Plastic has been getting a lot of negative press lately.
It’s killing marine life, forming vortexes in the ocean, and being burned instead of recycled. But until recently, most of the attention has focused on plastic pollution – the waste that turns up after a product has served its purpose.
Now that’s changed- the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has recently released “Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet;” two reports that show us the consequences of plastic across its entire lifecycle. The first, Plastic & Health, explores human health impacts, while the second Plastic & Climate, tackles greenhouse gas emissions.
For the first time, we know the full scope of plastic’s impact – and it’s not looking good.
FracTracker is proud to partner with CIEL and several other organizations, including Earthworks, 5 Gyres, TEJAS, UPSTREAM, GAIA, Exeter University, and Environmental Integrity Project to release these reports.
Access the full reports and executives summaries here:
These reports make it clear: the impacts of plastic are serious, and they’re everywhere. We have the evidence to justify an immediate global move away from our disposable, single-use lifestyle. Tackling this toxic crisis will require action across all levels of society- corporations must consider the full life cycle of their products, policy makers must enact plastic reduction measures, and of course, industry needs to rectify its toxic impacts. Eager to encourage these entities to take action, the FracTracker team is committed to doing our own part to solve this plastics problem, and we hope that it inspires individuals, companies, community leaders, and politicians to join in.
Here’s what we’re doing to help the world #BreakFreeFromPlastic:
1. Continue working towards a world free from oil and gas.
Since over 99% of plastic is made from oil and gas, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the only way to eliminate all of plastic’s toxic impacts. Plastic & Climate found that extracting and transporting oil and gas for plastic production releases over 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. There are many opportunities for these releases to occur, including from methane leakage and flaring, the drilling process, deforestation of forests for pipelines and well pads, and emissions from truck traffic.
Pipeline construction causes deforestation, releasing carbon stored in trees and preventing further carbon sequestration
The FracTracker team will continue to study, map, and analyze the risks of this industry to encourage both a switch to renewable energy and a movement away from plastic production.
2. Expose the risks of the fracking-driven plastics boom in the Gulf Coast & Ohio River Valley
Unconventional technology has opened up access to large reserves of natural gas liquids, such as ethane, and plastic manufacturing is one way to increase demand for this glut. In fact, the oil and gas industry is hoping to increase demand for plastic worldwide by 40%! Two regions with access to natural gas liquids that are rapidly expanding plastics manufacturing capacity are the Gulf Coast and the Ohio River Valley.
Eager to justify this build-out, politicians and industries tout the ways plastic is part of a sustainable future. They say that without investing in plastic, we’re not taking full advantage of our resources, and that by using natural gas to make plastic instead of burning it, we’re keeping greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere. Speaking on manufacturing plastic from natural gas with public radio station WHYY, Pennsylvania’s Governor Wolf stated:
“I want to move to a point where what we’re using the gas for is for products that go into that sustainable energy future: lightweight products…so that we’re not burning this, we’re actually creating products that would make that energy future that we all want, that would address the issues of climate change in an effective way.”
The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is projected to produce 1.6 million tons of plastic per year, which Governor Wolf states is part of a “sustainable energy future.” Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance by LightHawk.
But the data say otherwise.
Plastic does not address the issues of climate change. In fact, using natural gas for plastic perpetuates climate change. Climate & Plastics found that this year, “the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 136 one-thousand-megawatt coal power plants.” If plastic production grows as currently predicted, by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year, or 291 new coal plants.
The rate of plastic production is directly at odds with global carbon emissions targets.
While plastic can be used for lightweight parts of electric vehicles or reusable materials, the plastic being produced by the current build out is primarily polyethylene plastic, most commonly used for packaging and single use products- plastic bags, bottles, jugs, containers, and plastic films and linings; products that countries and cities are phasing out.
While renewable energy is becoming increasingly available, so too are plastic alternatives. Across the world, communities are rethinking the products we use everyday. Thanks to historic legislation, zero waste stores, and towns, and plastic-free bloggers, it’s never been a better time to cut back on plastic – and the FracTracker team is doing our part.
Rebecca, our Administrative and Human Resources Specialist, has cut her plastic use by switching to toothpaste tablets and bars of soap. Karen, our Eastern Program Coordinator, makes her own reusable beeswax food wraps. And Erica Jackson and Isabelle Weber in the Pittsburgh office keep reusable utensils in their backpacks. The whole team is cutting back on single-use plastic products, and are always on the look-out for non oil and gas-based products.
We also realize that with companies like Coca Cola selling 3,000 plastic bottles every second, and Nestlé producing 1.7 million tons of plastic packaging a year, corporations play a key role in this movement.
Through the Story of Stuff’s #Messageinabottle project and Greenpeace’s #Isthisyours campaign, we’re also encouraging corporations to reimagine how the package and transport products.
Now YOU know, what will you do to help your company, community, or yourself #BreakFreeFromPlastic?
