PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project - Map by FracTracker Alliance

PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project: Risks of Bringing Plastic Manufacturing to Ohio

In 2012, a battle between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania was underway. Politicians and businesses from each state were eagerly campaigning for the opportunity to host Royal Dutch Shell’s “world-class” petrochemical facility. The facility in question was an ethane cracker, the first of its kind to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. In the end, Pennsylvania’s record-breaking tax incentive package won Shell over, and construction on the ethane cracker plant began in 2017.

Once completed, the ethane cracker will convert ethane from fracked wells into 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year.

Shell Ethane Cracker

Shell’s ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA. Image by Ted Auch, FracTracker.
Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Ohio and West Virginia, however, have not been left out of the petrochemical game. In addition to the NGL pipelines, cryogenic plants, and fractionation facilities in these states, plans for ethane cracker projects are also in the works.

In 2017, PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) put Ohio in second place in the “race to build an ethane cracker,” when it decided to build a plant in Belmont County, Ohio.

But first, why is the petrochemical industry expanding in the Ohio River Valley?

Fracking has opened up huge volumes of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Fracked wells in these states extract methane, which is then transported in pipelines and used as a residential, industrial, or commercial energy source. The gas in this region, however, contains more than just methane. Classified as “wet gas,” the natural gas stream from regional wells also contains natural gas liquids (NGLs). These NGLs include propane, ethane, and butane, and industry is eager to create a market for them.

Investing in plastic is one way for the industry to subsidize the natural gas production, an increasingly unprofitable enterprise. 

An image of plastic pellets

Plastic pellets, also called “nurdles,” the end product of ethane crackers.

Major processing facilities, such as cryogenic and fractionation plants, receive natural gas streams and separate the NGLs, such as ethane, from the methane. After ethane is separated, it can be “cracked” into ethylene, and converted to polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The plastic is shipped in pellet form to manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, where it is made into a variety of plastic products.

By building ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley, industry is taking advantage of the region’s vast underground resources.

PTTGC ethane cracker: The facts

PTTGC’s website states that the company “is Thailand’s largest and Asia’s leading integrated petrochemical and refining company.” While this ethane cracker has been years in the making, the company states that “a final investment decision has not been made.” The image below shows land that PTTGC has purchased for the plant, totaling roughly 500 acres, in Dilles Bottom, Mead Township.

According to the Ohio EPA, the plant will turn ethylene into:Recycling "2" symbol for HDPE plastic

  • 700,000 tons of high density polyethylene (HDPE) per year
  • 900,000 tons Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)

HDPE is a common type of plastic, used in many products such as bags, bottles, or crates. Look for it on containers with a “2” in the recycling triangle. LLDPE is another common type of plastic that’s weaker and more flexible; it’s marked with a “4.”

The ethane cracker complex will contain:

  • An ethylene plant
  • Four ethylene-based derivatives plants.
  • Six 552 MMBtu/hour cracking furnaces fueled by natural gas and tail gas with ethane backup
  • Three 400 MMBTU/hr steam boilers fueled by natural gas and ethane
  • A primary and backup 6.2 MMBtu/hour thermal oxidizer
  • A high pressure ground flare (1.8 MMBtu/hour)
  • A low pressure ground flare (0.78 MMBtu/hour)
  • Wastewater treatment systems
  • Equipment to capture fugitive emissions
  • Railcars for pygas (liquid product) and HDPE and LLDPE pellets
  • Emergency firewater pumps
  • Emergency diesel-fired generator engines
  • A cooling tower

Impacts on air quality

The plant received water permits last year, and air permits are currently under review. On November 29, 2018, the Ohio EPA held an information session and hearing for a draft air permit (the permit can be viewed here, by entering permit number P0124972).

FracTracker has previously reported on the air quality impacts, risks, and fragmented permitting process associated with the Shell ethane cracker in Pennsylvania. How does the PTTGC plant stack up?

The plant will be built in the community of Dilles Bottom, on the former property of FirstEnergy’s R.E. Burger Power Station, a coal power plant that shut down in 2011. The site was demolished in 2016 in preparation for PTTGC’s ethane cracker. In 2018, PTTGC also purchased property from Ohio-West Virginia Excavating Company. In total, the ethane cracker will occupy 500 acres.

R.E. Burger Power Station

R.E. Burger Power Station, which has been demolished for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker. Image Source

Table 1, below, is a comparison of the previous major source of air pollution source, the R.E. Burger Power Station, and predictions of the future emissions from the PTTGC ethane cracker. The far right column shows what percent of the former emissions the ethane cracker will release.

Table 1: Former and Future Air Emissions in Dilles Bottom, Ohio

Pollutant R.E.Burger Power Station
(2010 emissions)

PTTGC Ethane Cracker
(predicted emissions)

Percent of former emissions

CO (carbon monoxide) 143.33 544 379.5%
NOx (nitrogen oxides) 1861.2 164 8.81%
SO2 (sulfur dioxide) 12719 23 0.18%
PM10 (particulate matter, 10) 179.25 89 49.65%
PM2.5 (particulate matter, 2.5) 77.62 86 110.8%
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) 0.15 396 264000%

As you can see, the ethane cracker will emit substantially less sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxides compared with the R.E. Burger site. This makes sense, as these two pollutants are associated with burning coal. On the flip side, the ethane cracker will emit almost four times as much carbon monoxide and 263,900% more volatile organic compounds (percentages bolded in Table 1, above).

