Correction, 12:30 p.m.: Contrary to initial reports, the barges did not contain liquefied natural gas. A spokesman for the company that owns the barges clarified their contents in a statement this morning.
The barges are owned by Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine, company spokesman Greg Beuerman said. He said the barges were empty and being cleaned at the Oil Recovery Co. facility when the incident began. He said the barges had been carrying a liquid called natural gasoline -- which he said is neither liquefied natural gas or natural gas. He said the company has dispatched a team to work with investigators to determine what caused the fire.
According to the Energy Information Administration, natural gasoline is "term used in the gas processing industry to refer to a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons extracted from natural gas." While a derivative of natural gas, it is not liquified natural gas — the product being considered for export.
According to AL.com, there were at least six explosions over the course of the fire, which occurred on the east shore of the Mobile River. The barges had been partially emptied, but still apparently contained some natural gasoline, a derivative of natural gas.
Over the past decade, the natural gas industry has grown rapidly. This is almost entirely due to the spread of effective methods of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking wells drill into areas that contain natural gas trapped in shale rock. A mixture of water, chemicals, and sand is forced into the holes, shattering the shale and releasing the gas. The gas and water is brought back to the surface and the gas piped to facilities.
This is what fracking has done to natural gas production, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.
That spike in production, in turn, has reshaped the economics of various industries. Electricity generation, for example, has increasingly turned to cheaper, cleaner natural gas instead of coal. There's so much natural gas being produced that there's a glut on the market, prompting producers to call for the government to allow for the export of natural gas, in the form of liquefied natural gas or LNG.
For months, producers have been petitioning the government for the right to ship LNG overseas. There's clear demand; Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe reportedly asked President Obama to allow the exports earlier this year. During nomination hearings for Ernest Moniz, Obama's pick to lead the Department of Energy, the nominee was asked whether or not he supported increased export — a decision that largely lies with the Energy Department, which would need to approve the new export terminals required to expand LNG shipments.