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-Climate-1.png5121024Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2019-05-16 11:39:262020-03-11 13:02:47The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet
Last month, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a report titled Ethane Storage and Distribution Hub in the United States to Congress. The report sums up several other recent geologic studies and economic analyses that evaluate the potential to create a large petrochemical hub in southwest Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and northeastern Kentucky.
Most people call this region Appalachia because of the mountains, or the Ohio River Valley because of the namesake river. The petrochemical industry looks deeper: they’ve branded it Shale Crescent USA, after the shale gas thousands of feet underground. This article summarizes recent developments on storing natural gas liquids, including ethane, in this region – whatever you prefer to call it.
The United States currently produces more natural gas than any other country in the world, with much of the fracked gas coming from the Marcellus and Utica shales in Appalachia. The DOE report predicts that production in this region will continue growing from an estimated at 8.19 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2017, to 13.55 Tcf in 2025 and 19.5 Tcf in 2050.
Natural Gas Production Estimates:
8.19 Tcf in 2017
13.55 Tcf in 2025
19.5 Tcf in 2050
In addition to oil and gas, fracking produces natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as ethane, propane, and butane. NGLs are a key component of the petrochemical industry, which takes these resources and converts them into plastics and resins. As industry extracts more natural gas, it will also be left with more NGLs to manage.
Hoping to profit off NGLs, the oil and gas industry is investing in petrochemical production. In the Appalachian basin, the DOE predicts that production of ethylene from ethane will reach 640,000 barrels a day by 2025 (this is 20 times the amount the region produced in 2013). The Gulf Coast of the U.S., as well as countries in Asia and the Middle East, are also growing their production capacities. Globally, ethylene production is projected to grow 31% from 2017 to 2025.
The rise of the petrochemical industry comes at a point when there’s an increasing global awareness of the disaster that is plastic pollution. As much as 12.7 million tons of plastic waste goes into the ocean each year, affecting over 700 species of marine animals. On land, plastic waste is often shipped to less developed nations, where it ends up polluting poor communities and contaminating their drinking water and air.
Nevertheless, politicians in PA, OH, and WV are working hard to attract petrochemical build-out in Appalachia. The region already houses much of the infrastructure needed for a petrochemical hub, such as fracked wells that pump out NGLs and processing plants to separate these liquids from the rest of the natural gas stream. One thing it’s missing, however, is significant capacity to store natural gas liquids – particularly ethane.
Why does industry need storage?
Ethane storage offers several benefits to the petrochemical industry. For one, it would serve as a steady supply of ethane for plants like ethane crackers, which “crack” ethane into ethylene to make polyethylene plastic. With this constant supply (transported to crackers via pipeline), plants can operate 24 hours a day, year round, and avoid using energy to shutdown and restart. Storage also allows industry to adapt to fluctuations in demand and price.
Another argument for expanding petrochemical activity in Appalachia is to diversify the industry’s geography. The current petrochemical hub in Texas and Louisiana (where over 95% of the country’s ethylene production takes place) is subject to extreme weather events. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused over half of the nation’s polyethylene production capacity to shut down. The report mentions “extreme weather events” multiple times as justification for building a petrochemical hub in Appalachia. This stance strongly suggests that the DOE is preparing for increased hurricanes and flooding from climate change, although this is never explicitly stated. Unsurprisingly, the industry’s role in causing climate change is left out from the report as well.
What does storage look like?
While the term ‘natural gas liquid’ may seem like an oxymoron, it refers to the different forms the substances take depending on temperature and pressure. At normal conditions, NGLs are a gas, but when pressurized or exposed to extremely cold temperatures, they act as a liquid. NGLs occupy significantly less space as a liquid, and are therefore moved and stored as a pressurized or refrigerated liquid.
Storage can be in above ground tanks, but is often underground in gas fields or underground caverns. NGLs are highly volatile, and storing them above ground puts workers and surrounding communities at risk. For example – last week, an above ground storage tank exploded at a natural gas processing plant in Washington County, PA, sending four people to the hospital. While underground storage is perceived as “safer,” it still poses significant risks, particularly in a geography like Appalachia full of wells, coal mines, and pipelines. This underground infrastructure can cause NGLs to leak during storage or the land above them to collapse.
A study out of West Virginia University, titled “A Geologic Study to Determine the Potential to Create an Appalachian Storage Hub For Natural Gas Liquids,” identified three different types of storage opportunities along the Ohio and Kanawha river valleys:
Underground storage options
Mined-rock cavern: Companies can mine caverns in formations of limestone, dolomite, or sandstone. The formation must be at least 40 feet thick to hold NGLs. This study focused on formations of the Greenbrier Limestone, which occurs throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
Salt cavern: Developing salt caverns involves injecting water underground to create a void, and then pumping NGLs into the cavern. Suitable salt caverns have “walls” at least 100 feet thick above and below the cavern. The study recommended salt caverns 1,500 to 3,000 feet deep, but considered those as deep as 6,700 feet.
Gas field: NGLs can also be stored in natural gas fields or depleted gas fields in underground sandstone reservoirs. Suitable gas fields are 2,000 feet deep or more according to the WVU study.
Where could storage sites be located?