In addition to these pollutants, the ethane cracker will emit 38 tons per year of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS), a group of pollutants that includes benzene, chlorine, and ethyl chloride. These pollutants are characterized by the EPA as being “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.”

Finally, the ethane cracker is predicted to emit 1,785,043 tons per year of greenhouse gasses. In the wake of recent warnings on the urgent need to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and National Climate Assessment, this prediction is highly concerning.

While these emission numbers seem high, they still meet federal requirements and nearly all state guidelines. If the ethane cracker becomes operational, pollutant monitoring will be important to ensure the plant is in compliance and how emissions impact air quality. The plant will also attract more development to an already heavily industrialized area; brine trucks, trains, pipelines, fracked wells, compressor stations, cryogenic facilities, and natural gas liquid storage are all part of the ethane-to-plastic manufacturing process. The plastics coming from the plant will travel to facilities in the U.S. and abroad to create different plastic products. These facilities are an additional source of emissions.

Air permitting does not consider the full life cycle of the plant, from construction of the plant to its demolition, or the development associated with it.

As such, this plant will be major step back for local air quality, erasing recent improvements in the Wheeling metropolitan area, historically listed as one of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the country. Furthermore, the pollutants that will be increasing the most are associated with serious health effects. Over short term exposure, high levels of VOCs are associated with headaches and respiratory symptoms, and over long term exposure, cancer, liver and kidney damage.

Emergency preparedness

In addition to air quality impacts, ethane cracker plants also pose risks from fires, explosions, and other types of unplanned accidents. In 2013, a ruptured boiler at an ethane cracker in Louisiana caused an explosion that sent 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air. Three hundred workers evacuated, but sadly there were 167 suffered injuries and 2 deaths.

While researching Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, FracTracker worked with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn about emergency planning around the petrochemical industry. Emergency planners map out two and five mile zones around facilities, called emergency planning zones, and identify vulnerabilities and emergency responders within them.

With this in mind, the map below shows a two and five-mile radius around PTTGC’s property, as reported by Belmont County Auditor. Within these emergency planning zones are the locations of schools, day cares, hospitals, fire stations, emergency medical services, hospitals, and local law enforcement offices, reported by Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data.

The map also includes census data from the EPA that identifies potential environmental justice concerns. By clicking on the census block groups, you will see demographic information, such as income status, age, and education level. These data are important in recognizing populations that may already be disproportionately burdened by or more vulnerable to environmental hazards.

Finally, the map displays environmental data, also from the EPA, including a visualization of particulate matter along the Ohio River Valley, where massive petrochemical development is occurring. By clicking on a census block and then the arrow at the top, you will find a number of other statistics on local environmental concerns.

View map full screen  |  How FracTracker maps work

Emergency planning zones for Shell’s ethane cracker are available here.

Within the 5 mile emergency planning zone, there are:

  • 9 fire or EMS stations
  • 17 schools and/or day cares
  • 1 hospital
  • 6 local law enforcement offices

Within the 2 mile emergency planning zone, there are:

  • 3 fire or EMS stations
  • 7 schools and/or day cares
  • No hospitals
  • 3 local law enforcement offices

Sites of capacity, such as the fire and EMS stations, could provide emergency support in the case of an accident. Sites of vulnerability, such as the many schools and day cares, should be aware of and prepared to respond to the various physical and chemical risks associated with ethane crackers.

The census block where the ethane cracker is planned has a population of 1,252. Of this population, 359 are 65 years or older. That is well above national average and important to note; air pollutants released from the plant are associated with health effects such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, to which older populations are more vulnerable.

Conclusion

PTTGC’s ethane cracker, if built, will drastically alter the air quality of Belmont County, OH, and the adjacent Marshall County, WV. Everyday, the thousands of people in the surrounding region, including the students of over a dozen schools, will breathe in its emissions.

This population is also vulnerable to unpredictable accidents and explosions that are a risk when manufacturing products from ethane, a highly flammable liquid. Many of these concerns were recently voiced by local residents at the air permit hearing.

Despite these concerns and pushback, PTTGC’s website for this ethane cracker, pttgcbelmontcountyoh.com, does not address emergency plans for the area. It also fails to acknowledge the potential for any adverse environmental impacts associated with the plant or the pipelines, fracked wells, and train and truck traffic it will attract to the region.

With this in mind, we call upon PTTGC to acknowledge the risks of its facility to Belmont County and provide the public with emergency preparedness plans, before the permitting process continues.

If you have thoughts or concerns regarding PTTGC’s ethane cracker and its impact on air quality, the Ohio EPA is accepting written comments through December 11, 2018. We encourage you to look through the data on this map or conduct your own investigations and submit comments on air permit #P0124972.

Written comments should be sent to:

Ohio EPA SEDO-DAPC, Attn: Kimbra Reinbold
2195 Front St
Logan, OH 43138
Kimbra.reinbold@epa.ohio.gov

(Include permit #P0124972 within your comment)

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist

Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s Nonmetallic Mining Parcel Registration Program

How the frac sand industry is circumventing local control, plus where the industry is migrating

What is nonmetallic mineral mining?

