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A Guide to Petrochemicals, the Fossil Fuel Blindspot

A Guide to Petrochemicals, the Fossil Fuel Blindspot



A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States

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Key Facts About Petrochemicals


  • The petrochemical industry is expanding in the Gulf South and the Ohio River Valley. While many of the industry’s plans have not come to fruition, petrochemicals are becoming the largest driver of oil demand and present a major threat to the climate.
  • The fracking industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels for the petrochemical industry to turn into plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.
  • Petrochemical plants are major sources of pollution, both permitted and illegal. The experience of fenceline communities shows that public agencies have failed to protect public health from the harms caused by the industry.
  • The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions, and its environmental racism has led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s.


What are petrochemicals?


Petrochemicals are chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas.

The major petrochemicals are ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, xylene, toluene, and methanol.

Never heard of them? Petrochemicals are intermediate materials – you generally don’t buy them off the shelves but they make up things you buy off shelves, like plastic as well as many industrial products. They’re also a major blindspot in the fossil fuel debate, despite the fact that they are, according to the International Energy Agency, “becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.”

Here are a few of the common uses of petrochemicals:

  • Ethylene & propylene → Plastic
  • Butadiene → fake rubber, tires
  • Benzene → other chemicals → Styrofoam, resins, rubbers, lubricants, dyes, synthetic fibers
  • Xylene → products in the printing, rubber, resins, and leather industries, and as a paint thinner
  • Toluene → paints, lacquers, adhesives, explosives (like TNT)
  • Methanol → formaldehyde → adhesives, coatings, building materials, and yes, embalming bodies

By volume, the most common petrochemical produced in the US is ethylene, followed by propylene. Ethylene and propylene are made from the natural gas liquids ethane and propane. They can also be made from naphtha, a component of crude oil.

The biggest use globally for both ethylene and propylene is for plastic. Single-use packaging accounts for an estimated 40% of total plastic usage. Plastic is also the product currently driving a global petrochemical production “boom,” so this guide will largely focus on plastic’s impact on health, environment, and communities.



Pie chart of world consumption of petrochemicals

World consumption of petrochemicals, 2018. Source: IHS Markit, Petrochemical Industry Overview


How Petrochemicals are Made

Oil and gas extraction is the foundation of the petrochemical industry. In the United States, there are over 900,000 producing oil and gas wells. The majority of new oil and gas wells drilled in the United States utilize hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling. Learn more about this process and its impacts.

After oil and gas is extracted, it’s transported by a network of natural gas and crude oil pipelines to another facility for processing.


United States Map of Pipelines and Processing Stations

Oil and gas transportation and processing facilities in the United States (and a little bit of Canada). Mapped by FracTracker using datasets from the EIA, which were updated in January 2020, except for the petroleum refineries data layer which was updated in July 2020.

Natural gas is sent to processing stations or fractionators, which separate out natural gas liquids, like ethane and propane, from methane gas.


Diagram of gas stream components

Crude oil is set to refineries and heated in a distilling column to separate out its different components like diesel, kerosene, naphtha, and gasoline.


Diagram of Crude Oil Components

The refined products are transported by natural gas liquid and petroleum product pipelines to refineries, chemical plants, crackers, and other industrial facilities that process them into petrochemicals. These petrochemicals may undergo several more steps before being transformed into a range of consumer and industrial products.



Natural gas liquid and petroleum product transport and processing facilities. Mapped by FracTracker using datasets from the EIA (petroleum refinery data updated July 10, 2020, pipelines data updated April 28, 2020, ethylene cracker data updated in January 13, 2020). Petrochemical plants includes a select number of facilities from EPA 2019 FLIGHT dataset.

Ethane Crackers: How do they work?


Ethane crackers transform ethane, a component of the fracked gas stream, into ethylene. Ethane crackers can be a part of a larger petrochemical complex, and include facilities that transform ethylene into polyethylene plastic. Ethylene can be used to produce other chemical products, such as antifreeze.

Ethylene crackers are similar, and include facilities that produce ethylene using crude oil.

What do they produce?

Different types of plastic are produced at an ethane cracker, including:

  • low density polyethylene (LDPE)
  • linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
  • high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
  • ethylene glycol – a chemical that goes into PET plastic and antifreeze




How do they work?

After gas has been extracted (read more about that process) it’s transported via pipeline to different facilities that separate ethane from other components of the gas stream. Ethane is transported to ethane crackers via pipeline.



Source: Ethane Storage and Distribution Hub in the United States, Department of Energy


Step 1) Cracking After ethane arrives at the facility, furnaces use extreme heat (1500°F), to “crack” the molecular bonds in ethane, and rearrange its atoms into ethylene.

Step 2) Cooling The ethylene is moved to a quench tower, which cools the gas by spraying it with water.

Quench towers are HUGE – the tower alone weighs upwards of 2,000 tons.

Step 3) Compression Next the cooled gas moves to a compressor, which pressurizes the ethylene gas, beginning its conversion into a liquid.

Step 4) Refrigeration A heat exchanger further cools the ethylene. By the end of this step, the majority of the ethylene has been condensed into a liquid.

Step 5) Separation The ethylene is then purified in fractionation towers. In these towers, the temperature is kept higher at the bottom and lower at the top. The different boiling points of molecules force them to separate out, and pure ethylene can be extracted.

Step 6) Polymerization An ethane cracker complex can contain multiple polyethylene units on site, where ethylene is linked up in chains to form polyethylene. This process can be engineered to produce different types of polyethylene with varying degrees of strength and elasticity. Ethylene may also be transported to other facilities for polymerization or other processing.

Step 7) Shipping The output from an ethane cracker is often small plastic pellets called nurdles. One ethane cracker may produce well over a million tons of nurdles per year. This product is shipped out by rail, barge, or truck to factories that shape it into different plastic products.

This process is very energy-intensive. Ethane crackers have power plants on site to generate steam and electricity.

Where are they?

The majority of ethane crackers in the United States are in Texas and Louisiana. There is also one in Illinois, Iowa, and Kentucky, and a new plant being built in Pennsylvania.

Expansion of the Petrochemical Industry


The petrochemical industry in the United States largely grew from demand for fuels and supplies during WWI and WW2, but it took off in the 1950s when petroleum-based plastic became popular.

In the United States, petrochemical facilities are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana –  states that sit above abundant oil and gas resources, attracting corporations that have heavily manipulated the states’ political and regulatory environment. Petrochemical facilities in the Gulf South often abut schools and residential areas, and take a heavy toll of communities’ health. According to the Energy Information Administration, 95% of the country’s ethylene capacity and roughly half of the country’s petroleum refining and natural gas processing capacity is along the Gulf Coast.



Oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Mapped by FracTracker using 2019 and 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and EPA FLIGHT.


The expansion of fracking technology in the 21st century has propelled another petrochemical expansion, once again focused on plastic production.

The industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels and petrochemical products like plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.

The oil and gas industry understands that it is increasingly being replaced by cheaper, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and battery power. A recent report found that demand for oil may have peaked in 2019. Petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industry’s desperate attempt to remain relevant in a post-carbon world.

According to the American Chemistry Council, the petrochemical industry proposed $200 billion worth of new and expanding projects between 2010 and 2018. These projects are largely planned for the Gulf Coast, but the industry is also planning a second “petrochemical hub” in Appalachia.

Other countries are also expanding their petrochemical capacity. While many are extracting oil and gas within their borders, others have been influenced by the fracking boom in the United States and are importing petrochemical feedstock from the shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states.

Research suggests that the industry’s bet on plastic won’t be nearly as profitable as originally expected. Meanwhile, fenceline communities are left shouldering the health impacts.



Gulf Coast Buildout


There are over 100 planned or recently completed petrochemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana alone, in addition to many more existing sites.