The West Virginia University study identified and ranked thousands of gas fields, several salt caverns, and many regions in the Greenbrier Limestone that could serve as NGL storage. Most of the top-ranked opportunities are in West Virginia, near the state’s borders with Ohio and Pennsylvania, and several cross beneath the Ohio or Kanawha rivers. The researchers conclude with three “prospects,” which are circled in Figure 1.
The table below lists the specific storage opportunities in each prospect, as well as the available data on depth, thickness, and acreage of the formations. Also listed are the counties that the storage facility would cross into.
Land Size (acres)
Salina F4 Salt cavern
>100 to 150
Primarily Columbiana, OH, also Hancock, WV & Beaver, PA
Salina F4 salt cavern
100 to 150
Primarily Jefferson, OH, also Brooke & Hancock WV, & Washington, PA
2 possibilities for a cavern- one in northern Putnam & Roane WV, the other in Kanawha & Boone, WV
> 530,000 and >170,000
Burdett-St. Albans Field
Depleted gas field
1,824 to 2,510
4 to 27
Primarily Putnam, also Lincoln & Kanawha, WV
The Elk-Poca (Sissonville) Field
Depleted gas field
4,140 to 5,497
Putnam, Jackson, Kanawha, WV
Campbell Creek Field
Depleted gas field
Existing natural gas storage
4,660 to 5,012
15 to 56
North Ripley Field
Depleted gas field
Depleted gas field
Kanawha, Putnam ,WV
Depleted gas field
Depleted gas field
Kanawha, Boone, WV
Existing NGL Storage
Storage in the United States
The U.S. has two major NGL storage hubs (both in salt caverns): One is in Mont Belvieu, Texas and the other in Conway, Kansas. These facilities are strategically located near the petrochemical industry’s hub along the Gulf Coast. There is also underground storage in Sarnia, Ontario.
Industry in Appalachia is connected to these storage facilities via pipelines, including Sunoco’s Mariner West that transports ethane to Sarnia, and the Appalachia-Texas-Express (ATEX) pipeline that takes ethane to Mont Belvieu. However, as suggested above, NGL storage in Appalachia is also under development.
Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub
Appalachia Development Group LLC is heading the development of the Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub initiative. The company has not announced the specific location for underground storage, but has been working hard to secure the funds for this development.
In September of 2017, Appalachia Development Group submitted part 1 of a 2-part application for a $1.9 billion loan to the US DOE Loan Program Office. The DOE approved the application the following January, inviting the company to submit the second part, which is currently pending. This second part goes through the DOE’s Title XVII innovative clean energy projects loan program.
According to the DOE, this program “provides loan guarantees to accelerate the deployment of innovative clean energy technology.” Paradoxically, this means the DOE may give clean energy funds to the petrochemical industry, which is fueled by fossil fuels and does not provide energy but rather plastic and resins.
Steven Hedrick, the CEO of Appalachia Development Group, was part of a West Virginia trade delegation that traveled to China in 2017 to meet with China’s largest energy company. This meeting, which included President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping, resulted in China Energy agreeing to invest $83.7 billion to support natural gas and petrochemical development in West Virginia. (Of note: This agreement has faced uncertainty following Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods). West Virginia Governor Jim Justice later criticized Hedrick’s involvement in the meeting, where he promoted the interests of his private company.
Mountaineer NGL Storage Project
Another company, Energy Storage Ventures LLC, has plans to construct NGL storage near Clarington, Ohio. This facility would be on land formerly belonging to Quarto Mining Company’s Powhatan Mine No. 4. Called “Mountaineer NGL Storage,” the project would develop salt caverns to store propane, ethane, and butane. Each cavern could store 500,000 barrels (21 million gallons) of NGLs.
The video below, made by the Energy Storage Ventures, describes the process of developing salt caverns for storage.
The Mountaineer NGL Storage Project location is about 12 miles south of the PTTGC ethane cracker (if built), in Dilles Bottom Ohio. It’s also roughly 60 miles south of the Shell ethane cracker (under construction) in Potter Township, PA. If developed, the project could supply these plants with ethane and allow them to continuously operate. According to Energy Storage Ventures President, David Hooker, the project would also trigger $500 million in new pipelines in the region and $1 billion in fractionation facilities to separate NGLs.
Energy Storage Ventures wants to build three pipelines beneath the Ohio River. Two pipelines (one for ethane and one for propane and butane) would deliver NGLs to the storage site from Blue Racer Natrium, a fractionation plant that separates dry natural gas from NGLs. A third pipeline would take salt brine water from the caverns to the Marshall County chlorine plant (currently owned by Westlake Chemical Corp). These facilities, as well as the locations of the two ethane crackers storage could serve, are in the map below. This map also includes the potential storage opportunities the researchers at West Virginia University identified.
Referring to concerns about building pipelines and caverns near the Ohio River, a drinking water source for 5 million people, the company’s president David Hooker stated, “This is not rocket science. These things have operated safely for years… Salt, at depth, is impermeable. You won’t see any migration out of the salt.”