It was more than a year and half ago that anti-frac sand organizer – and movement matriarch – Pat Popple published a white paper by attorney Elizabeth Feil in her Frac Sand Sentinel newsletter. The paper outlined potential impacts of something the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calls the “Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Registration” (MNMDR) program.

The program, passed in 2000, is outlined in Wisconsin’s administrative code under Subchapter VI “Registration of Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposits (NR 135.53-NR 135.64). This program allows landowners to register parcels that sit atop marketable nonmetallic mineral deposits, such as frac sand, according to a licensed professional geologist. The geologist uses “logs or records of drilling, boring, geophysical surveys, records of physical inspections of outcrops or equivalent scientific data” to outline the quality, extent, depth, accessibility, and current market value of the minerals.

If a mine operator is not the landowner, it must first coordinate registration with the landowner to:

… provide protection against present or future land uses, such as the erection of permanent structures, that would impede their development…to promote more orderly future development of identified nonmetallic mineral resources and minimize conflict among land uses.

Where is frac sand mining occurring in Wisconsin?


Photos by Ted Auch, Fractracker Alliance, and aerial support provided by LightHawk

Limitations of the registration program

The only requirement under this program is that the landowner “provide evidence that nonmetallic mining is a permitted or conditional use for the land under zoning in effect on the day in which notice is provided to the zoning authorities.” All registrations must be recorded in the county’s registrar of deeds 120 days before filing the registration. This process results in zoning authorities having a 60-day window to determine if they support or object to registrations in circuit courts.

Once counties are notified, they have no recourse for objection aside from proving that the deposit is not marketable or the parcel is not zoned for mining.

As Ms. Feil wrote, this program “preserves…[parcel] eligibility for nonmetallic mining in the future, even if a local governing body later passes new mining restrictions.” The former will have already been proven by the licensed geologist, and the latter is highly unlikely given lax or non-existent zoning in rural Wisconsin, where many land parcels are outside incorporated townships. Any parcel registered on this program remains in the program for a 10 year period and may be automatically re-registered under the initial geological assessment for another 10 year term “at least 10 days and no more than one year before registration expires.”

After this 20-year period, parcels start from scratch with respect to the registration process.

Initial inquiry and map methodology

As part of her white paper, Ms. Feil noted that in a quick check of her home county’s register of deeds, she found six nonmetallic mineral deposit registrations since 2000 in Trempealeau County and nine in neighboring Chippewa County. As a result of Ms. Feil’s initial inquiry, we decided it would be worth conducting a sweeping search for all nonmetallic parcel registrations in the nine most heavily frac sand-mined Wisconsin counties: Trempealeau, Barron, Crawford, Chippewa, Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Dunn, and Eau Claire.

“Wisconsin Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Parcel Registrations and Likely Mine Parcels” Map

We were fortunate enough to receive funding from the Save The Hills Alliance (STHA) to conduct this research. We received “boots on the ground” assistance from the likes of Ms. Feil, Ms. Popple, and several other volunteers for acquiring hard copies of registrations as of the summer of 2018.

Our goal was to construct a map that would provide a predictive and dynamic tool for residents, activists, non-profits, researchers, local governments, and journalists to understand the future scale and scope of frac sand mining across West Central Wisconsin. We hope this will inspire a network of citizen scientists and mapping tools that can serve as a model for analogous efforts in Illinois, Minnesota, and Southeastern Michigan.

In addition to identifying parcels falling under Wisconsin DNR’s MNMDR registration program, we also used Wisconsin’s State Cartographer’s Office and Land Information Program “V4 Statewide Parcel Data” to extract all parcels:

  1. Currently owned by active or historically relevant frac sand mine operators and their subsidiaries,
  2. Owned by families or entities that have allowed for mining to occur on their property and/or have registered parcels under the MNMDR program, and,
  3. All cranberry production parcels in Wisconsin frac sand counties – namely Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Wood, and Eau Claire, with Monroe, Jackson, and Wood the state’s top producing counties by acreage.

The latter were included in the map because Wisconsin DNR identified the importance of cranberry bogs in their Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin January 2012 report. The report defined the “Cranberry Exemption” as follows:

Some of the counties in central Wisconsin that are seeing an increase in frac sand mining are also home to much of the state’s cranberry farming. Mining sand is a routine practice in the process of raising cranberries. Growers use sand in the cranberry beds to provide adequate drainage for the roots of the cranberry plants. The sand prevents root rot and fosters plant growth. Chapter 94.26, Wis. Stats, was established in 1867 and exempts cranberry growers from much of the laws applying to waters of the state under Chapter 30, Wis. Stats. With this exemption in place cranberry growers can, in theory, mine sand wherever and however they desire for use in cranberry production. Some cranberry growers are taking advantage of the high demand for sand and are selling their sand on the frac sand market (emphasis added). However, the Department has recently determined that the exemption in Ch. 94.26, Wis. Stats., from portions of Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., for cranberry culture is not applicable to non-metallic mining sites where a NR 216, W is. Adm. Code, stormwater permit is required. For those non-metallic mining operations where the material is sold and hauled off site, Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., jurisdiction will be applied.

