The Underlying Politics and Unconventional Well Fundamentals of an Appalachian Storage Hub

FracTracker is closely mapping and following the petrochemical build-out in Appalachia, as the oil and gas industry invests in petrochemical manufacturing. Much of the national attention on the build-out revolves around the Appalachian Storage Hub (ASH), a venture spearheaded by Appalachian Development Group.

The ASH involves a network of infrastructure to store and transport natural gas liquids and finds support across the political spectrum. Elected officials are collaborating with the private sector and foreign investors to further development of the ASH, citing benefits such as national security, increased revenue, job creation, and energy independence.

Left out of the discussion are the increased environmental and public health burdens the ASH would place on the region, and the fact that natural gas liquids are the feedstock of products such as plastic and resins, not energy.

The “Shale Revolution”

the allegheny plateau

The Allegheny Plateau. Wikipedia

The “Shale Revolution” brought on by high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in this region encompasses thousands of wells drilled into the Marcellus and Utica-Point Pleasant shale plays across much of the Allegheny Plateau. This area spans from north of Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, just outside the Catskills Mountains to the East in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and down to the West Virginia counties of Logan, Boone, and Lincoln.  The westernmost extent of the fracking experiment in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays is in Noble and Guernsey Counties in Ohio.

Along the way, producing wells have exhibited steeper and steeper declines during the first five years of production, leading the industry to develop what they refer to as “super laterals.” These laterals (the horizontal portion of a well) exceed 3 miles in length and require in excess of 15 million gallons of freshwater and 15,000 tons of silica sand (aka, “proppant”)[1].

The resource-intense super laterals are one way the industry is dealing with growing pressure from investors, lenders, the media, state governments, and the public to reduce supply costs and turn a profit, while also maintaining production. (Note: unfortunately these sources of pressures are listed from most to least concerning to industry itself!)

Another way the fracking industry is hoping to make a profit is by investing in the region’s natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as ethane, propane, and butane, to support the petrochemical industry.

The Appalachian Storage Hub

Continued oil and gas development are part of a nascent effort to establish a mega-infrastructure petrochemical complex,  the Appalachian Storage Hub (ASH). For those that aren’t familiar with the ASH it could be framed as the fracking industry’s last best attempt to lock in their necessity across Appalachia and nationwide. The ASH was defined in the West Virginia Executive as a way to revitalize the Mountain State and would consist of the following:

“a proposed underground storage facility that would be used to store and transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) extracted from the Marcellus, Utica and Rogersville shales across Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Construction of this hub would not only lead to revenue and job creation in the natural gas industry but would also further enable manufacturing companies to come to the Mountain State, as the petrochemicals produced by shale are necessary materials in most manufacturing supply chains…[with] the raw materials available in the region’s Marcellus Shale alone…estimated to be worth more than $2 trillion, and an estimated 20 percent of this shale is composed largely of ethane, propane and butane NGLs that can be utilized by the petrochemical industry in the manufacturing of consumer goods.”

This is yet another example of fracking rhetoric that appeals to American’s sense of patriotism and need for cheaper consumer goods (in this case, plastics), given that they are seeing little to no growth in wages.

While a specific location for underground storage has not been announced, the infrastructure associated with the ASH (such as pipelines, compressor stations, and processing stations) would stretch from outside Pittsburgh down to Catlettsburg, Kentucky, with the latter currently the home of a sizeable Marathon Oil refinery. The ASH “would act like an interstate highway, with on-ramps and off-ramps feeding manufacturing hubs along its length and drawing from the available ethane storage fields. The piping would sit above-ground and follow the Ohio and Kanawha river valley.”

The politics of the ASH – from Columbus and Charleston to Washington DC

Elected officials across the quad-state region are supporting this effort invoking, not surprisingly, its importance for national security and energy independence.

State-level support

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) went so far as to introduce “Senate Bill 1064 – Appalachian Energy for National Security Act.”  This bill would require Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and his staff to “to conduct a study on the national security implications of building ethane and other natural-gas-liquids-related petrochemical infrastructure in the United States, and for other purposes.”