The Gulf Coast petrochemical expansion also includes a number of proposed and expanded plastic manufacturing facilities. Major projects include Formosa Plastic’s proposed ethane cracker complex in Saint James Parish, Louisiana which would produce polyethylene, polypropylene (types of plastic) and ethylene glycol (to make polyester and antifreeze). Another isa recently constructed ethane cracker plant (the world’s largest) in San Patricio County, Texas, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and SABIC. The project, called Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, will manufacture monoethylene glycol (for polyester and plastic products) and polyethylene plastic. These projects have faced resistance and delays from frontline communities, who are already facing negative health impacts from existing petrochemical infrastructure.

Equistar Chemicals, Dow Chemical Company, Formosa Plastics, and Ineos USA are also expanding their ethylene production capacity at existing facilities. And other types of petrochemical facilities, including methanol plants from South Louisiana Methanol and Big Lake Fuels, have also attempted to expand along the Gulf Coast.



Ohio River Valley Buildout


Fracking has opened the oil and gas floodgates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Along the Ohio River, the Marcellus Shale is rich in petrochemical feedstock (natural gas liquids, or “wet gas”) and the oil and gas industry is eager to turn this region into a second major petrochemical hub.



The Marcellus and Utica shale plays, which are thousands of feet below Earth. Lines show estimates of parts of shale plays rich in wet gas (ethane, propane, butane) versus dry gas (methane) based on figures from Penn State Marcellus Center and the Energy Information Administration.


West Virginia has a long history of chemical industries. Major chemical companies like Union Carbide, DuPont, and Dow have all exploited the region’s vast coal, oil, gas, and salt reserves. The Kanawha River Valley has one of the highest concentrations of chemical facilities in the country, earning it the nickname Chemical Valley. These facilities produce explosives, antifreeze, solvents, pesticides, PFAS “forever” chemicals, chlorine, and other chemical products.

Industry officials have called the fracking boom a “renaissance” for the state’s chemical companies, but so far the petrochemical promises have largely been smoke and mirrors. Plus, this industry has left a long legacy of pollution and a rebirth of the undrinkable water and toxic air that residents have endured for decades leaves much to be desired.

Industry leaders have paraded the potential for five ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley Region to convert fracked ethane gas into polyethylene plastic. The Shell ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, is the first ethane cracker to be built outside the Gulf Coast in 20 years. A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio, although its owner, PTT Global Chemical, has not made a final investment decision, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. The setbacks of this project could impact another major petrochemical project in the region, the Mountaineer Storage Hub, which would store fracked gas liquids in underground salt caverns along the Ohio River.

There are many other signs that point towards the petrochemical industry’s predictions for the Ohio River Valley being overly ambitious. An ethane cracker proposed by Braskem and Odebrecht fell through after Odebrecht filed for bankruptcy and its CEO was sentenced to prison for corruption. While public officials have been courting ExxonMobil to build an ethane cracker in southwest Pennsylvania, in late 2020, an Exxon spokesperson has stated that there are no active plans for an ethane cracker in the state.

In 2017, China Energy Investment Corp. signed an agreement to invest $83.7 billion in oil, gas, and petrochemical development in West Virginia. West Virginia’s public officials touted the likelihood of new projects breaking ground within a year, but as of early 2022, there’s been no news on what happened to that $83.7 billion. The details of the agreement have not been made public, but it’s not legally binding.

The Appalachian Development Group sought a $1.9 billion loan from the Department of Energy, and an additional $1.4 billion from private investment to develop a petrochemical storage and trading hub. However, the loan in question was designed for clean energy projects, and a recent amendment solidified that this loan could only go towards projects that “avoid, reduce, or sequester” greenhouse gasses.



Ineos, Europe’s largest plastic producer, is investing billions in importing fracked gas from the US to make plastics in Europe. Source: Plastic Atlas. 2019.

Health & Safety


Petrochemicals can be toxic —you’d never want to inhale benzene or take a gulp of toluene. For one, they’re often highly flammable so there’s an explosion risk when it comes to transporting and processing them. For another, they contain toxic chemical characteristics that pose short and long term risks.

The process of turning toxic chemicals into consumer products presents health threats. And when these products break down back into those original components, either during use or disposal, there’s the potential for a health threat to emerge once again.



Air Pollution & Health


Petrochemical facilities are major sources of air pollution.

Like most industries, petrochemical plants are large sources of many of the criteria pollutants regulated under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide).

Another class of pollutants emitted by petrochemical facilities are volatile organic compounds (VOC), a class of compounds that vaporize into a gas at normal temperature and pressure.

When you walk into a freshly painted room, you’re breathing in VOCs; you’ll probably feel ok for a little bit, but if you stay in the room for a while, you’ll likely develop a headache. While some VOCs are harmless or safe at low doses, VOC exposure from petrochemical plants like ethane crackers pose a real health risk to frontline communities. Health outcomes include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea, as well as chronic impacts at high doses like kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage.

It’s important to note that many of these pollutants are invisible – making it critical that fenceline air monitors are in place and that residents have access to this information in a way that is easy to understand. Additionally, biomonitoring in conjunction with air monitoring can better assess health risks the public is exposed to (for example, testing for toxins in residents’/workers’ urine or blood).

For more on this topic, check out:



Water Pollution & Health


Petrochemical facilities are built near bodies of water because they require a lot of water for their operations and because they need to ship products and equipment by barge.



Ethylene crackers in the United States, data from the EIA, and modified using various sources, including Environmental Integrity Project to reflect the status of projects (Environmental Integrity Project (2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


For example, at an ethane cracker site, a giant structure called a quench tower uses large volumes of water to cool ethylene. The water becomes contaminated with hydrocarbons, benzene, styrene, and other VOCs in the process. While water must be treated before being discharged into waterways, all ethane crackers are still permitted to discharge dozens of contaminants. For example, Shell’s ethane cracker in Pennsylvania is permitted to release various amounts of toxics into the Ohio River each day: an average of 0.39 pounds of benzene per day,  0.22 pounds of chloroform, and 3.41 pounds of trichloroethylene. These small amounts add up, and combined with neighboring polluters, can lead to dangerous levels of chemicals entering downstream water intakes.

Another pathway for pollutants to enter waterways is through the (sometimes highly concerning) ways the industry disposes of waste, and the leachate or runoff created at landfills that could contaminate ground or surface waters.

Wastewater discharges and water runoff are regulated in an effort to protect public health and ecosystems. However the experience of frontline communities calls into question the adequacy of regulations and enforcement of water pollution measures:

  • From 1997 to 2001, a Dow Chemical Plant contaminated the water for residents of a Louisiana community with vinyl chloride, eventually forcing people to leave the area. This chemical is used to make PVC and has been linked to liver cancer, nerve damage, circulatory problems, reproductive problems, and skin lesions. The Louisiana Department of Health detected the problem but failed to tell residents. In 2011, Dow entered an agreement with the EPA and state environmental agency to keep vinyl chloride out of the city’s water. Yet the problem persisted. In 2013, a state judge found Dow partially responsible for the vinyl chloride found in the water supply, and a report filed in 2019 found again high levels of vinyl chloride in their water wells.
  • For years, Formosa Plastics released small bits of plastic, called nurdles, from its ethane cracker into Lavaca Bay in Texas in violation of the Clean Water Act. Marine life and birds often mistake nurdles for food and eat them, which can harm or kill the animals, and introduces potential toxins into the food chain. Luckily, dedicated environmental activists led by Diane Wilson painstakingly collected evidence of this illegal dumping for years, and in 2019, they won a $50 million settlement. The money is going towards environmental restoration projects.
  • There’s also the risk of accidents and spills, such as the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia. A ruptured storage tank caused 5,000 gallons of an industrial chemical to spill into the river, leaving over 300,000 residents without usable water. This event was a clear example that the systems in place to protect water are broken.

