By David Foster

Foster is executive director of RAIL Solution, a nonprofit organization promoting the environmental, energy, and economic advantages of rail transportation.

For many months, I have been following the debate over the proposed construction of large gas pipelines through our part of Southwest Virginia.

There’s one thing I’ve not seen mentioned, so I’m going to toss out a new idea. Let’s move the gas by railroad instead. This actually makes more sense than might first appear.

The gas pipeline companies want to move the gas from the fracking production areas to the East Coast for export. That makes sense, too, because world gas prices are much stronger than those in the U.S.

Shipping the gas overseas will require liquefied natural gas tankers. So, since the gas must be converted to LNG anyway, why not put the LNG plants in the origin gas production areas?

Then the railroads can ship the LNG in special LNG tank cars to the port, where it can be transferred directly to the LNG ships.

Here are some of the advantages I see for such a plan:

Putting the LNG plants in the midst of production fields means the ships could call at any port without having to put separate LNG conversion facilities at each one.

Flexibility to ship to any port (or domestic destination) would be an important marketing advantage for gas producers, one that a fixed, buried pipeline could not offer.

Though there is not currently a fleet of railroad LNG tank cars, some have been built already as fuel tenders to supply gas to railroad gas-powered diesel locomotives, so prototypes exist.

Railroad lines and rights-of-way also already exist, and there is adequate extra shipping capacity on these lines because of the decline in coal.

No lengthy period of permitting and construction is needed, and the potentially adverse environmental impacts of the large gas pipelines are avoided.

Of course the pipeline companies will not raise this possibility, because it guts their business model, but Roanoke is a railroad town and we can advocate for a rail solution to this transportation problem.

One more thing: both Norfolk Southern and Appalachian Power have existing rights-of-way between West Virginia and eastern Virginia. If a large-diameter interstate gas pipeline is to be built through our area, why should it not follow these existing paths instead of digging an all-new route?

The concept of shared utility corridors is well known and is an acknowledged way to minimize adverse environmental impact.