This video is a rendering of what the 200-acre site will look like, including the salt water impoundment structure (capable of holding 3.25 million barrels), and the infrastructure needed to deliver products and equipment by rail and truck:
The company has stated that it owns both the land and mineral rights it needs to develop the caverns, but the project has also faced delays.
Where is this plastic going?
One common argument for a petrochemical hub in Appalachia is the region’s proximity to the downstream sector of petrochemical industry. Manufacturers such as PPG Industries, Dow Chemical Inc., and BASF are all based in the area and could make use of the feedstock from an Appalachian hub.
However, the report doesn’t make it clear where the plastic and resin end products will land. It does state that the demand in the United States isn’t enough to swallow up two major petrochemical hubs worth of plastic.
The DOE report states that, “the development of new petrochemical capacity in Appalachia is not necessarily in conflict with Gulf Coast expansion.” Since the Gulf Coast already has the infrastructure for export, it could focus on international markets while Appalachia meets domestic demand. Alternatively, the Appalachian hub could serve European destinations while the Gulf Coast hub delivers to Pacific Basin and South American destinations. Plastic consumption is highly correlated with population, so countries with large, growing populations such as India and China are likely markets.
It’s important to note that the U.S. isn’t the only country increasing its production of petrochemical derivatives, and as the report notes, exports from the US “may face a challenge from global capacity surplus.” Figure 2 shows that global production of ethylene is expected to surpass global consumption, shown in Figure 3. The graph of consumption likely ignores the impact of plastic-reducing policies that hundreds of countries and cities are implementing. As such, it may be an over-estimation.
Figure 2. Historical and future ethylene production by global region. Source
Figure 3. Ethylene consumption by global region. Source
In the end, it appears that the industry’s plan is to build first, and worry about markets later, hoping that a growing supply of affordable plastic will increase consumption.
Perhaps the reason industry is so eager to forge a market is because oil and gas is struggling with a lot of debt. A study out of the Sightline Institute found that as of the first half of 2018, “US fracking-focused oil and gas companies continued their eight-year cash flow losing streak.” The Center for International Environmental Law found that petrochemicals generally have a larger profit margin than oil and gas: “In 2015, ExxonMobil’s Chemicals segment accounted for roughly 10% of its revenues but more than 25% of its overall profits.”
Plastic is one way to subsidize this dying industry…
Beyond Storing Natural Gas Liquids
The motive behind developing storage is to catalyze and support a major industry. The DOE report states that the new infrastructure required “would include gathering lines, processing plants, fractionation facilities, NGLs storage facilities, ethane crackers, and then…plants for polyethylene, ethylene dichloride, ethylene oxide, and other infrastructure.” A hub would require more fracking and wastewater injection wells, cause even more heavy truck traffic that adds stress to roadways, and require additional power plant capacity to serve its electricity demand.
In other words, an Appalachian petrochemical hub would profoundly impact the region. The report contains an in-depth analysis of the economic impacts, but fails to mention any environmental concerns, social impacts on communities, or health effects. The other major studies on this buildout, mentioned above, follow a similar pattern.
A quick look at industry along the Gulf Coast tells you that environmental, social, and health concerns are very real and produce their own economic debts. The petrochemical industry has created a “cancer alley” in Texas and Louisiana, disproportionately impacting low-income and minority communities. Yet, industry is preparing another hub without a single comprehensive environmental impact assessment or health assessment for the region. As each pipeline, fracked well, and plant is permitted separately, we can’t properly assess the cumulative negative impacts this development will have on our waterways, forests, soil, or air quality. Therefore, we also won’t know how it will affect our health.
Looking into the future
The report analyzes the industry through 2050. It states that NGL output in Appalachia:
… will continue to grow throughout the forecast period. As natural gas production gradually migrates away from liquids-rich gas areas, which are expected to slowly deplete, to dryer areas, the rate of growth in NGPL production will slow relative to the rate of natural gas production growth.
In 31 years, the kids growing up in Appalachia right now could be left with brownfields, dried-up wells, and abandoned ethane crackers. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Last year, the DOE reported that there are more jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency, and alternative vehicles than in fossil fuels. By using funds such as the DOE’s Title XVII innovative clean energy loan – for actual clean energy – we can bring economic development to the region that will be relevant past 2050 and that won’t sacrifice our health and natural resources for short-term private gains.
By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Appalachian-Storage-Feature.jpg400900Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2018-12-19 12:31:022020-03-12 14:52:33Storing Natural Gas Liquids in Appalachia
In 2012, a battle between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania was underway. Politicians and businesses from each state were eagerly campaigning for the opportunity to host Royal Dutch Shell’s “world-class” petrochemical facility. The facility in question was an ethane cracker, the first of its kind to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. In the end, Pennsylvania’s record-breaking tax incentive package won Shell over, and construction on the ethane cracker plant began in 2017.
Once completed, the ethane cracker will convert ethane from fracked wells into 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year.
Shell’s ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA. Image by Ted Auch, FracTracker.
Aerial support provided by LightHawk.