Interestingly, the West Virginia Senator told the West Virginia Roundtable Inc’s membership meeting that the study would not examine the “national security implications” but rather the “additional security benefits” of an Appalachian Storage Hub and cited the following to pave the way for the national security study he is proposing: “the shale resource endowment of the Appalachian Basin is so bountiful that, if the Appalachian Basin were an independent country, the Appalachian Basin would be the third largest producer of natural gas in the world.”

Senator Manchin is not the only politician of either party to unabashedly holler from the Appalachian Mountaintops the benefits of the ASH. Former Ohio Governor, and 2016 POTUS primary participant, John Kasich (R) has been a fervent supporter of such a regional planning scheme. He is particularly outspoken in favor of the joint proposal by Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical and Daelim to build an ethane cracker in Dilles Bottom, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Moundsville, West Virginia. The ethane cracker would convert the region’s fracked ethane into ethylene to make polyethylene plastic. This proposed project could be connected to the underground storage component of the ASH.

The Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has consistently advocated for the project, going so far as to sign “an unprecedented agreement at the Tri-State Shale Summit, promising collaboration between the states in securing crackers for the region and, by extension, support of the storage hub.”

Dilles Bottom, OH ethane cracker site. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.

Not to be outdone in the ASH cheerleading department, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (R), who can’t seem to find any common ground with Democrats in general nor Senator Manchin specifically, is collaborating with quad-state governors on the benefits of the ASH. All the while, these players ignore or dismiss the environmental, social, and economic costs of such an “all in” bet on petrochemicals and plastics.

Even the region’s land-grant universities have gotten in on the act, with West Virginia University’s Appalachian Oil and Natural Gas Research Consortium and Energy Institute leading the way. WVU’s Energy Institute Director Brian Anderson pointed out that, “Appalachia is poised for a renaissance of the petrochemical industry due to the availability of natural gas liquids. A critical path for this rebirth is through the development of infrastructure to support the industry. The Appalachian Storage Hub study is a first step for realizing that necessary infrastructure.”

National-level support

The Trump administration, with the assistance of Senator Manchin’s “Senate Bill 1337 – Capitalizing on American Storage Potential Act”, has managed to stretch the definition of the Department of Energy’s Title XVII loan guarantee to earmark $1.9 billion for the Appalachian Development Group, LLC (ADG) to develop the ASH, even though any project that receives such a loan must:

  1. utilize a new or significantly improved technology;
  2. avoid, reduce or sequester greenhouse gases;
  3. be located in the United States; and,
  4. have a reasonable prospect of repayment.

This type of Public-Private Investment Program  is central planning at its finest, in spite of the likelihood that the prospects of the ASH meeting the second and fourth conditions above are dubious at best (even if the project utilizes carbon capture and storage technologies).

Public-Private Investment Programs have a dubious past. In her book “Water Wars,” Vandana Shiva discusses the role of these programs globally and the involvement of institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund:

“public-private partnerships”…implies public participation, democracy, and accountability.  But it disguises the fact that the public-private partnership arrangements usually entail public funds being available for the privatization of public goods…[and] have mushroomed under the guise of attracting private capital and curbing public-sector employment.”

In response to the Department of Energy’s Title XVII largesse, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Ilhan Omar introduced Amendment 105 in Rule II on HR 2740. According to Food and Water Watch, this amendment would restrict “the types of projects the Department of Energy could financially back. It would block the funding for ALL projects that wouldn’t mitigate climate change.”

On Wednesday, June 19th Congress voted 233-200 along party lines to pass the amendment, preventing funds from the Energy Policy Act of 2005  to be provided to any “project that does not avoid, reduce, or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases”.

International interest

The only condition of Department of Energy’s Title XVII loan program ASH is guaranteed to meet is the third (be located in the United States), but as we’ve already mentioned, the level of foreign money involved complicates the domestic facade.

Foreign involvement in the ASH lends credence to Senator Manchin’s and others’ concerns about where profits from the ASH will go, and who will be reaping the benefits of cheap natural gas. The fact that the ASH is being heavily backed by foreign money is the reason Senator Manchin raised an issue with the outsized role of state actors like Saudi Arabia and China as well as likely state-backed private investments like PTT Global Chemical’s. The Senator even cited how a potential $83.7 billion investment in West Virginia from China’s state-owned energy company, China Energy, would compromise “domestic manufacturing and national security opportunities.”