Finally, the last data layer we’ve included in this map speaks to the enormous volumes of subsurface water that the industrial sand mining industry has consumed since 2010. This layer includes monthly and annual water volume withdrawals by way of 137 industrial sand mine (i.e., IN 65) high capacity wells (Our thanks to Wisconsin DNR Water Supply Specialist – Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater’s Bob Smail for helping us to compile this data.)

We have coupled that data to annual tonnages in order to quantify gallons per ton ratios for several mines across several years.

Results

Below is the completed map of current and potential frac sand mines in West Central Wisconsin, as well as high capacity wells. Click on the features of the map for more details.

View Map Full Screen| How FracTracker maps work 

We identified 4,049 nonmetallic parcel registration and existing sand mine operator parcels totaling 113,985 acres or 178 square miles spread across 14 counties in West Central Wisconsin (Table 1). The largest parcel sizes were U.S. Silica’s 398-acre parcel in Sparta, Monroe County and Badger Mining’s 330-acre parcel in St. Marie, Green Lake County. The average parcel is a mere 28 acres.

To put these figures in perspective, back in 2013 we quantified the full extent of land-use change associated with frac sand mining in this same region and found that the 75 active mines at the time occupied a total of 5,859 acres and averaged roughly 75 acres in size. This means that if current parcel ownership and nonmetallic parcel registrations run their course, the impact of frac sand mining from a land-use perspective could potentially increase by 1,900%!

This is an astounding development and would alter large chunks of West Central Wisconsin’s working landscape, dairy industry, and “Badger State” mentality forever.

Table 1. Nonmetallic or operator-owned frac sand parcels and their total and average acreage in 14 West Central Wisconsin counties

County Number of Parcels Total Acreage Average Parcel Acreage
Barron 267 8,737 33
Buffalo 211 5,902 28
Burnett 4 140 35
Chippewa 580 15,585 27
Clark 74 2,391 32
Dunn 73 2,245 31
Eau Claire 151 4,101 27
Green Lake 74 2,648 36
Jackson 1,128 36,152 32
Monroe 459 11,185 24
Pierce 168 3,415 20
Rusk 2 64 32
Trempealeau 787 19,375 25
Wood 71 2,044 29

As for the “Cranberry Exemption” identified by Wisconsin DNR, we identified an additional 3,090 cranberry operator or family-owned parcels totaling 98,217 acres or 153 square miles – nearly equal to the acreage identified above. Figure 1 shows the extent of cranberry bog parcels and frac sand mines in Monroe, Wood, and Jackson Counties. The two largest parcels in this inquiry were the 275-acre parcel owned by Fairview Cranberry in Monroe County and a 231 acre-parcel owned by Ocean Spray in Wood County. Interestingly, the former is already home to a sizeable (i.e., 266 acres) frac sand mine operated by Smart Sand pictured and mapped in Figure 2.

Figure 1. Cranberry bog parcels and frac sand mines in the Wisconsin counties of Monroe, Jackson, and Wood

Figure 2. Current and potential extent of Smart Sand’s Fairview Cranberry frac sand mine, Tomah, Monroe County, Wisconsin

In total, the potential for mine expansion in West Central Wisconsin could consume an additional 212,202 acres or 331 square miles. Characterized by dairy farms, and also known as The Driftless Area, this region is where Aldo Leopold penned his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac. To give a sense of scale to these numbers, it is worth noting that this type of acreage would be like clearing an area the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis.

Project limitations and emerging concerns

After completing this project, Liz Feil, Pat Popple, and I got on the phone to discuss what we perceived to be its limitations, as well as their concerns with the process and the implications of the MNMDR program, which are listed below:

1. Both Liz and Pat found that when they visited certain counties to inquire as to parcel registrations, most of the registrars of deeds had very little, if any, idea as to what they were talking about, which begged the questions:

  • Why does Wisconsin not have a uniform protocol and archival process for such registrations?
  • What are the implications of this program with respect to county and township taxable lands, future zoning, and/or master planning?
  • What does this program mean for surface and mineral rights ownership in Wisconsin, a state where these two are coupled or decoupled on a parcel by parcel basis?

2. Liz and Pat felt they ended up teaching county registrars more about this registration process during this exercise than they ended up learning themselves.

3. Given the potential ramifications of these types of programs, such registrations should be centrally archived rather than archived at disparate sites across the state. Registrations should be explicitly bolted onto efforts like the aforementioned statewide V4 Statewide Parcel Data, given the fact that the MNMDR parcels are registered for 10 years.

The footprint of frac sand mining at any one point is just a glimpse into how vast its influence could be in the future. Mapping parcel ownership like we’ve done gives people a more realistic sense for the scale and scope of mining in the future and is a more realistic way to analyze the costs/benefits of such an industry. This type of mapping exercise would have greatly benefited those that live in the coal fields of Appalachia and the Powder River Basin as they began to debate and regulate mining, rather than the way they were presented with proposals as smaller discrete operations.

This piecemeal process belies the environmental and social impact of any industrial process, which frac sand mining very much is.