Ohio and West Virginia, however, have not been left out of the petrochemical game. In addition to the NGL pipelines, cryogenic plants, and fractionation facilities in these states, plans for ethane cracker projects are also in the works.
In 2017, PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) put Ohio in second place in the “race to build an ethane cracker,” when it decided to build a plant in Belmont County, Ohio.
But first, why is the petrochemical industry expanding in the Ohio River Valley?
Fracking has opened up huge volumes of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Fracked wells in these states extract methane, which is then transported in pipelines and used as a residential, industrial, or commercial energy source. The gas in this region, however, contains more than just methane. Classified as “wet gas,” the natural gas stream from regional wells also contains natural gas liquids (NGLs). These NGLs include propane, ethane, and butane, and industry is eager to create a market for them.
Plastic pellets, also called “nurdles,” the end product of ethane crackers.
Major processing facilities, such as cryogenic and fractionation plants, receive natural gas streams and separate the NGLs, such as ethane, from the methane. After ethane is separated, it can be “cracked” into ethylene, and converted to polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The plastic is shipped in pellet form to manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, where it is made into a variety of plastic products.
By building ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley, industry is taking advantage of the region’s vast underground resources.
PTTGC ethane cracker: The facts
PTTGC’s website states that the company “is Thailand’s largest and Asia’s leading integrated petrochemical and refining company.” While this ethane cracker has been years in the making, the company states that “a final investment decision has not been made.” The image below shows land that PTTGC has purchased for the plant, totaling roughly 500 acres, in Dilles Bottom, Mead Township.
According to the Ohio EPA, the plant will turn ethylene into:
700,000 tons of high density polyethylene (HDPE) per year
900,000 tons Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
HDPE is a common type of plastic, used in many products such as bags, bottles, or crates. Look for it on containers with a “2” in the recycling triangle. LLDPE is another common type of plastic that’s weaker and more flexible; it’s marked with a “4.”
The ethane cracker complex will contain:
An ethylene plant
Four ethylene-based derivatives plants.
Six 552 MMBtu/hour cracking furnaces fueled by natural gas and tail gas with ethane backup
Three 400 MMBTU/hr steam boilers fueled by natural gas and ethane
A primary and backup 6.2 MMBtu/hour thermal oxidizer
A high pressure ground flare (1.8 MMBtu/hour)
A low pressure ground flare (0.78 MMBtu/hour)
Wastewater treatment systems
Equipment to capture fugitive emissions
Railcars for pygas (liquid product) and HDPE and LLDPE pellets
Emergency firewater pumps
Emergency diesel-fired generator engines
A cooling tower
Impacts on air quality
The plant received water permits last year, and air permits are currently under review. On November 29, 2018, the Ohio EPA held an information session and hearing for a draft air permit (the permit can be viewed here, by entering permit number P0124972).
The plant will be built in the community of Dilles Bottom, on the former property of FirstEnergy’s R.E. Burger Power Station, a coal power plant that shut down in 2011. The site was demolished in 2016 in preparation for PTTGC’s ethane cracker. In 2018, PTTGC also purchased property from Ohio-West Virginia Excavating Company. In total, the ethane cracker will occupy 500 acres.
R.E. Burger Power Station, which has been demolished for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker. Image Source
Table 1, below, is a comparison of the previous major source of air pollution source, the R.E. Burger Power Station, and predictions of the future emissions from the PTTGC ethane cracker. The far right column shows what percent of the former emissions the ethane cracker will release.
Table 1: Former and Future Air Emissions in Dilles Bottom, Ohio
R.E.Burger Power Station (2010 emissions)
PTTGC Ethane Cracker (predicted emissions)
Percent of former emissions
CO (carbon monoxide)
NOx (nitrogen oxides)
SO2 (sulfur dioxide)
PM10 (particulate matter, 10)
PM2.5 (particulate matter, 2.5)
VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
As you can see, the ethane cracker will emit substantially less sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxides compared with the R.E. Burger site. This makes sense, as these two pollutants are associated with burning coal. On the flip side, the ethane cracker will emit almost four times as much carbon monoxide and 263,900% more volatile organic compounds (percentages bolded in Table 1, above).
In addition to these pollutants, the ethane cracker will emit 38 tons per year of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS), a group of pollutants that includes benzene, chlorine, and ethyl chloride. These pollutants are characterized by the EPA as being “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.”
While these emission numbers seem high, they still meet federal requirements and nearly all state guidelines. If the ethane cracker becomes operational, pollutant monitoring will be important to ensure the plant is in compliance and how emissions impact air quality. The plant will also attract more development to an already heavily industrialized area; brine trucks, trains, pipelines, fracked wells, compressor stations, cryogenic facilities, and natural gas liquid storage are all part of the ethane-to-plastic manufacturing process. The plastics coming from the plant will travel to facilities in the U.S. and abroad to create different plastic products. These facilities are an additional source of emissions.
Air permitting does not consider the full life cycle of the plant, from construction of the plant to its demolition, or the development associated with it.