The rivers most threatened by recent petrochemical expansion, the Ohio and the Mississippi, are already the country’s most polluted rivers. Yet discharge permits generally fail to assess the cumulative impacts of the industry on these rivers.

For more on this topic, check out:



Do public agencies protect us?


Air and water pollution from petrochemical plants are permitted by public agencies, with the goal of keeping emissions at healthy thresholds. However, public agencies have repeatedly demonstrated a failure to protect public health:

Lack of Guidelines – For example, plants may emit pollutants that aren’t fully understood or lack regulatory guidelines. In Louisiana, a DuPont petrochemical facility was emitting chloroprene (a chemical used to manufacture neoprene) for decades before the EPA categorized it as a “likely carcinogen” in 2010. It took another 6 years before regulators established an air monitoring plan for chloroprene and began updating the plant’s chloroprene permit.

Self Policing – There’s also the fact that the regulatory framework in place largely relies on industries to self-police. That same petrochemical facility, now owned by Denka, regularly exceeds its emission standards. Meanwhile, residents living near the facility face the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the country.

Exceeding emissions isn’t a unique occurrence for petrochemical plants. A recent investigation found 10 oil refineries releasing benzene at levels above the federal action limit and at levels that could cause as many as four additional cancers per 10,000 people exposed to them. For some plant operators, violating permits and paying a fine if caught may simply be written off as the cost of doing business.

Leaks & Fugitive Emissions – “Fugitive emissions” through leaks are an additional concern. According to the EPA, leaking equipment is “the largest source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and volatile hazardous air pollutants (VHAPs) from petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities.” The EPA reports “approximately 70,367 tons per year of VOCs and 9,357 tons per year of HAPs have been emitted from equipment leaks.”

Weak Existing Regulations – Finally, there is the question of whether existing regulations are stringent enough to protect our health. A 2020 study found that “strengthening U.S. air quality standards for fine particulate pollution to be in compliance with current World Health Association (WHO) guidelines could save more than 140,000 lives over the course of a decade.”

In some cases, facilities aren’t even required to meet modern standards. The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is using a water permit that was grandfathered in from the previous industrial facility at the site, which is not up to current standards. The state limit for total dissolved solids (TDS) in wastewater discharged into a waterway was updated in 2010 to be 2,000 mg/L. Shell’s permit estimates that the TDS concentrations for the wastewater it is discharging into the Ohio River will be 4,690 mg/L to 7,375 mg/L.

By allowing the Shell ethane cracker to skirt these regulations, the DEP is not adhering to their own guidelines, accommodating Shell instead.



Emergency Incidents & Safety


As large industrial facilities that handle flammable materials, petrochemical facilities are at risk of explosion. The possibility for emergency incidents and “plant upsets” (forced shutdowns caused by mechanical problems, power outages or some other unplanned event) can release sizable amounts of toxic pollutants, seriously threatening public health and safety.

For residents of the Houston, Texas area petrochemical accidents are more a question of when and not if. In 2019, a number of industrial incidents hit the region. In March, there was a chemical fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery and a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company, a chemical storage facility, which reignited days later. Then there was an explosion at the KMCO chemical manufacturing plant that killed a worker and injured two others. In July, a fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery sent over 30 people to the hospital with injuries. In November, an explosion at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant forced residents within a half mile to evacuate, and many more to shelter in place.

Many industrial accidents can be attributed to inadequate enforcement of environmental and safety regulations. An analysis of hazardous liquid pipeline incidents by FracTracker Alliance found that 60% of incidents over the past 10 years were caused by equipment failure or incorrect operation (hazardous liquids include natural gas liquids, refined petroleum products, and crude oil).

Another factor impeding safety is the industry’s lack of transparency. Oftentimes, emergency management personnel are not informed about what type of chemicals are stored on industrial sites. They’re also often not consulted in the permit approval process – leaving out the expertise of those who best understand a community’s safety needs.

Climate change exacerbates the risks of emergency incidents. As mentioned earlier, Hurricane Ida resulted in some of the worst chemical releases ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.

To learn more about emergencies at ethane crackers, view our article Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure.



Downstream Health Impacts: Use and Disposal


Even if you don’t live near a petrochemical plant, you’re still in contact with petrochemical products like plastic every day (even you, cryptopygus antarcticus!). Using certain plastic products exposes us to toxins that have been associated with adverse carcinogenic, developmental, and endocrine-disrupting impacts. In addition to plastic, the petrochemicals that make up products in things like pesticides, paints, perfumes, and carpeting have health impacts too. Synthetic fertilizer (which is made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), can run off into surface water during rain events, leading to oxygen depletion in waterways and fish kills.

Finally, there’s the issue of disposal. Since only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, dealing with the incredible volume of waste from plastic and other petrochemical products is a major occupational and public health concern. There is no country with the resources or system in place to properly deal with all of the trash that comes from single-use plastic. While countries like the United States can ship plastic trash to other countries to keep the problem “out of sight, out of mind,” it has to end up somewhere, and often that is in rivers, oceans, city streets, and incinerators.

The Center for International Environmental Law, with input from FracTracker,  produced a report on the health impacts of plastic across its lifecycle – from fracking to microplastic pollution to incineration. Key health impacts from each stage are in the graphic below.



It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about the toxics in our environment. We need regulatory agencies to invoke the precautionary principle to protect our health and to stop permitting new plastic facilities. Getting involved in local efforts to support zero waste systems in your community is a great way to take action to prevent these harmful impacts.

For more on this topic, check out:

Economics



Global Perspective


Roughly a decade ago, around 2009-2013, global markets were looking favorable for petrochemical manufacturing. Advancements in fracking technology had led to an oversupply of  oil and gas, keeping prices low, and global demand for plastic was increasing.

The oil and gas industry has lost billions of dollars from the fracking industry, and is facing increased competition from renewables. Companies began looking towards investment in petrochemicals as a way to profit from the surplus of oil and gas. Multinational corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, Formosa Plastics, and ExxonMobil drew up plans to build over a dozen new ethane crackers in the United States to turn oil and gas into polyethylene plastic.



Recently added and new ethylene production capacity. IEEFA March 2020 report, “Proposed PTTGC Petrochemical Complex in Ohio Faces Significant Risks Source”


But the expansion wasn’t limited to the United States. Petrochemical companies planned to build new ethane crackers in China, Iran, India, Russia, Indonesia, and South Korea as well.

The expansion led to an oversupply of ethylene in the global market. The ambitious plans made by the petrochemical industry were based on the price of plastic being $1/pound, yet soon after, prices began to drop.

Meanwhile, cities, states, and countries have been working to ban single-use plastic, reducing demand for ethylene. While recycling plastic has in many ways been a failed endeavor, recycled plastics do take an additional hit at demand for virgin plastics.

Complicating factors is the coronavirus pandemic. Near the beginning of the pandemic, many oil, gas, and petrochemical companies announced setbacks. PTTG, a petrochemical company looking to build an ethane cracker in Ohio delayed their decision until 2021, and then delayed it indefinitely, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. Sasol Chemicals stated its Lake Charles Chemical Project will be a $50-100 million loss on the company’s balance sheet instead of the $50-100 million gain that was predicted. Royal Dutch Shell announced it would reduce its spending by $5 billion over that year.

At the same time, corporations have used the pandemic as an excuse to promote single-use plastic and halt plastic bans, despite the fact that health experts have stated reusables are safe and important for preventing other public health risks. The price of plastic has increased since the onset of the pandemic, however as IEEFA reports, with a small number of companies controlling the majority of the market there is a lack of transparency and regulation over prices.

In sum, the economic opportunities created by the petrochemical industry’s expansion are not on track to be nearly as profitable as once predicted.