Industrial sand mining and high capacity wells

There is a growing concern, based on a thorough analysis of the data, that the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) industry’s unquenchable thirst for freshwater is growing at an unsustainable rate. Here at FracTracker, we have been quantifying the exponential increase in HVHF water use, namely in Ohio’s Muskingum River Watershed and northern West Virginia, for more than five years now. More recently, Duke University’s Avner Vengosh has conducted a thorough national analysis of this trend.

While the trends in HVHF water use and waste production are disturbing, such analysis leaves out the water industry uses to mine and process frac sand, or “proppant” in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. Failure to incorporate such values in an analysis of HVHF’s impact on freshwater, both surface and subsurface, grossly underestimates the industry’s impact on watersheds and competing water uses.

Figure 3 shows monthly and cumulative water demand of frac sand mining. The first thing to point out is the marked seasonal disparities in water withdrawals due to the fact that many of Wisconsin’s frac sand mines go dormant during the winter and ramp up as soon as the ground thaws. The most important result of this work is that we finally have a sense for the total volumes of water permanently altered by the frac sand mining industry:

An astounding 30 billion gallons of water were used between January 2010 and December 2017

This figure is equivalent to the annual demand of ~72,500 US residents (based on an assumption of 418,184 gallons per year). This figure is also equivalent to between 2,179 and 3,051 HVHF wells in Ohio/West Virginia.

Figure 3. Cumulative and monthly water demand by Wisconsin’s frac sand mine Hi-Cap wells, January 2010-December 2017

A graph of water use trends for frac sand mining which shows significant increase in monthly and cumulative water consumptionFigure 4 shows water use by operator. The worst actors with respect to water withdrawals over this period were two wells serving Hi-Crush’s active Wyeville mine that in total used 9.6 billion gallons of subsurface water. Covia Holdings, formerly Unimin and Fairmount Santrol, utilized 5.8 billion gallons in processing an undisclosed amount of frac sand at their Tunnel City mine. Covia’s neighboring mine in Oakdale, owned by Wisconsin White Sand and Smart Sand, used more than 2.5 billion gallons during this period spread across six high-capacity wells.

Figure 4. Total water usage by operator, January 2010-December 2017

Water Use Graph by Frac Sand Operator, 2010-2017These tremendous water volumes prompted us to ask whether we could determine the amount of water needed to mine a typical ton of Wisconsin frac sand. There are numerous issues with data quality and quantity at the individual mine level and those issues stretch from the USGS all the way down to individual townships. However, some townships do collect tonnage records and/or “Fees Tied to Production” from mine operators which allow us to quantify productivity. Using this scant data and the above water volume data we were able to determine “gallons to tons of sand mined” ratios for the years of 2013, 2014, 2015, and/or 2017 for four mines and those ratios range between 30-39 to as much as 521 gallons of water per ton of sand (Table 2).

Table 2. Gallons of water per ton of sand mined for four Wisconsin frac sand mines, 2013-2017

 

Owner

 

Property

 

City

 

County

Gallon Per Ton
2013 2014 2015 2017
Wisconsin Industrial Sand Maiden Rock Facility Maiden Rock Pierce 98 90 66
Thompson, Terry Thompson Hills Mine Chetek Barron 30 521
Lagesse, Samuel NA Bloomer Chippewa 39 48
CSP Rice Lake Mine Rice Lake Barron 104

Conclusions

For far too long we’ve been monitoring frac sand mining retrospectively or in the present tense. We’ve had very little data available to allow for prospective planning or to model the impact of this industry and its role in the Hydraulic Fracturing Industrial Complex writ large. Given what we are learning about the fracking industry’s insatiable appetite for water and sand, it is imperative that we understand where frac sand mining will occur if this appetite continues to grow (as we expect it may, given the current political environment at the state and federal level).

Three examples of this growing demand can be found in our work across the Great Lakes:

1) With the new age of what the HVHF industry is calling “Super Laterals”, between 2010 and 2017 we saw average proppant demand jump nearly six-fold to roughly 25-30 thousand tons per lateral.

2) In Le Sueur County, MN Covia – which is a recent merger of silica mining giants Unimin and Fairmount Santrol – has plans and/or parcel ownership speaking to the potential for an 11-fold increase in their mining operations, which would increase acreage from 560 to 6,500 acres (if sand demand increases at its current clip) (Figures 5 and 6).

 

Figure 5. Unimin’s current 560-acre frac sand mine parcel in Kasota, Le Sueur County

 

Figure 6. The potential 6,500 extent of Unimin mining by way of parcel ownership search

 

3) As we’ve previously highlighted, the potential outside Detroit, Michigan for US Silica to expand its current frac sand mining operations would displace hundreds of families. The planned expansion would grow their mine from its current 650-acre footprint to nearly 1,400 acres in the town of South Rockwood, Monroe County (Figure 7).

 

Figure 7. US Silica’s current (642 acres) and potential (1,341 acres) frac sand mine footprint in Monroe County, Michigan.