As such, this plant will be major step back for local air quality, erasing recent improvements in the Wheeling metropolitan area, historically listed as one of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the country. Furthermore, the pollutants that will be increasing the most are associated with serious health effects. Over short term exposure, high levels of VOCs are associated with headaches and respiratory symptoms, and over long term exposure, cancer, liver and kidney damage.
In addition to air quality impacts, ethane cracker plants also pose risks from fires, explosions, and other types of unplanned accidents. In 2013, a ruptured boiler at an ethane cracker in Louisiana caused an explosion that sent 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air. Three hundred workers evacuated, but sadly there were 167 suffered injuries and 2 deaths.
While researching Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, FracTracker worked with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn about emergency planning around the petrochemical industry. Emergency planners map out two and five mile zones around facilities, called emergency planning zones, and identify vulnerabilities and emergency responders within them.
With this in mind, the map below shows a two and five-mile radius around PTTGC’s property, as reported by Belmont County Auditor. Within these emergency planning zones are the locations of schools, day cares, hospitals, fire stations, emergency medical services, hospitals, and local law enforcement offices, reported by Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data.
The map also includes census data from the EPA that identifies potential environmental justice concerns. By clicking on the census block groups, you will see demographic information, such as income status, age, and education level. These data are important in recognizing populations that may already be disproportionately burdened by or more vulnerable to environmental hazards.
Finally, the map displays environmental data, also from the EPA, including a visualization of particulate matter along the Ohio River Valley, where massive petrochemical development is occurring. By clicking on a census block and then the arrow at the top, you will find a number of other statistics on local environmental concerns.
Emergency planning zones for Shell’s ethane cracker are available here.
Within the 5 mile emergency planning zone, there are:
9 fire or EMS stations
17 schools and/or day cares
6 local law enforcement offices
Within the 2 mile emergency planning zone, there are:
3 fire or EMS stations
7 schools and/or day cares
3 local law enforcement offices
Sites of capacity, such as the fire and EMS stations, could provide emergency support in the case of an accident. Sites of vulnerability, such as the many schools and day cares, should be aware of and prepared to respond to the various physical and chemical risks associated with ethane crackers.
The census block where the ethane cracker is planned has a population of 1,252. Of this population, 359 are 65 years or older. That is well above national average and important to note; air pollutants released from the plant are associated with health effects such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, to which older populations are more vulnerable.
PTTGC’s ethane cracker, if built, will drastically alter the air quality of Belmont County, OH, and the adjacent Marshall County, WV. Everyday, the thousands of people in the surrounding region, including the students of over a dozen schools, will breathe in its emissions.
This population is also vulnerable to unpredictable accidents and explosions that are a risk when manufacturing products from ethane, a highly flammable liquid. Many of these concerns were recently voiced by local residents at the air permit hearing.
Despite these concerns and pushback, PTTGC’s website for this ethane cracker, pttgcbelmontcountyoh.com, does not address emergency plans for the area. It also fails to acknowledge the potential for any adverse environmental impacts associated with the plant or the pipelines, fracked wells, and train and truck traffic it will attract to the region.
With this in mind, we call upon PTTGC to acknowledge the risks of its facility to Belmont County and provide the public with emergency preparedness plans, before the permitting process continues.
If you have thoughts or concerns regarding PTTGC’s ethane cracker and its impact on air quality, the Ohio EPA is accepting written comments through December 11, 2018. We encourage you to look through the data on this map or conduct your own investigations and submit comments on air permit #P0124972.
FracTracker has received numerous requests to compile a regional map of natural gas storage wells. In response, we have built the dynamic map below covering storage wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia:
The colored areas on the map above (pink, blue, and yellow) correspond to gas storage wells in one of the three states. When you first view the map in fullscreen mode you will notice that these wells have been “generalized” into one large layer. That feature allows the map to load more quickly in your browser.
Zoom in further to where the generalized layers change to individual points in order to explore the wells more in depth, as shown in the screenshot below:
Map Metadata: Upper Appalachian Gas Storage Wells
This map shows gas storage wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Due to the large amount of data, generalized layers were created to show the location of the storage fields at statewide zoom levels. To access well data, viewers must zoom in beyond the scale of 1:500,000, or about the size of a large county. Each state’s data includes slightly different data fields.
Data Layers include:
Name: OH Storage Wells
Date: January 2018
Source: Ohio DNR
Notes: Gas storage wells in Ohio. Storage wells selected from a broader dataset by FracTracker Alliance.
Name: PA Storage Wells
Date: January 2018
Source: Pennsylvania DEP
Notes: Gas storage wells in Pennsylvania. Storage wells selected from a broader dataset by FracTracker Alliance.
Name: WV Storage Wells
Date: January 2018
Source: West Virginia DEP
Notes: Gas storage wells in West Virginia. Storage wells selected from a broader dataset by FracTracker Alliance.