Local Perspective


How does the petrochemical industry impact a local economy?

Let’s start with the foundation of petrochemicals—oil and gas. While the oil and gas industry can lead to large GDP growth, a relatively small percentage of that money makes its way to the community and even the state where drilling occurs, compared to other industries. This is for several reasons:

  • The new technology that has enabled the fracking boom is highly automated, and requires far fewer workers than conventional oil and gas development. Even in Pennsylvania, the country’s second largest producer of natural gas, there are actually more jobs in renewables, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, and grid modernization than the fossil fuel industry.
  • Many oil and gas operators aren’t headquartered in the state (or country) they’re drilling in, and therefore the wealth they amass goes elsewhere. Many of the workers travel from out of state. Housing and feeding out-of-state workers may provide a temporary economic boost, but one that’s unsustainable if workers decide to leave. Furthermore, companies often source equipment from other states and countries, precluding opportunities for local businesses.
  • The oil and gas industry has a lower “employment multiplier” than it claims. Research suggests that for every oil and gas job created, only 1.3 other jobs are created (learn more about the faulty model  employed to overinflate job estimates).
  • Oil and gas companies pay low state and local taxes and receive subsidies in the form of tax credits and exemptions. A 2019 study found that “conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil.”

The petrochemical industry builds off these factors. Despite the large GDP generated, a small percentage stays in the community where development is taking place, and the number of local jobs is also relatively small given the size of the investment. For example, the $1.65 billion tax break that Pennsylvania gave to Shell to build an ethane cracker will only employ 600 workers (that means that the state is spending $2.75 million for each permanent job created). Food and Water Watch found a similar investment in wind or solar industries would create 16,500 jobs.



Subsidies and Financial Agreements


In addition to receiving the largest tax break in Pennsylvania’s history, the Shell ethane cracker also received a 15-year exemption from state and local taxes – which brings up another important factor—the large tax-payer subsidies given to petrochemical companies.

In Louisiana, a statewide program (ITEP) exempts nearly all manufacturing companies from paying property taxes that would support local budgets, leading to decades of disinvestment from schools, local services, and social safety nets. Between 2006 and 2016, an estimated $13 billion was diverted from local governments because manufacturing companies weren’t paying property taxes. The program was changed in 2016 to allow local officials to reject a company’s request for tax breaks, however, in 2020, Governor Edwards backed a process that allows companies to appeal a local government’s decision to the state board.

Despite the generosity of many state governments, there is limited evidence to support that these large tax credit programs are effective.

In addition to tax breaks, ethane crackers often receive funding from public grants and economic development organizations in the public or non-profit sector. For example, Jobs Ohio gave PTT of Thailand and Daelim Industrial of South Korea $30 million for the PTT ethane cracker, and Texas Enterprise Fund granted $1.35 million to SABIC and $5 million to Exxon for the Exxon-SABIC ethane cracker.

Local investments to support the industry

To make up for these large tax breaks, companies may pledge money to make large investments in a state, repair local infrastructure, support colleges, or fund other community projects. Yet this takes power away from local government and into the hands of international corporations whose bottom line is profit, not the public’s well being.

  • For example, Shell must invest $1 billion in Pennsylvania as part of its tax credit agreement to build an ethane cracker. Shell has donated $1 million to the process technology program at the Community College of Beaver County near the ethane cracker site. The money will be used to create the “Shell Center for Process Technology Education.” According to the local newspaper, this program is heavily influenced by Shell, and will educate local students to work in the petrochemical industry.

The agreements corporations make with the state are designed to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the public, yet they play a major role in influencing the opportunities available for future generations.

Many of the ways oil, gas, and petrochemical companies invest in our communities —such as an oil rig display in the New Orleans aquarium, or pro-oil K-12 curriculum—are designed to influence the public’s perception and acceptance of them.

Boom and bust

These types of industry investments also make local governments dependent on multinational corporations and throw communities onto a boom-and-bust roller coaster. Communities throughout Appalachia based around coal and steel can attest to the devastating impacts that come when a local economy is based around one company or natural resource, and what happens when that company goes bankrupt or the natural resource is no longer profitable.

Influencing elected officials

But why do those in power choose petrochemicals, when state leaders could choose companies that manufacture renewable energy, reclaim brownfields, or build out our public transportation system?

States like Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas sit above the natural resources that companies like Shell and Exxon require, and as some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, they will engage in all of the lobbying and campaign funding necessary to get what they want.

For example, an investigation by Global Witness found that Pennsylvania representatives who voted for a bill that would provide millions in tax breaks to petrochemical companies (HB 1100) received over six times more campaign funds from the oil and gas industry than those who voted no (learn more about updates on this bill).



Externalized Costs


There are also costs that don’t show up on a budget. As mentioned in previous sections, ethane crackers put a tremendous burden on their environment and therefore a community’s health. Corporations don’t have to pay the healthcare costs for increases in asthma, heart disease, or cancer associated with petrochemical facilities. A 2019 study found that the air pollution in the Appalachian Basin has been responsible for 1,200 to 4,600 deaths and comes at a cost of $12 billion to 94 billion in climate impacts.

Petrochemical plants also prevent the land from providing ecosystem services —services that we depend on to breathe, eat, drink, and play.

Picture a healthy, forested acre of land along a river. The plants are sequestering carbon, providing shade, filtering the air, soaking up rain to prevent floods, and regulating the climate; the soil is cycling nutrients and filtering rainwater that drips into aquifers; the land provides habitat for animals and opportunities for people to grow food and medicine and to recreate. The more industrialized the land becomes, the more these services are lost.

You can’t put a price on clean air, water and soil.

Environmental Justice



Percentage of the population that are people of color, and points showing oil, gas, and petrochemical plants.  Data from the EPA EJ Screen (2020 Version), and 2020 datasets from EIAHIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions. These racist practices have led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana—an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s. Residents now call it Death Alley.

The petrochemical industry here is built on a legacy of racism: in a literal sense, as the petrochemical plants literally sit atop former plantations where enslaved people worked and were buried, and symbolically, as the industry benefits from the systemic oppression of Black people that has continued since.



Oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure along the Mississippi River. Mapped by FracTracker, using 2020 datasets from EIAHIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


Beyond race and income, age plays into environmental injustices. West Virginia, home to major chemical companies like Dow and Union Carbide, has one of the highest percentages of its population over 65 in the country. Older people are also more likely to develop chronic or serious health outcomes from exposure to pollution.

The second aspect of environmental justice—the meaningful participation in decisions that impact one’s environment—is also violated by the petrochemical industry. The decision to permit a petrochemical plant ultimately comes down to a small group of elected officials and doesn’t guarantee the meaningful participation of all residents.

There are many factors impeding meaningful participation. Permit documents for petrochemical facilities are long and complicated, and nearly impossible to interpret without advice from experts. Permits for some proposed facilities are pushed forward without public hearings and/or with a short window of opportunity to provide a comment. Even when the public does voice strong opposition to a facility, it can be greenlighted anyway.

These barriers are exacerbated for non-English speakers, as hearings and notices are often not offered in other languages, even in regions where many of the residents don’t speak English.



Percentage of the population that are linguistically isolated, and points showing oil, gas, and petrochemical plants.   Mapped by FracTracker, using 2020 datasets from EIAHIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


Despite the power of the petrochemical industry, frontline communities have achieved major victories. They have forced the nation to wake up to environmental racism perpetuated by the petrochemical industry, particularly in the Gulf Coast, changing policy at the federal level. Volunteer and grassroots groups have achieved victories fighting for language justice and public participation, and taken responsibility to conduct air and water monitoring that is vital for public health. Collectively, these efforts have stopped and delayed plans for polluting infrastructure, while also fostering important conversations about how to restore environments and communities impacted by decades of extractive industries and systemic oppression.