Given our experience mapping and quantifying the current and future impact of frac sand mining in states with limited mining activity, we felt it was critical that we apply this methodology to the state where industry is mining a preponderance of frac sand. However, this analysis was rendered a bit more complicated by the presence of the MNMDR program and Wisconsin DNR’s “Cranberry Exemption.” Adding to the challenge is the fact that many in Wisconsin’s frac sand communities demanded that we address the tremendous volumes of water being used by the industry and work to incorporate such data into any resulting map.

We hope that this map allows Wisconsin residents to act in a more offensive and prospective way in voicing their concerns, or simply to become better informed on how sand mining has impacted other communities, will influence them, and what the landscape could look like in the future.

It is critical that we see sand mining not as discrete mines with discrete water demands but rather as a continuum, or better yet an ecosystem, that could potentially swallow large up sizeable chunks of Western Wisconsin.


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

P.S. We’ll continue to add MNMDR registered parcels periodically. As parcels change ownership, we will be sure to update both the cranberry bog and industry owned parcel inventory in the comings months and years.

Clearing land for shale gas pipeline in PA

Rapid Pipeline Development Affecting Pennsylvanians

In recent years, Pennsylvanians have had to endure numerous massive pipeline projects in the Commonwealth. Some of these, such as the Mariner East 2, the Revolution, and the Atlantic Sunrise, have been beset with continuous problems. In fact, both the Mariner East 2 and the Revolution projects had their operations suspended in 2018. The operators have struggled to grapple with a variety of issues – ranging from sinkholes near houses, erosion and sediment issues, hundreds of bentonite spills into the waters and upland areas of Pennsylvania, and more.

Part of the reason for the recent spate of incidents is the fact that so many pipelines are being built right now. These lines are traversing through undermined areas and land known to have underground karst formations, which are prone to subsidence and sinkholes. With more than 90,000 miles of pipelines and 84,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania, substantial erosion and runoff issues are unfortunately quite common.

Map of pipeline routes in southwestern PA, various pipeline incidents, and karst formations:

Click here to learn more about recent pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania, along with how users of the FracTracker App have helped to chronicle problems associated with them.

Residents keeping track

Many residents have been trying to document issues in their region of Pennsylvania for a long time. Any pipeline incident should be reported to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but in some instances, people want other residents to know and see what is going on, and submission to DEP does not allow for that. FracTracker’s Mobile App allow users to submit a detailed report, including photographs, which are shared with the public. App users have submitted more than 50 photographs of pipelines in Pennsylvania, including these images below.

The FracTracker Mobile App uses crowd-sourced data to document and map a notoriously nontransparent industry. App users can also report violations, spills, or whatever they find striking. For example, the first image shows construction of the Mariner East 2 in extreme proximity to high density housing. While regulators did approve this construction, and it is therefore not a violation, the app user wanted others to see the impact to nearby residents. Other photos do show incidents, such as the second photo on the second row, showing the sinkhole that appeared along the Mariner East 1 during the construction of the nearby Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Please note that app submissions are not currently shared with DEP, so if you happen to submit an incident on our app that you think they should know about, please contact their office, as well. The FracTracker Mobile App provides latitude and longitude coordinates to make it easier for regulators to find the issue in question.

Why have there been so many problems with pipelines in recent years? 

Drillers in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and other unconventional formations predicted that they would find a lot of natural gas, and they have been right about that. However, the large resulting supply of natural gas from this industrial-scaled drilling is more than the region can use. As a result, gas prices remain low, making drilling unprofitable in many cases, or keep profit margins very low in others.

The industry’s solution to this has been two-pronged. First, there is a massive effort underway to export the gas to other markets. Although there are already more than 2.5 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States, or more than 10 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon, it was apparently an insufficient network to achieve the desired outcome in commodity prices.  The long list of recent and proposed pipeline projects, complete with information about their status, can be downloaded from the Energy Information Administration (Excel format).

The industry’s other grand effort is to create demand for natural gas liquids (NGLs, mostly ethane, propane, and butane) that accompanies the methane produced in the southwestern portion of the state. The centerpiece of this plan is the construction of multiple ethane crackers, such as the one currently being built in Beaver County by Royal Dutch Shell, for the creation of a new plastics industry in northern Appalachia. These sites will be massive consumers of NGLs which will have to be piped in through pressurized hazardous liquid routes, and would presumably serve to lock in production of unconventional gas in the region for decades to come.

Are regulators doing enough to help prevent these pipeline development problems?

In 2010, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) led the formation of an advisory group called Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA), comprised mostly of industry and various state and local officials. Appendix D of their report includes a long list of activities that should not occur in pipeline rights-of-way, from all-terrain vehicle use to orchards to water wells. These activities could impact the structural integrity of the pipeline or impede the operator’s ability to promptly respond to an incident and excavate the pipe.

However, we find this list to be decidedly one-directional. While the document states that these activities should be restricted in the vicinity of pipelines, it does not infer that pipelines shouldn’t be constructed where the activities already occur:

This table should not be interpreted as guidance for the construction of new pipelines amongst existing land uses as they may require different considerations or limitations. Managing land use activities is a challenge for all stakeholders. Land use activities can contribute to the occurrence of a transmission pipeline incident and expose those working or living near a transmission pipeline to harm should an incident occur.