Name: State Boundaries
Source: USDA Geospatial Data Gateway
Notes: State boundaries of states with gas storage wells on this map.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/StorageWells-Appalachia-Feature.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2018-04-11 13:41:432020-03-12 15:32:04New map available showing Upper Appalachian gas storage wells
How fragmented approvals and infrastructure favor petrochemical development
By Leann Leiter and Lisa Graves-Marcucci
Let’s think back to 2009, when oil and gas companies like Range Resources began drilling the northeast shale plays in earnest. Picture the various stages involved in drilling – such as leasing of land, clearing of trees, boring of wells, siting of compressor stations, and construction of pipelines to gather the gas. Envision the geographic scope of the gas infrastructure, with thousands of wells in Pennsylvania alone, and thousands of miles of pipelines stretching as far as Louisiana.
Figure 1. A pipeline right-of-way snakes behind a residential property in Washington County, PA. Photo credit: Leann Leiter
Now, picture the present, where a homeowner looks out over her yard and wonders how a lease she signed with Shell several years prior made it possible for the company to run an ethane pipeline across her property and between her house and her garage.
Think forward in time, to 2022, the year when a world-scale ethane cracker is set to go online in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, to begin churning through natural gas liquids from wells in PA and others, producing a variety of disposable plastic products.
At each of these moments in gas development, which of the many stakeholders – industry leaders, local governments, state regulatory agencies, or landowners and residents – were granted a view of the full picture?
The proposed Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County is an illustration of the fragmented nature of gas development. From the extensive web of drilling infrastructure required to supply this massive facility, to several years of construction, this project is a case-study in piecemeal permitting. Such fragmentation creates a serious barrier to transparency and to the informed decision-making that relies upon it.
In the first two articles in this series on the petrochemical development in Beaver County, we focused on ethane cracker emergency scenarios and how the area might prepare. In this article, we draw the lens back to take in the larger picture of this region-altering project and highlight the effects of limited transparency.
The “Piecemeal” Nature of Gas Development
All across the Pennsylvania, proposed industrial development – even coal operations – have historically provided to the public, elected officials, and regulatory agencies the extent or footprint of their planned operations. Nonetheless, the oil and gas industry has in several instances undertaken a practice of developing its extensive infrastructure piece-by-piece. Operators of these facilities first acquire a GP-5 General Permit, which is only available to certain oil and gas operations with “minor” emissions and which allows them to avoid having the permit undergo public notice or comment. These operators then add emissions sources and increases through a series of minor amendments. While they are required to obtain a “major” source permit once their modifications result in major emissions, they avoid the scrutiny required for a major source by this fragmented process.
Unlike most other industrial permitting, the gas industry has enjoyed a much less transparent process. Instead of presenting their entire planned operation at the time of initial permit application, gas operators having been seeking – and receiving – incremental permits in a piecemeal fashion. This process puts local decision makers and the women, men, and children who live, work, and go to school near gas development at a severe disadvantage in the following ways:
Without full disclosure of the entirety of the planned project, neither regulatory bodies nor the public can conduct a full and factual assessment of land use impacts;
Incremental approvals allow for ever-expanding operations, including issuance of permits without additional public notification and participation;
Piecemeal approvals allow operations to continuously alter a community and its landscape;
The fragmented approval process prevents consideration of cumulative impacts; and
Without full transparency of key components of the proposed operations, emergency planning is hampered or non-existent.
From the Well to the Ethane Cracker
In the fragmented approval process of gas development, the proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County represents a pertinent example. Developers of this massive, multi-year, and many-stage project have only revealed the size and scope in a piecemeal fashion, quietly making inroads on the project (like securing land leases along the route of the pipeline required for the cracker, years in advance of permit approvals for the facility itself). By rolling out each piece over several years, the entirety of the petrochemical project only becomes clear in retrospect.
A World-Scale Petrochemical Hub
While Shell is still pursuing key approval from the PA Department of Environmental Protection, industry leaders treat the ethane cracker as a foregone conclusion, promising that this facility is but one step in turning the area into a “petrochemical hub.”
The cracker facility, alone, will push existing air pollution levels further beyond their already health-threatening state. Abundant vacant parcels around Shell’s cracker site are attractive sites for additional spin-off petrochemical facilities in the coming “new industry cluster.” These facilities would add their own risks to the equation, including yet-unknown chemical outputs emitted into the air and their resulting cumulative impacts. Likewise, disaster risks associated with the ethane cracker remain unclear, because in the piecemeal permitting process, the industry is not required to submit Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency (PPC) Plans until after receiving approval to build.
Figure 2. A portion of the extensive US natural gas interstate pipeline system stretching from the petrochemical hubs in the bayous of the Gulf Coast Basin to Pittsburgh’s Appalachian Basin. However, petrochemical development in the northeast may reverse or otherwise change that flow. Visualization created by Sophie Riedel, Carnegie Mellon University, School of Architecture. Data on interstate natural gas supply sourced from Energy Information Administration, Form EIA176 “Annual Report of Natural Gas and Supplemental Gas Supply and Disposition,” 2007.
92.3 Miles of Explosive Pipeline
More than just a major local expansion, communities downriver and downwind will be susceptible to the impacts, including major land disturbance, emissions, and the potential for “incidents,” including explosion. The pipeline required to feed the cracker with highly flammable, explosive ethane would tie the tri-state region into the equation, expanding the zone of risk into Ohio and crossing through West Virginia.
