracking flowback matter and brine in the truck. Flowback and brine are both fluid byproducts from oil and gas extraction with toxic and radioactive constituents.“

    Because of Obama purposely not putting fracking under much if any environmental regulations or monitoring we don’t know much, and basically no way to prosecute anyone either, and good old Joe isn’t going to change that.
    Is there a radioactive waste issue, yes.
    And this article also talks about the “ possibility” of concentration of radioactive/radiation in the LNG.
    I’m not defending radiation at all, and people can truthfully say it’s harmful because there is no agreed upon lower limit.
    But because of poor education and fear and better inexpensive monitors people can see increases in radiation that they never could before.
    After Fukushima, measurable radioactive particles were found in sea water off the north west coast. People actually didn’t go to the beach because of it. I don’t remember the exact numbers but it was a staggeringly small increase over background, like 1/10,000 of 1 % or less.

    All of these statements need real data to tell us just how bad or not it is. Otherwise it’s just sensationalism not reporting

    In conclusion, the radioactivity is very minor compared to the water use, land destruction, roads, truck traffic green house emissions, contaminated water aquifers, sand mining, pipelines, drilling chemicals and the list goes on.

    1. Lex

      I agree that radioactivity is a relatively minor concern of fracking compared to the other, externalized, environmental costs. I also agree that people don’t understand radioactivity. Most of the industrial hygienists I know say, “I passed the required class on ionizing radiation and that’s the last I want to deal with it.” The numbers we use to describe radioactivity don’t help. Not only are they different than any other common unit of measurement but they’re very small. Once people can’t visualize something, comprehension is limited.

      But the source of the radiation is important and the NORM associated with oil and gas is nasty stuff, even compared to nuclear power plant fuel. Specifically, radon acts like a particulate in air and is pretty easy to have lower respiratory exposure and then the relatively rapid decay of radon into its progeny/daughters is occurring in lungs meaning that on top of the ionizing radiation from the decay being internal, the progeny and byproducts like radioactive lead are also in the lower respiratory tract.

      NORM contamination of equipment is a fairly significant issue because it doesn’t really go away and it isn’t easy to decontaminate the equipment (tanks, pipes, truck tires, etc.), while doing so really just transfers the contamination to a waste stream. I know of a few facilities that have NORM monitoring at entrances for vehicles. But I don’t know much about remediation/control efforts. Usually I’m just there to collect the data and report. I’m more deeply involved with radon in underground mining, but not super applicable to this issue.

      1. ewmayer

        Agreed – First we get the bizarre combinations of numerical prefixes, e.g. “100 million picocuries” which sounds big and scary, but wait – pico is a million of a millionth, right? So that translates to “one ten-thousandth of a Curie”, which suddenly sounds less scary. (And even more confusingly, equates to 3.7 million Becquerel, where 1 Bq corresponds to one disintegration per second.) More useful is the “(For context, a gram of soil anywhere on earth may contain between 1 and 5 picocuries of either isotope)” bit, but that is not turned into the kind of context that is actually useful – so we got around “100 million picocuries” of SCARY STUFF, which translates to a similar amount as in 100 million grams of dirt. Within a factor of 10, figure dirt has similar density as water, so around a million grams per cubic meter. So an LNG carrier ~= 100 m^3 of dirt, picture 2 soccer pitches side-by-side and dug to 1m deep. A LNG carrier will be on order of 10 x 10 x 100m, which is in fact a rather larger volume in which said radioactivity is conatined. So “radioactivity similar to a large barge of dirt”.

        But wait – it gets even better. The major uranium-to-lead decay chains in question are Alpha decays, where a radioactive heavy nucleus spits out an alpha particle, a.k.a. a Helium-4 nucleus. About which Wikipedia notes: “[Alpha particle] are a highly ionizing form of particle radiation, and (when resulting from radioactive alpha decay) usually have low penetration depth (stopped by a few centimeters of air, or by the skin).” So the main danger here is the gaseous Radon itself, which can concentrate in low-lying places like basements due to its density relative to air. Not an issue on an LNG carrier.