Pipeline being constructed near a home

While we understand the need to be flexible, and we certainly agree that every measure should be taken by those engaging in the dozens of use types listed in the PIPA report, it equally makes sense for the midstream industry to take its own advice, and refrain from building pipelines where these other land uses are already in place, as well. If a carport is disallowed because, “Access for transmission pipeline maintenance, inspection, and repair activities preclude this use,” then what possible excuse can there be to building pipelines adjacent to homes?

What distance is far enough away to escape catastrophic failure in the event of a pipeline fire or blast?

This chart shows varying hazard distances from natural gas pipelines, based on the pipe’s diameter and pressure. Source:  Mark J. Stephens, A Model for Sizing High Consequence Areas Associated with Natural Gas Pipelines

It turns out that it depends pretty dramatically on the diameter and pressure of the pipe, as well as the nature of the hydrocarbon being transported. A 2000 report estimates that it could be as little as a 150-foot radius for low-pressure 6-inch pipes carrying methane, whereas a 42-inch pipe at 1,400 pounds per square inch (psi) could be a threat to structures more than 1,000 feet away on either side of the pipeline. There is no way that the general public, or even local officials, could know the hazard zone for something so variable.

While contacting Pennsylvania One Call before any excavation is required, many people may not consider a large portion of the other use cases outlined in the PIPA document to be a risk, and therefore may not know to contact One Call. To that end, we think that hazard placards would be useful, not just at the placement of the pipeline itself, but along its calculated hazard zone, so that residents are aware of the underlying risks.

Valve spacing

If there is an incident, it is obviously critical for operators to be able to respond as quickly as possible. In most cases, a part of this process will be shutting off the flow at the nearest upstream valve, thereby stopping the flow of the hydrocarbons to the atmosphere in the case of a leak, and cutting the source of fuel in the event of a fire. Speed is only one factor in ameliorating the problem, however, with the spacing between shutoff valves being another important component.

Comprehensive datasets on pipeline valves are difficult to come by, but in FracTracker’s deep dive into the Falcon ethane pipeline project, which is proposed to supply the Shell ethane cracker facility under construction Beaver County, we see that there are 18 shutoff valves planned for the 97.5 mile route, or one per every 5.4 miles of pipe. We also know that the Falcon will operate at a maximum pressure of 1,440 psi, and has pipe diameters ranging from 10 to 16 inches. The amount of ethane that could escape is considerable, even if Shell were able to shut the flow off at the valve instantly. It stands to reason that more shutoff valves would serve to lessen the impact of releases or the severity of fires and explosions, by reducing the flow of fuel to impacted area.

Conclusion

Groups promoting the oil and gas industry like to speak of natural gas development as clean and safe, but unless we are comparing the industry to something else that is dirtier or more dangerous, these words are really just used to provoke an emotional response.  Even governmental agencies like PHMSA are using the rhetoric.

PHMSA’s mission is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives.

If the safe transportation of hazardous materials sounds oxymoronic, it should.  Oil and gas, and related processed hydrocarbons, are inherently dangerous and polluting.

Report Events Fatalities Injuries Explosions Evacuees Total Damages
Gas Distribution 29 8 19 12 778 $6,769,061
Gas Transmission / Gathering 30 0 2 2 292 $51,048,027
Hazardous Liquids 49 0 0 1 48 $9,115,036
Grand Total 108 8 21 15 1,118 $66,932,124

Impacts of pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania from January 1, 2010 through July 13, 2018.  National totals for the same time include 5,308 incidents resulting  125 fatalities, 550 injuries, 283 explosions, and nearly $4 billion in property damage.

Current investments in large-scale transmission pipelines and those facilitating massive petrochemical facilities like ethane crackers are designed to lock Pennsylvania into decades of exposure to this hazardous industry, which will not only adversely the environment and the people who live here, but keep us stuck on old technology.  Innovations in renewable energy such as solar and wind will continue, and Pennsylvania’s impressive research and manufacturing capacity could make us well positioned to be a leader of that energy transformation.  But Pennsylvania needs to make that decision, and cease being champions of an industry that is hurting us.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

This is the second article in a two-part series. Explore the first article: PA Pipelines and Pollution Events.

Map of offshore drilling in California

The Feds Trump California’s State Ban on Offshore Oil Drilling

Offshore drilling in the United States federal waters has caused the most environmentally destructive disasters in North America. Yet, new policy is pushing for the expansion of offshore drilling, particularly off the coast of California.

Offshore Drilling History

In 1969, Union Oil’s offshore rig Platform A had a blowout that leaked 100,000 barrels into the Santa Barbara Channel, one of the most biologically diverse marine environments in the world. The spill lasted ten days and killed an estimated 3,500 sea birds, as well as an untold number of marine mammals. Unbelievably, the Santa Barbara spill is only the third largest spill in U.S. waters. It follows the 1989 Exxon Valdez and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills. These incidents keep getting bigger.

More offshore drilling means a higher risk of catastrophe, additional contamination of air and water locally, and more greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Federal Moratorium on California Offshore Leases

Up until the beginning of 2018, further oil and gas development using offshore oil rig platforms seemed quite unlikely. After the 1969 oil spill from Platform A and the subsequent ban on further leasing in state waters, the risk of another devastating oil spill was too large for even the federal government to consider new leases. The fact that the moratorium lasted through 16 years of Bush presidencies is truly a victory. Across the aisle, expanding offshore operations has been opposed. In Florida, even Republican Governor Rick Scott teamed up with environmental groups to fight the Department of Interior’s recent sales of offshore leases.