“Critical” infrastructure

With all of the discussion and legislation focused on energy and national security, many don’t realize the output of the ASH would be the production of petroleum-based products: mainly plastic, but also fertilizers, paints, resins, and other chemical products.

Not coincidentally, Republican Ohio State Representatives George Lang and Don Jones just introduced House Bill 242, and attempt to support the plastic industry by “prohibit[ing] the imposition of a tax or fee on [auxiliary or plastic] containers, and to apply existing anti-littering law to those containers.”

There will most certainly be a battle in the courts between the state and urban counties like Cuyahoga County, Ohio, who’s council just voted to ban plastic bags countywide on May 28.

Bills like this and the not unrelated “critical infrastructure” bills being shopped around by the American Legislative Exchange Council will amplify the rural vs urban and local vs state oversight divisions running rampant throughout the United States.  The reason for this is that yet another natural resource boom/bust will be foisted on Central Appalachia to fuel urban growth and, in this instance, the growth and prosperity of foreign states like China.

Instead of working night and day to advocate for Appalachia and Americans more broadly, we have legislation in statehouses around the country that would make it harder to demonstrate or voice concerns about proposals associated with the ASH and similar regional planning projects stretching down into the Gulf of Mexico.

Producing wells mapped

Impacts from the ASH and associated ethane cracker proposals will include but are not limited to: an increase in the permitting of natural gas wells, an increase in associated gas gathering pipelines across the Allegheny Plateau, and an exponential increase in the production of plastics, all of which are harmful to the region’s environment and the planet.

The production of the region’s fracked wells will determine the long-term viability of the ASH. From our reading of things, the permitting trend we see in Ohio will have to hit another exponential inflection point to “feed the beast” as it were. Figure 1 shows an overall decline in the number of wells drilled monthly in Ohio.

Figure 2, below it, shows the relationship between the number of wells that are permitted verse those that are actually drilled.

Figures 1. Monthly (in blue) and cumulative (in orange) unconventional oil and gas wells drilled in Ohio, January, 2013 to November, 2018

 

 Figure 2. Permitted Vs Drilled Wells in Ohio, January, 2013 to November, 2018

That supply-demand on steroids interaction will likely result in an increased reliance on “super laterals” by the high-volume hydraulic fracturing industry. These laterals require 5-8 times more water, chemicals, and proppant than unconventional laterals did between 2010 and 2012.

Given this, we felt it critical to map not just the environmental impacts of this model of fracking but also the nuts and bolts of production over time. The map below shows the supply-demand links between the fracking industry and the ASH, not as discrete pieces or groupings of infrastructure, but rather a continuum of up and downstream patterns.

The current iteration of the map shows production values for oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids, how production for any given well changes over time, and production declines in newer wells relative to those that were fracked at the outset of the region’s “Shale Revolution.” Working with volunteer Gary Allison, we have compiled and mapped monthly (Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and quarterly (Ohio)[2] natural gas, condensate, and natural gas liquids from 2002 to 2018.

This map includes 15,682 producing wells in Pennsylvania, 3,689 in West Virginia, and 2,064 in Ohio. We’ve also included and will be updating petrochemical projects associated with the ASH, either existing or proposed, across the quad-states including the proposed ethane cracker in Dilles Bottom, Ohio and the ethane cracker under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, along with two rumored projects in West Virginia.


View Map Full Screen

Conclusion

We will continue to update this map on a quarterly basis, will be adding Kentucky data in the coming months, and will be sure to update rumored/proposed petrochemical infrastructure as they cross our radar. However, we can’t be everywhere at once so if anyone reading this hears of legitimate rumors or conversations taking place at the county or township level that cite tapping into the ASH’s infrastructural network, please be sure to contact us directly at info@fractracker.org.

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison

Feature Photo: Ethane cracker plant under construction in Beaver County, PA. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.

[1] For a detailed analysis of the HVHF’s increasing resource demand and how lateral length has increased in the last decade the reader is referred to our analysis titled “A Disturbing Tale of Diminishing Returns in Ohio” Figures 12 and 13.

[2] Note: For those Bluegrass State residents or interested parties, Kentucky data is on its way!

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