Boomtowns


The construction of petrochemical complexes like an ethane cracker bring an influx of workers to the region. You’ve probably heard stories about “boomtowns” throughout United States history—the gold rush in California, oilfields in Texas and Oklahoma, fracking in North Dakota. They’re stories of wealth and opportunity for some, and oppression and violence for others. The gold rush in the Western United States relied on labor of enslaved people and accelerated the genocide of Indigenous people. Sadly, these patterns continue today. Indigenous women and girls have faced increased crime and sexual violence since North Dakota’s fracking boom began in 2006, a reality that is widespread throughout North America. So-called “man camps”—temporary communities established for oil and gas workers—have been associated with increased rates of sexual violence and sex trafficking.

A sudden rise in population can strain community services and infrastructure, including human and social services. This can be a bigger issue in rural areas where public services cover large expanses of land.

Protecting marginalized communities from exploitation and violence is a much larger issue than stopping a petrochemical plant. But as a first step, communities experiencing rapid population growth must take social justice concerns seriously, and leaders should work with community members to address their concerns.

Climate


The petrochemical industry is an extension of the fossil fuel industry, and as such, it is a major threat to the climate. In fact, the petrochemical industry is the fastest growing oil consumer, and the International Energy Agency predicts the sector will make up half of oil demand by 2050.

The Gulf Coast is vulnerable to hurricanes which are increasing in intensity due to climate change. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey disrupted over one-third of the country’s chemical production. When Hurricane Ida hit in 2021, it flooded Louisiana and damaged homes, but it also impacted petrochemical plants, which as a result polluted the environment even more through spills, leaks, flaring, and venting; in fact these chemical releases may be some of the worst ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.

The petrochemical industry is eager to increase its production capacity elsewhere, namely the Ohio River Valley, simultaneously fleeing and causing climate change.



Oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, alongside land area impacted by tidal flooding. Mapped by FracTracker using 2019 and 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and EPA FLIGHT and NOAA.


Not only does the petrochemical industry create a demand for operators to extract more oil and gas, but the entire petrochemical lifecycle emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

The Center for International Environmental Law produced the report  Plastic & Climate with contributions from FracTracker, analyzing emissions from the entire plastic lifecycle, from extraction to the disposal of plastic. It found that in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced over 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s equal to emissions from 189 coal power plants.

The same report found that if plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions would be 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030 and by 2050, plastic could be responsible for 10 – 13% of the entire global carbon budget.

The images below from Plastic & Climate show the permitted greenhouse gas emissions from the petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley and the greenhouse gas emissions from ethylene crackers in the Gulf Coast.



 Plastic & Climate, CIEL, May 15, 2019



Plastic & Climate, CIEL, May 15, 2019


There are also a number of hidden ways petrochemical manufacturing impacts the climate: clearing trees for pipeline right-of-ways and petrochemical infrastructure releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and keeping this land clear stops the land from capturing more carbon. When plastic pollution degrades in the environment, it releases methane and other greenhouse gases once again.

Many politicians and industries tout the ways plastic is part of a sustainable future, saying that

plastic is a lightweight material that makes cars more fuel efficient. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the expansion of the industry will be catering to just cars or reusable items. In fact, with the biggest use of plastic being packaging, the buildout will contribute to the growing crisis of single use plastic pollution.

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Shell’s Falcon Pipeline Under Investigation for Serious Public Safety Threats

 

VIEW MAP & DATA

Breaking News

The Falcon Ethane Pipeline System is at the center of major investigations into possible noncompliance with construction and public safety requirements and failing to report drilling mud spills, according to documents obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) by FracTracker Alliance. These investigations, which are yet to be released, also uncovered instances of alleged data falsification in construction reports and Shell Pipeline Company firing employees in retaliation for speaking up about these issues.

3/17/21 Press release: https://www.fractracker.org/falcon-investigation-press-release-fractraccker-alliance/

Key Takeaways

  • Shell’s Falcon Pipeline, which is designed to carry ethane to the Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, PA for plastic production, has been under investigation by federal and state agencies, since 2019. The construction of the pipeline is nearing completion.
  • Allegations in these investigations include issues with the pipeline’s coating, falsified reports, and retaliation against workers who spoke about issues.
  • Organizations are calling on public agencies to take action to protect public welfare and the environment along the entire pipeline route through Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
  • These investigations reveal yet another example of the life-threatening risks brought on by the onslaught of pipeline construction in the Ohio River Valley in the wake in the fracking boom. They also reveal the failure of public agencies to protect us, as documents reveal the federal agency that oversees pipeline safety did not adequately respond to serious accusations brought to its attention by a whistleblower.
  • These new concerns are coming to light as people across the country are demanding bold action on plastic pollution and the climate crisis through campaigns such as Build Back Fossil Free, Plastic Free President, and Future Beyond Shell. On a local level, residents in the Ohio River Valley continue to shoulder the health burdens of the fracking industry, despite a recent ban on fracking in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, which a growing body of scientific evidence verifies. The Falcon Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas for plastic production, is directly at odds with these demands.

Shell’s attempts to cut corners while constructing this 98-mile pipeline, likely motivated by the increasingly bleak economic prospects of this project, present serious public safety concerns for the thousands of residents along its route in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.

These allegations are serious enough to warrant immediate action. We’re calling on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to thoroughly examine these allegations and suspend construction if not yet completed, or, in the case that construction is complete, operation of the Falcon Pipeline. Furthermore, we call on state environmental regulators to fully investigate construction incidents throughout the entire pipeline route, require Shell Pipeline to complete any necessary remediation, including funding independent drinking water testing, and take enforcement action to hold Shell accountable. Read our letters to these agencies here.

These investigations were featured in a March 17th article by Anya Litvak in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

3/18/21 update:

Additional coverage of this story was published in a Times Online article by Daveen Ray Kurutz, a StateImpact Pennsylvania article by Reid Frazier, and an Observer-Reporter article by Rick Shrum.

Pipeline workers speak out

According to documents obtained through a public records request, a whistleblower contacted PHMSA in 2019 with serious concerns about the Falcon, including that the pipeline may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating. PHMSA is a federal agency that regulates pipeline operation. The whistleblower also shared environmental threats occurring within the DEP’s jurisdiction, prompting the PA DEP and Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to get involved.

Many of the issues with the Falcon relate to a construction method used to install pipelines beneath sensitive areas like roads and rivers called horizontal directional drilling (HDD). Shell Pipeline contracted Ellingson Trenchless LLC to complete over 20 HDDs along the Falcon, including crossings beneath drinking water sources such as the Ohio River and its tributaries. FracTracker and DeSmog Blog previously reported on major drilling mud spills Shell caused while constructing HDDs and how public agencies have failed to regulate these incidents.

Falcon Pipeline Horizontal Directional Drilling locations and fluid losses

This map shows the Falcon Pipeline’s HDD crossings and spills of drilling fluid spills that occurred through 3/5/2020. To see the data sources, click on the information icon found in the upper right corner of the map header as well as under the map address bar.

View Map Full Sized | Updated 6/16/20

 

PHMSA’s incomplete investigation

Correspondence between the PA DEP and PHMSA from February 26, 2020 reveal the gravity of the situation. While PHMSA conducted an inquiry into the whistleblower’s complaints in 2019 and concluded there were no deficiencies, PA DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote that his agency felt it was incomplete and urged PHMSA to conduct a more thorough investigation. Secretary McDonnell noted the PA DEP “has received what appears to be credible information that sections of Shell’s Falcon Pipeline project in western PA, developed for the transportation of ethane liquid, may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating protection,” and that “corroded pipes pose a possible threat of product release, landslide, or even explosions.”