Trump’s New Gas Leasing Program

Now, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is preparing a new 2019-2024 national Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing program to replace the existing 2017-2022 program. This is an unusual practice, and part of Trump’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy. The Trump administration opened up most of the US coastal waters for new oil and gas drilling with a recent draft proposal offering 47 new offshore block lease sales to take place between 2019 and 2024.

Where might these new leases occur?

The offshore federal waters that are open for oil and gas leases are shown in dark blue in the map below (Figure 1). Zoom out to see the extent.

Figure 1. Map of Offshore Oil and Gas Extraction


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | Map Data Download (CSV)

California’s Offshore Oil

Southern California has a legacy of oil extraction, particularly Los Angeles. It’s not just the federal government that is keen on continuing this legacy. While the state has not permitted the leasing of new blocks in offshore waters, Governor Brown’s policies have been very friendly to the oil and gas industry. According to Oil Change International’s Sky’s the Limit report: “Under the Brown administration, the state has permitted the drilling of more than 20,000 new wells,” including 5,000 offshore wells in state waters. About 2,000 of these offshore wells have been drilled since 2012.

This map developed in collaboration with Consumer Watch Dog juxtaposes the offshore wells drilled in CA state waters with those drilled in federal waters.

Southern California is the main target for future offshore leasing. The Monterey Shale formation, which underlies the city of Los Angeles and expands north offshore to the Ventura Coast, is thought to contain the largest conventional oil plays left IN THE WORLD! The map above shows the locations of state and federal offshore oil and gas wells and the rigs that service them. It also shows historical wells off the coast of Northern California.

Northern California, both onshore and offshore, sits on top of major reserves of natural gas, which may also be developed given the political climate. With an increase in the price of natural gas, operators will be developing these gas fields. Some operators, such as Chevron, have already drilled natural gas wells in northern California, but have left the wells “shut in” (capped) until production becomes more profitable.

For a more comprehensive coverage on environmental impacts of offshore operations, including those to sensitive species, check out the Environmental Defense Center’s Dirty Water Report and read our additional coverage of California’s existing offshore drilling, and offshore fracking.

Air Pollution from Oil Rigs

FracTracker, in collaboration with Earthworks, recently teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace International to get up close to offshore oil rigs. As a certified Optical Gas Imaging Thermographer, Kyle Ferrar (Western Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance and California Community Empowerment Project Organizer for Earthworks), took footage of the offshore oil rigs.

Using infrared technology, we were able to visualize and record emissions and leaks of volatile hydrocarbons and other greenhouse gases coming from these offshore sites. We documented many cases of intense flaring from the rigs, including several cases where the poorly burning flare allowed hydrocarbons to be leaked to the atmosphere prior to complete combustion of CO2.

More complete coverage of this trip can be found here on the Greenpeace website.

Below you can view a compilation of the footage we were able to capture from small pontoon boats.

Conclusion

FracTracker has looked at offshore oil and gas drilling from many different angles. We have looked to the past, and found the most egregious environmental damages in U.S. history. We have analyzed the data and shown where, when, and how much offshore drilling is happening in California. We have demonstrated that much of the drilling and many of the proposed leases are in protected and sensitive habitats. We have looked at policy and found that both Governor Brown and President Trump are aligned to promote more oil and gas development. We have even looked at the rigs in person in multiple spectrums of light and found that these operations continuously leak and emit greenhouse gases and other air toxins.

No matter which way you look at offshore oil and gas drilling, it is clearly one of the most threatening methods of oil and gas extraction in use today.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

American flag, sunset - Photo by Aaron Burden. Vote boldly!

Vote Boldly and Carry a Big Heart

To say the November 6th election is important might be the understatement of the century. With a climate in peril, fossil fuel interests eviscerating the planet, and politicians sowing discord and demonizing those in greatest need, the voice of the people must be heard from sea to shining sea and everywhere in between.

The hate and horror of the Pittsburgh massacre shook us to our core. It was an act of despicable violence on the victims and everyone in America. Depravity upon humanity takes other forms – whether it’s malice towards people yearning for a better life or atrocities against nature perpetrated by the oil and gas industry. Darkness tears at our society and the ecological and community fabric with which it is woven.

Our hearts ache for those killed or wounded at the synagogue. The murders were premeditated madness. Less obvious and excruciating are vile efforts to compromise civility, compassion, democracy, and wellness for political gain or profit.

We may have reached a new low, but we climb higher. The Tree of Life, while shaken, stands strong. Rooted in justice and sowing seeds of mercy, it is nurtured by light and an endless stream of stewards caring for the earth and one another. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote of next week’s election, “hate is on the ballot.” In the spirit of love manifest after last week’s tragedy, let’s gather at the polls on Tuesday and, together, shape history.


By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

Need voter information? Check out Rock the Vote

Feature photo by Aaron Burden via Good Free Photos