What is the Alaska LNG project? We break it down: Part 1

This illustration shows what a liquefaction plant could look like. (Source: Alaska LNG)
This illustration shows what a proposed liquefaction plant at Nikiski could look like. (Source: Alaska LNG)

Lawmakers around the state are packing their bags and preparing to head to Juneau for their third special session of the year. This session will focus on one thing: the Alaska LNG project. That’s the giant pipeline the state hopes to build, along with ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips — and maybe TransCanada — to bring natural gas from the North Slope.

Download Audio

But if you’re like a lot of Alaskans, you might be a little fuzzy on the details.

I wanted to find out what Alaskans know about this project, so I parked myself outside the Fred Meyer on Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage.

Waldholz: If I say liquified natural gas, do you know what that is?

Woman: No? Liquified natural gas, no.

Man: It’s something they’ve been talking about for thirty years! It’s just one of those pipe dreams.

Waldholz: Literally.

Man: Yeah, literally. [Laughs]

Waldholz: Do you know what LNG is, or why it’s liquified?

Second man: I’m thinking it’s liquified for easier transport…it’s easier to transport a quantity of liquid versus the same quantity of gas.

Waldholz: That is exactly it!

That is exactly it. Here’s the short version: the Alaska LNG project will bring natural gas from the North Slope down to Nikiski, on the Kenai Peninsula, for export to buyers in Asia. In order to load the gas onto the ships that will carry it across the Pacific, it has to be liquefied.

And it’s a huge project. The estimated price tag is $45 to $65 billion dollars.

Lydia Johnson works for ExxonMobil. She’s the technical manager for the Alaska LNG project.

Johnson: This is way bigger than TAPS [the Trans Alaska Pipeline System]. This is one of the largest, most complex projects in the world today.

Waldholz: In the world?

Johnson: In the world. Right here in Alaska.

This illustration shows what a proposed gas treatment plant on the North Slope could look like. (Courtesy of Alaska LNG)
This illustration shows what a proposed gas treatment plant on the North Slope could look like. (Courtesy of Alaska LNG)

The key point — if you remember just one thing — is that the Alaska LNG project is not just a pipeline. It actually has three big pieces. First, there’s a gas treatment plant on the North Slope, to prepare the gas for the pipeline. Then there’s the pipeline itself, running some 800 miles down to Cook Inlet. And then there’s a giant liquefaction plant in Nikiski.

Johnson says each one of the components is a megaproject in its own right.

Johnson: You put them all together, that’s a gigaproject. That’s our term.

That’s right. A gigaproject. And one that could bring in more than $2 billion a year in state revenue.

So let’s walk through this gigaproject.

Johnson: If I’m a natural gas molecule, natural gas is found below ground, so we’re looking at the fields of Pt. Thomson and Prudhoe Bay…

The gas at Prudhoe Bay has been tempting pipeline builders for decades. For some forty years, the state has fielded different proposals, most recently to connect the North Slope to the lower 48. The shale gas revolution put an end to that  plan — suddenly, nobody needed more gas down south. That’s why this plan would ship the gas to Asia.

But before it can go anywhere, it has to be treated. The project calls for a gas treatment plant on the North Slope, to strip out impurities like carbon dioxide.

“This would be the largest gas treatment facility in the Arctic,” Johnson said. “Ever. Huge project.”

From that huge project into the next one: from the gas treatment facility, the gas would go into a pipeline rivaling the Trans Alaska Pipeline in length. There are some key differences. The existing pipeline carries crude oil, which comes out of the ground warm. Johnson compared it to syrup.

“Syrup going through a pipeline needs to be very hot,” she said.

That, by the way, is why much of the Trans Alaska Pipeline is above-ground. You don’t want to build a hot pipeline in permafrost.

“Now you think of natural gas,” Johnson said. “It’s very cold, it comes out of the ground naturally very cold.”

So the gas pipeline will be buried.

The plan calls for the line to run alongside the Trans Alaska Pipeline until about Livengood. From there, it would break off and head south to Cook Inlet.

Along the way, the line would need eight compressor stations to provide pressure and move the gas along. There are also plans for five off-take points. The idea is to deliver natural gas to Alaska communities along the route, with the hope that it would lower local energy costs.

The line would cross under Cook Inlet, perhaps near Tyonek, and end at a brand new liquefaction facility at Nikiski. That’s where the magic happens — and it’s expensive magic. Roughly half the cost of this $45 to $65 billion project is just the liquefaction plant.

The point of liquefaction is to shrink the gas to a manageable size. When the gas is chilled and becomes a liquid, it becomes six hundred times smaller.

“If you took natural gas without liquefying it, you would need huge ships,” Johnson said. “And it would be basically a floating bomb, which you don’t want.”

But loaded with liquified natural gas, those ships then become, essentially, floating pipelines, carrying the gas to markets around the world.

Here’s the catch, however: liquifying natural gas requires cooling it to -260 degrees Fahrenheit. There are only so many places on earth where that can be done.

As it happens, one of those places is already in Nikiski — ConocoPhillips’ Kenai LNG plant.

And that’s where we’ll go next time: in Part 2 when we get to use the word cryogenic in a non-sci fi context.

Click here for Part 2 of the “What is Alaska LNG?” series.