FracTracker submitted a Freedom of Information Act request with PHMSA asking for documents pertaining to this inquiry, and was directed to the agency’s publicly available enforcement action webpage. The page shows that PHMSA opened a case into the Falcon on July 16, 2020, five months after Secretary McDonnell sent the letter. PHMSA sent Shell Pipeline Company a Notice of Amendment citing several inadequacies with the Falcon’s construction, including:

  • inadequate written standards for visual inspection of pipelines;
  • inadequate written standards that address pipeline location as it pertains to proximity to buildings and private dwellings;
  • compliance with written standards addressing what actions should be taken if coating damage is observed during horizontal directional drill pullback; and
  • inadequate welding procedures

Shell responded with its amended procedures on July 27, 2020, and PHMSA closed the case on August 13, 2020.

Of note, PHMSA states it is basing this Notice on an inspection conducted between April 9th and 11th, 2019, when construction on the Falcon had only recently started. PHMSA has con­firmed its in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the Falcon is on­go­ing, however we question the accuracy of self reported data given to PHMSA inspectors should be questioned

The PA DEP also brought the matter to the attention of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Timeline of events in the Falcon investigation

Public knowledge of these investigations is limited. Here’s what we know right now. Click on the icons or the event descriptions for links to source documents.

Ohio and West Virginia

The Falcon pipeline also crosses through Ohio and briefly, West Virginia. While we do not know how these states are involved in these investigations, our past analyses raise concerns about the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s (OEPA) ability to regulate the pipeline’s HDD crossings.

One of the focuses of the Pennsylvania DEP’s investigation is the failure to report drilling fluid spills that occur while constructing a HDD crossing. The PA DEP shut down all HDD operations in November, 2019 and forced Shell to use monitors to calculate spills, as was stated in permit applications.

 

A horizontal directional drilling (HDD) construction site for the Falcon Pipeline in Southview, Washington County, Pennsylvania. You can see where the drilling mud has returned to the surface in the top left of the photo. Photo by Cyberhawk obtained by FracTracker Alliance through a right-to-know request with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

 

 

The Falcon Pipeline’s HDD locations are often close to neighborhoods, like the HOU-02 crossing in Southview, Washington County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Cyberhawk obtained by FracTracker Alliance through a right-to-know request with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

 

To our knowledge, the OEPA did not enforce this procedure, instead relying on workers to manually calculate and report spills. Shell’s failure to accurately self-report raises concerns about the safety of the Falcon’s HDD crossings in Ohio, including the crossing beneath the Ohio River, just upstream of drinking water intakes for Toronto and Steubenville, Ohio.

Public water system wells, intakes, and Drinking Water Source Protection Areas nears the Falcon Pipeline Route

Public water system wells, intakes, and Drinking Water Source Protection Areas nears the Falcon Pipeline Route. Note, the pipeline route may have slightly changed since this map was produced. Source: Ohio EPA

 

The Shell ethane cracker

The Falcon is connected to one of Shell’s most high-profile projects: a $6 billion to $10 billion plastic manufacturing plant, commonly referred to as the Shell ethane cracker, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. These massive projects represent the oil and gas industry’s far-fetched dream of a new age of manufacturing in the region that would revolve around converting fracked gas into plastic, much of which would be exported overseas.

Many in the Ohio River Valley have raised serious concerns over the public health implications of a petrochemical buildout. The United States’ current petrochemical hub is in the Gulf Coast, including a stretch of Louisiana known colloquially as “Cancer Alley” because of the high risk of cancer from industrial pollution.

Construction of the ethane cracker and the Falcon pipeline have forged forward during the COVID-19 pandemic. In another example of the culture of fear at the worksite, several workers expressed concern that speaking publicly about unsafe working conditions that made social distancing impossible would cost them their jobs. Yet the state has allowed work to continue on at the plant, going so far as to grant Shell the approval to continue work without the waiver most businesses had to obtain. As of December 2020, over 274 Shell workers had contracted the coronavirus.

Weak outlook for Shell’s investment

While the oil and gas industry had initially planned several ethane crackers for the region, all companies except for Shell have pulled out or put their plans on hold, likely due to the industry’s weak financial outlook.

A June 2020 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), stated that:

Royal Dutch Shell owes a more complete explanation to shareholders and the people of Pennsylvania of how it is managing risk. Shell remains optimistic regarding the prospects for its Pennsylvania Petrochemical Complex in Beaver County, Penn. The complex, which is expected to open in 2021 or 2022, is part of a larger planned buildout of plastics capacity in the Ohio River Valley and the U.S. IEEFA concludes that the current risk profile indicates the complex will open to market conditions that are more challenging than when the project was planned. The complex is likely to be less profitable than expected and face an extended period of financial distress.

Many of Pennsylvania’s elected officials have gone to great lengths to support this project. The Corbett administration enticed Shell to build this plastic factory in Pennsylvania by offering Shell a tax break for each barrel of fracked gas it buys from companies in the state and converts to plastic (valued at $66 million each year). The state declared the construction site a Keystone Opportunity Zone, giving Shell a 15-year exemption from state and local taxes. In exchange, Shell had to provide at least 2,500 temporary construction jobs and invest $1 billion in the state, giving the company an incredible amount of power to decide where resources are allocated in Pennsylvania.

Would the state have asked Shell for more than 2,500 construction jobs if it knew these jobs could be taken away when workers spoke out against life-threatening conditions? Will the politicians who have hailed oil and gas as the only job creator in the region care when workers are forced to hide their identity when communicating with public agencies?

States fail to regulate the oil and gas industry

The PA DEP appears to have played a key role in calling for this investigation, yet the agency itself was recently at the center of a different investigation led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. The resulting Investigating Grand Jury Report revealed systematic failure by the PA DEP and the state’s Department of Health to regulate the unconventional oil and gas industry. One of the failures was that the Department seldom referred environmental crimes to the Attorney General’s Office, which must occur before the Office has the authority to prosecute.

The Office of Attorney General is involved in this investigation, which the PA DEP is referring to as noncriminal.

The Grand Jury Report also cited concerns about “the revolving door” that shuffled PA DEP employees into higher-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry. The report cited examples of PA DEP employees skirting regulations to perform special favors for companies they wished to be hired by. The watchdog research organization Little Sis listed 47 fracking regulators in Pennsylvania that have moved back and forth between the energy industry, including Shell’s Government Relations Advisor, John Hines.

National attention on pipelines and climate

The Falcon Pipeline sits empty as people across the nation are amping up pressure on President Biden to pursue bold action in pursuit of environmental justice and a just transition to clean energy. Following Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, Indigenous leaders are calling for him to shut down other projects including Enbridge Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Over a hundred groups representing millions of people have signed on to the Build Back Fossil Free campaign, imploring Biden to create new jobs through climate mobilization. Americans are also pushing Biden to be a Plastic Free President and take immediate action to address plastic pollution by suspending and denying permits for new projects like the Shell ethane cracker that convert fracked gas into plastic.

If brought online, the Falcon pipeline and Shell ethane cracker will lock in decades of more fracking, greenhouse gasses, dangerous pollution, and single-use plastic production.

Just as concerning, Shell will need to tighten its parasitic grip on the state’s economic and legislative landscape to keep this plant running. Current economic and political conditions are not favorable for the Shell ethane cracker: financial analysts report that its profits will be significantly less than originally presented. If the plant is brought online, Shell’s lobbyists and public relations firms will be using every tactic to create conditions that support Shell’s bottom line, not the well-being of residents in the Ohio River Valley. Politicians will be encouraged to pass more preemptive laws to block bans on plastic bags and straws to keep up demand for the ethane cracker’s product. Lobbyists will continue pushing for legislation that imposes harsh fines and felony charges on people who protest oil and gas infrastructure, while oil and gas companies continue to fund police foundations. Shell will ensure that Pennsylvania keeps extracting fossil fuels to feed its ethane cracker.