    2. PK

      …However this radioactive byproduct is mixed in with all the drilling fluids/chemicals as well as what ever comes from the ground. This waste product is then supposed to be correctly disposed of…

      Based on the prevalence of Radon (gas) in the whole region, I would expect that the natural gas itself contains gaseous radioactive material. Of course, the Radon decays into polonium and lead over time, which would precipitate. That would lead to a decrease of radioactivity of the natural gas over time, not a “concentration”, as mentioned in the article. Still, it should not be a problem for the consumers, only the people involved in the supply chain.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Of course any inhaled radon might lodge within the inhaler’s lungs and take its time turning into Polonium 210 and Radio Lead right there inside the lungs.

        If the radon is IN the gas itself, then this is a problem.

        And it raises another question. Are EUropeans so devoted to Britain’s abiding love of the Great Game that they are willing to die from American LNG radon for it? Are the EUropeans that ready to get cancer for Britain?

      2. Frank Dean

        Yes, the story is misleading readers by leaving out basic facts about radioactive decay.

        In the context of LNG, by the time the radon-containing natural gas is extracted, piped to the LNG facility, liquified, and shipped overseas, the radon will have decayed to lead-210. This is because natural gas moves through the transmission system at less than 30 miles an hour, and radon has a half-life of four days. Lead-210 particles will attach themselves to positively charged aerosol particles, but will precipitate during the process of liquifaction of the natural gas. Lead-210 has a half-life of 20 years, which means it doesn’t decay fast enough to threaten human health due to radiation unless encountered in large quantities. This lead-210 is a potentially serious hazard for workers in LNG and natural gas transport facilities primarily because lead is a toxic heavy metal. The arithmetic of delivery time and radioactive decay means that households using LNG are getting a product with effectively no radon and no lead.

        Radon is indeed very dangerous if it is steadily seeping into your house from your basement. But this is because you’re continually exposed during the energetic decay period, and alpha-particle emitting radon and its daughter particles are likely to be in your lungs.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I dimly remember that radon is a decay product of radium which the granite has just enough of . .. to be leaking steadily evolved radon into your basement as it evolves from radium decay in/around the granite.

          Is my memory correct?

  2. Lex

    Weird. I do measuring of NORM (naturally occurring radioactive material) for the oil and gas industry and I’m a little shocked to learn that there’s no regulatory impetus behind it.

    Is this the green new deal I’ve heard so much about?

  3. PK

    …That’s because government figures indicate that much of the gas that will be shipped to Europe may come from the Marcellus and Utica…

    You should probably change “much” to “some”. Cove Point, MD is the only LNG facility that is situated close enough to Marcellus and Utica formations. The big units are located on the Gulf Coast.

    Cove Point accounts for about 6% of the total export volume of LNG (not 40% as the article estimates). While it is well-situated for exports to Europe, the other facilities are sending the majority of their capacity to Europe now due to the better margins compared to other destinations. The Northeastern U.S. gas is primarily consumed domestically.

    Additionally, you have to consider that consumers do not inhale natural gas (at least not in my circle of friends and acquaintances…). The appliances that burn the natural gas generally are well ventilated and any radioactive products are diluted in the atmosphere to very low levels. A more dangerous case in the Northeastern U.S. is Radon in the rock formations in the ground. Homes there are likely to have higher-than-acceptable levels of radioactivity. Lung cancer from exposures like this are estimated to cause ~21,000 deaths per year. That still is only about 1.8% of the total cases of lung cancer deaths in the U.S. annually.

    1. juno mas

      Yes. I was required to put a radon gas detector in the basement and at grade floor level of my then Nevada home for a month, and pass muster, before it could be sold. So there are real concerns about radon exposure.

      1. Anthony G Stegman

        Radon is one of the most common toxins that residents are exposed to on a daily basis. That and RF fields.