The Falcon pipeline is at odds with global demands to address plastic and climate crises. As these new documents reveal, it also poses immediate threats to residents along its route. While we’re eager for more information from state and federal agencies to understand the details of this investigation, it’s clear that there is no safe way forward with the Falcon Pipeline.

Royal Dutch Shell has been exerting control over people through the extraction of their natural resources ever since it began drilling for oil in Dutch and British colonies in the 19th Century. What will it take to end its reign?

 

References & Where to Learn More

Topics in this Article

Health & Safety | Legislation & Politics | Petrochemicals & Plastics | Pipelines

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Mapping intersectionality: Empowering youth addressing plastics

VIEW MAP & DATA

Overview

A new collaboration between FracTracker Alliance and Algalita is aiming to help middle school and high school students understand the connection between plastics and fracking and the wide ranging implications for climate change, environmental injustice, and human health.


Most young people today understand that plastics are problematic. But, there is still often a disconnect between the symptom of plastics in our oceans, and the root causes of the problem. Algalita’s mission is to empower a new generation of critical thinkers to shift the broken and unjust systems that are causing the plastic pollution crisis. Algalita’s strategy is creating educational experiences directly with the movement’s diverse leaders, and this new project with FracTracker is a perfect example. 

Specifically, Algalita and FracTracker have been working together to add new lessons to Algalita’s brand-new online, gamified, action platform: Wayfinder Society. Through this program, students can guide their own exploration of the complexities of the plastics issue, and can take action at their own pace and scale, by completing lessons and action-items (called Waymarks) based on difficulty, topic, and type of impact. 

The first of two FracTracker Waymarks outlines the connection between fracking and plastic production. Students explore a map showing the full plastics production process from fracking pads, to pipelines, to ethane crackers, and packaging factories. 

In a second Waymark that builds off of the first, students explore the massive petrochemical buildout on the Gulf Coast and in the Ohio River Valley. The map allows students to analyze the greenhouse gas emissions predicted for this buildout using the data point pop-up boxes. They can also examine the effects of climate change on communities amongst the buildout by viewing the coastal flood zone areas in Texas and Louisiana. Beyond that, students can investigate how facilities are impacting their peers in schools close to massive ethane cracker facilities. Finally, students are introduced to the movement’s #PlasticFreePresident Campaign, giving them a direct action to apply their new knowledge. 

Mapping Fracking’s Link to Plastic Production

This StoryMap was created by FracTracker for Wayfinder Society, a program by Algalita. Learn more at Algalita.org. Place your cursor over the image and scroll down to advance the StoryMap and explore a series of maps charting the fracking-for-plastic system. Click on the icon in the bottom left to view the legend. Scroll to the end of the StoryMap to learn more and access the data sources.

View Full Sized Map | Updated 11/20

 

Algalita is excited about this partnership for so many reasons. For one, GIS is a critical skill for young people to learn. These two Waymarks pose an accessible and non-intimidating introduction to ArcGIS by using simple maps and StoryMaps like the one above. The maps let students get comfortable with GIS concepts and capabilities like layers, data attribute tables, measuring tools, and filters. Allowing students to explore how plastics are produced through a geographical lens provides a unique visual and interactive experience for them. The goal is for students to be able to connect petrochem buildout, with the plastics, climate and justice issues that they are focusing on often separately. Our aim is that by putting this part of the story in context of real physical space they will more easily make those connections. We hope these lessons spark some students’ interest in mapping, geography, and GIS, providing a new generation of changemakers with GIS in their toolbox. 

On top of that, we are stoked to be building this partnership with FracTracker because the success of our collective movement depends on strong, clear communication and synergies between the nodes of the movement’s network.  The FracTracker Waymarks give our Wayfinders direct access to real-time data, visualizations, and expert insights that they can then use to level-up their actions and stories around their activism. And, they connect the dots not just for students, but also for educators and movement partners like us at Algalita we are all for this powerful lever for change!

Check out Wayfinder Society here. Access the FracTracker Waymarks here and here but you’ll need to be logged in. If you’re a student, get started by creating a profile, and then start earning Cairns (points)! If you’re an educator, parent or mentor, and interested in exploring the site, email us here for the guest login. 

By Anika Ballent, Education Director, Algalita

Algalita empowers a new generation of critical thinkers who will shift the broken and unjust systems that are causing the plastic pollution crisis.  We do this by offering educational experiences created directly with the movement’s diverse leaders.

Anika has been working in the movement against plastic pollution for ten years, studying microplastics in benthic and freshwater environments. She brings together her science background and creativity to educate young changemakers through hands-on experiences in schools, Algalita’s International Youth Summit, and online programs.


References & Where to Learn More

Algalita.org

Data Sources:

ATEX Pipeline: EIA

Railroad: Selection from ArcGIS online

Process information: Houston Chronicle

Falcon Pipeline: Shell/AECOM and FracTracker Alliance

Mariner East 2 Pipeline: PA DEP

Greenhouse gas emission increases: Environmental Integrity Project. (2020, November 30). Emission Increase Database. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.

All other data points were mapped by FracTracker Alliance referencing various online sources. While this map is based on actual infrastructure, it is intended as a model of the fracking-for-plastic lifecycle and certain steps may vary in real life.

Topics in This Article

Petrochemicals & Plastics


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Channels of Life: The Gulf Coast Buildout in Texas

It’s been a little over a year since I visited the Texas Gulf Coast to document the oil, gas, and petrochemical landscape with our partners at LightHawk and Scott Humphries, an amazing pilot and Houston native.

Much has happened since then – in regard to and because of – the Gulf Coast’s petrochemical industry.

The fossil fuel landscape along the Gulf Coast is broad, and its impact is heavy.

The area has seen a massive build out over the last five years. New plastics and steel manufacturing facilities and pipelines from the Permian Basin that transport crude to ever-expanding tank farms and marine terminals – all with the blessings of local economic development groups and local government, despite known present and potential hazards.

As these developments continue, communities and workers pay the price. An incident in early December, 2020 left workers injured after a condensate fire at a Citgo tank farm in Corpus Christi. Before that, a pipeline explosion on August 20th in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel resulted in four deaths, with only two of those bodies recovered.

Channels of Life, below, is a short video looking at what is already on the ground, and what is on the horizon. Whether you are pleasure-boating in the channels or driving down the highway, you only see the edge of industrial sprawl that already exists. The depth of the incursion is not visible from the ground. Further down in an interactive Story Map, we give you a rare look from above, while pinpointing various incidents and facilities of concern. Partnering with LightHawk, we flew from Port Aransas, up the La Quinta Channel to the Nueces Delta, and ending at Refinery Row, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling fossil fuel landscape.

How much more industrial saturation can the Coastal Bend’s public health and ecosystem withstand before it is all sacrificed?

Is it destined to become a sacrifice zone for increasing corporate wealth and prestige?

 

 

Channels of Life

In many parts of Texas – as well as in Louisiana and New Mexico – oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities abut schools, backyards, and playgrounds. The Gulf Coast contains 95% of the country’s ethylene capacity and roughly half of the country’s petroleum refining and natural gas processing capacity. This development has propelled a new wave of petroleum and petrochemical infrastructure in recent years. There are 129 planned or recently completed petrochemical facilities in TX and LA alone.

This buildout has enormous consequences for the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, including intensifying climate change; increasing production of (often radioactive) waste and the need for its disposal; and discharging dangerous pollution into frontline communities where health has already been compromised by industry activities.

As the sacrifice builds and the losses mount, economic development corporations advertise the area as prime real estate for more facilities and infrastructure – even as markets steadily move away from fossil fuels. Exports are a tenuous lifeline for an industry drowning in an oversupply of oil and gas, but advocates like the Port of Corpus Christi Authority insist on proposing, financing, and constructing new crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals along the Gulf Coast, including the BlueWater and GulfLink terminals.

Even with access to global markets, the outlook for this Gulf Coast petrochemical expansion doesn’t look great. Countries that planned to import the US’ fossil fuels are withdrawing interest, citing climate concerns. Major projects are being abandoned, like the petrochemical facility Project Falcon that SABIC had planned to build near Aransas Pass. Frontline communities that have suffered devastating health impacts from the industry for too long are calling out environmental racism and causing major delays for new facilities.

These Texan sites are further captured in the Story Map below, as are the footprints of countless other existing and proposed petrochemical infrastructure sites, from the frac sand mines south of San Antonio down into Corpus Christi Bay, the mushrooming industry along the La Quinta Channel, up the Gulf Coast to Freeport, and finally along the always hectic Houston Ship Channel that empties out into Galveston Bay.

Group shot in front of airplane

Left to Right: Corpus Christi native and Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment (CAPE) member Dewey Magee, FracTracker Alliance’s Ted Auch, and LightHawk pilot Scott Humphries stand outside Scott’s Beechcraft Bonanza A-36 at McCampbell-Porter Airport in Aransas Pass, TX, November 11th, 2019. Photo by Errol Summerlin

 

Skyline landscape shot of Corpus Christi, TX

The View of Corpus Christi’s Petrochemical Corridor along La Quinta Channel and Tule Lake Shipping Channel from 200’ above McCampbell-Porter Airport in Aransas Pass, TX, November 11th, 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance

 

I reached out to pilot and native Houstonian Scott Humphries for his thoughts on what he expected and what he gleaned from our flight. He wrote the following:

Question #1: What about our proposed flight interested you as a Texan and/or Houstonian – or just more generally – what interested you about this mission?

I’ve always tried to be environmentally conscious, and always try to have, “think globally, act locally” rummaging around in my head, but this mission (and affiliating with LightHawk generally) presented an opportunity for me to try to (hopefully) have a little more impact than just personally recycling, outlawing Styrofoam cups at our office, etc. Separately, as a longtime Houstonian, I’ve always been proud to live and work in what many refer to as the “Energy Capital of the World.” This mission seemed a useful way to do some small part to help make sure that title continues to be held responsibly.

Question #2: After conducting the flights, or as they were happening, did you learn anything, or have any thoughts that surprised you or realizations about anything particular?

I have flown along the Gulf Coast (including to/from Houston/Corpus Christi) many, many times, and if you’d asked me before this mission, I would have said, ‘Sure, there’s a decent amount of industry along that part of the coast.’ What surprised me while we were flying was two things: (1) there’s not just a decent amount of industry along that part of the coast; rather, along that route, even flying low, you’re rarely – if ever – out of sight of a significant facility of some kind, and (2) the size of the facilities – in other circumstances I’d have been flying much higher and wouldn’t get a good sense of the size of the pads.  Flying as we were at just over 1000′, it was striking how massive the various plants were, both in Corpus Christi Bay and along the coast.

Another perspective on this flight and the area we flew over comes from Kevin Sims, Aransas Bay Birding Charters Operator whose Whooping Crane and Pink Spoonbill photos we feature in the story map below. Kevin has been plying the waters in and around Aransas Wildlife Refuge since 1972, and when I contacted him about using some of his photos, he told me the following:

“We need the desalination plants, but the planned discharge points are going to cripple our ecology and the business that rely on it for tourism. They could’ve discharged offshore, but instead they are discharging into the bay, and if it gets too salty the crab populations will plummet, and everything around here depends on crabs and shrimp. If we have a constant influx of brine it could really cripple us. I went to a fantastic meeting from Texas A&M, and their science told them that if red fish larvae migrated into the [Aransas Pass] shipping channel and hit a wall of salty water, they wouldn’t go further, and their population would crash. But despite these facts, they’ve chosen to discharge into the La Quinta Channel, and that is bad news! They were having fairly regular meetings on all of these proposals prior to COVID, but once COVID hit, they went all remote, and less people knew when the meetings were, and the meeting details weren’t widely disseminated … So, the next thing we knew, everything was passed, and they’re gonna [sic] go ahead and do [all of] it. 

My perspective comes from a lifetime of fishing and observing the Whooping Crane, and watching them progress from 157 eighteen years ago, to 507 at the present time. Well, I feel this will threaten an endangered species that they’ve been trying to bring back from the brink of extinction since the 1940s. I can remember my dad showing me the cranes in the mid-70s, and there were only 52-55. All of the projects you are mapping have the potential to decimate all the progress made, not to mention money spent on Whooping Crane recovery. From my perspective, it’s a catch-22, ‘cause [sic] the big cities take the water out of the river, and they don’t have the inflows into the bays that they did in the past. We also don’t have the rains that we used to have. The desalination plants would relieve some of that pressure if they would just put that brine offshore. The other species of concern to my industry is the Pink Spoonbills, but the Whooping Crane is the main draw.”

Channels of Life: The Gulf Coast Buildout in TX

A Story Map

This Story Map illustrates the impacts of oil and gas infrastructure from San Antonio down to Corpus Christi, and then up the Gulf Coast to Houston.

The map displays aerial photographs of infrastructure, from frac sand mines and refineries, to chemical plants and offshore drill rig construction sites. This map includes CO2 emissions from oil and gas infrastructure from 2010 – 2018 (weighted by total CO2 during this period in orange), and/or oil refineries and their myriad products (weighted by capacity in black [barrels/day oil equivalents]).

The Story Map also presents detailed information and locations for proposed petrochemical infrastructure in the Corpus Christi Bay region, courtesy of Errol Summerlin and our partners at Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment (CAPE). These proposals include dredging projects needed to accommodate more traffic from larger tanker ships, as well as desalination facilities that would collectively intake 758 million gallons of Corpus Christi Bay water each day, and discharge 507 million gallons of brine per day, with an average of 95 and 64 million gallons of desalinated water produced daily, respectively.

The perforated yellow line is the flight path we took with our LightHawk partners. When the viewer scrolls into any given region, they will see SkyTruth incident alerts within five miles of our flight path. The two examples cited at the beginning of this article are just a couple of the nearly 760 such incidents in just the Corpus Christi Shipping Channel since 2011, according to data provided by SkyTruth.

The most recent data in this map is Whooping Crane locations and number counts in TX as of November 2020, courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird data portal. This data speaks to the concerns of Mr. Sims and many of his colleagues who rely on the Whooping Crane’s attraction to birders internationally, and it also highlights that the projects photographed and in the works across Corpus Christi Bay will not just negatively affect the human communities, but will have far reaching impacts on the ecosystems of the western Gulf, and the industries that have relied on these ecosystems for all manner of ecosystems services.

We recommend viewing this map in full screen

 

Looking forward

Decades of oil and gas development have created a dependency on extractive industries, which has in turn hindered community health and stability.

The Port of Corpus Christi’s controversial dock expansion and Harbor Bridge replacement project at the southern end of Refinery Row has taken over community land and eclipsed their fight to protect their neighborhoods and their public health. Even after an environmental review, the preferred route cuts through these neighborhoods that are surrounded by industry, interstates, and waste treatment facilities – isolated from other residences, and subjected to heavy pollution, noise, and constant hazard.

But with interest and investments declining in the fossil fuel industry and overproduction keeping prices low, the future of the Gulf Coast, its people, environment, and industrial landscape is uncertain – but resistance to extractive industry is strong.

Several activists and environmental coalitions are fighting this project and the industrial onslaught for the health of their communities. For more information on how to support their vision, visit our friends at Coastal Alliance to Protect our Environment (CAPE) and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS).

 

Thank You

This video, Story Map and article were produced with much gratitude and appreciation for our partners at LightHawk, as well as the support and resources of Scott Humphries, Kevin Sims, and Errol Summerlin.


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