  4. Susan the other

    Civilization is simmering itself down to a thick gravy of pollution. We can detect the problems, polonium 210, etc., but what do we do? We sequester our poisons; we gradually accumulate them and set them aside. There are no solutions to some problems; some drinking water has toxic elements that cannot be filtered out, only diluted with other fresh water sources. Our state of the art “waste management” is more like waste redistribution. Nobody cares. Let’s all flush our toilets into the ocean and snarf down another mystery sandwich.

    1. Lex

      When I meet people and they say, “What do you do?” and my answer of “industrial hygienist” prompts the blank stare head nod requiring further explanation, I end up with my stock answer.

      “The modern world is actively trying to kill you. My job is to understand its methods and maybe make a small contribution to limiting its ability.” And then I get to tell them stories about ways the modern world is trying to kill us that they never contemplated. Sometimes I let on that most of my work is related to the ways the modern world was trying to kill us long ago, with substances banned 40 years ago. The stuff newer than that is mostly unaddressed, though we know what it is and where it is (in a lot of cases, the where is everywhere and already in most of the planet’s population).

    2. Keith Newman

      “Flush our toilets into the ocean…” Indeed. The solution to pollution is dilution. Didn’t you know? (sarc)

  5. Anthony G Stegman

    Back in the 1960s I recall an episode of Superman where these creatures with strange powers came out of oil wells. I don’t recall whether or not radioactivity was specifically mentioned in the episode, but even back then it was clear that oil drilling poses many problems, including what might be considered “exotic” problems such as radioactivity.

  6. Dave in Austin

    I can’t tell if this is an important issue or part of a PR campaign. Is there anyone one here who has the technical knowlwedge to review the article at

    My quick reading (non-expert) is the following: 1) the pdf talks about liquid and solids having radiation. Does that get into the LNG and if so how much; 2) the article talks about radon decay into Lead 110 and Polonium 201 during the voyage. I’m pretty sure the lead is an end state and not radioactice. Not sure about the Polonium. It seems that the decay gives off short-lied radioactive particles which decay very fast and are not a problem. Is that correct; 3) in the extraction from the field the water seems to be radioactive but is that very short-term or not?

    There seems to be no US prohibition on extracting the gas so I’m suspicious of the article. But I’d prefer having a real scientist review the article and comment.

  7. ArvidMartensen

    Pollution. That’s the problem. Caused by too many people.
    The oligarchs might think that they will always have enough money to escape the heat somewhere, to buy the food, to buy the water, and to hell with everybody else. They ignore pollution.
    Sure, we can all switch from coal to LNG and clean hydrogen (whatever that is), and put our rubbish in the right bins, and buy EVs, and switch to LEDs and turn off our lights once a year (is that still a thing?).
    But LNG comes with a side serve of polonium. And have people looked at the toxic pollution generated by electric vehicles?
    So, just on the transport front, the political aim is to phase out petrol/diesel cars and into EVs. Say 70 million new EV cars a year ( And then there’s trucks, vans etc. That’s a lot of new toxic pollution. So we phase out CO2 pollution and phase in toxic chemical pollution.
    And that’s the problem.
    Whilever we want to keep and increase our profligate standard of living, we are producing the pollution that will make this planet uninhabitable for mammals, including us.
    So the oligarchs might keep accumulating money and power, but in the end if everything they breath and eat is polluted by radioactive gases, heavy metals, microplastics, etc, they will end up genetically not viable and dead like the rest of us.
    With all the talk of solving the CO2 crisis, we are solving the effects not the causes. Like treating a patient with septic infection and a fever with panadol.
    We just blunder from one bandaid to the next. Radioactive LNG is just another example. Great for US oligarchs, short term great for EU consumers, long-term bad for the environment.
    To change anything, our “leaders” would have to show the way by giving up their mansions, air travel, chic clothes, fast cars, as an example to the everyone else. Who believes that will happen?
    I think we are now in a wicked cycle.

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