Figure 3. The Falcon Pipeline, which would be used to transport ethane to the cracker in Beaver County. At 92.3 miles long, it consists of two “legs,” starting from Scio and Cadiz, Ohio and Houston, PA, respectively, and extending up to the site of Shell’s ethane cracker. Credit: Shell Pipeline Company LP
Renewed Demand at the Wellhead
No one piece of the gas infrastructure stands alone; all work in tandem. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the new US ethane crackers will drive consumption of ethane up by a 26% by the end of 2018. Gas wells in the northeast already supply ethane; new ethane crackers in the region introduce a way to profit from this by-product of harvesting methane without piping it to the Gulf Coast. How this renewed demand for ethane will play out at fracked wells will be the result of complex variables, but it will undoubtedly continue to drive demand at Pennsylvania’s 10,000 existing unconventional oil and gas wells and those of other states, and may promote bringing new ones online.
Figure 4. Excerpt from Executive Summary of IHS Markit Report, “Prospects to Enhance Pennsylvania’s Opportunities in Petrochemical Manufacturing.”
Along with drilling comes a growing network of gathering and transmission lines, which add to the existing 88,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in Pennsylvania alone, fragment wildlife habitat, and put people at risk from leaks and explosions. Facilities along the supply stream that add their own pollution and risks include pump stations along the route and the three cryogenic facilities at the starting points of the Falcon Pipeline (see Fig. 6).
Figure 5. Several yards of the 88,000 miles of gas pipelines cutting through Pennsylvania. Finleyville, PA. Credit: Leann Leiter
The infrastructure investment required for ethane crackers in this region could reach $3.7 billion in processing facilities, pipelines for transmitting natural gas liquids including ethane, and storage facilities. A report commissioned by Team Pennsylvania and the PA Department of Community and Economic Development asserts that “the significant feedstock and transportation infrastructure required” will “exceed what is typically required for a similar facility” in the Gulf Coast petrochemical hub, indicating a scale of petrochemical development that rivals that of the southern states. This begs the question of how the health impacts in Pennsylvania will compare to those in the Gulf Coast’s “Cancer Alley.”
Figure 6. Houston, PA Cryogenic and Fractionation Plant, one of three such facilities supplying feedstock to the proposed Shell ethane cracker. Credit: Garth Lenz, iLCP
Water Impacts, from the Ohio River to the Arctic Ocean
Shell’s facility is only one of the ethane crackers proposed for the region that, once operational, would be permitted to discharge waste into the already-beleaguered Ohio River. This waterway, which traverses six separate states, supplies the drinking water for over 3 million people. Extending the potential water impact even further, the primary product of the Shell facility is plastics, whose inevitable disposal would unnecessarily add to the glut of plastic waste entering our oceans. Plastic is accumulating at the alarming rate of 3,500 pieces a day on one island in the South Pacific and as far away as the waters of the Arctic.
Figure 7. View of the Ohio River, downriver from the site of Shell’s proposed ethane cracker. Existing sources of industrial pollution to the river include the American Electric power plants, coal loading docks, barges, coal ash lagoons, and dry coal ash beds shown in this picture, and at least two fracking operations within the coal plant areas. Credit: Vivian Stockman/ohvec.org; flyover courtesy SouthWings.org.
How does fragmentation favor industry?
The gas and petrochemical industry would likely defend the logistical flexibility the piecemeal process affords them, allowing them to tackle projects, make investments, and involve new players as needed overtime. But in what other ways do the incredibly fragmented approval processes, and the limited requirements on transparency, favor companies like Shell and their region-changing petrochemical projects? And what effect does the absence of full transparency have on local communities like those in Beaver County? We conclude that it:
“Divides and conquers” the region. The piecemeal approach to gas development, and major projects like the Shell ethane cracker, deny any sense of solidarity between the people along the pipeline route resisting these potentially explosive channels cutting through their yards, and residents of Beaver County who fear the cracker’s emissions that will surround their homes.
Makes the project seem a foregone conclusion, putting pressure on others to approve. For example, before Shell formally announced its intention to build the facility in Potter Township, it rerouted a state-owned road to facilitate construction and increased traffic flow. Likewise, though a key permit is still outstanding with the PA DEP, first responders, including local volunteer firefighters, have already begun dedicating their uncompensated time to training with Shell. While this is a positive step from a preparedness standpoint, it is one of many displays of confidence by Shell that the cracker is a done deal.
Puts major decisions in the hands of those with limited resources to carry them out and who do not represent the region to be affected. In the case of the Shell ethane cracker, three township supervisors in Potter Township granted approvals for the project. The impacts, however, extend well beyond Potter or even Beaver county and include major air impacts for Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh area. Effects will also be felt by landowners and residents in numerous counties and two states along the pipeline route, those near cryogenic facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, plus those living on the Marcellus and Utica shale plays who will see gas well production continue and potentially increase.
Figures 8a and 8b. Potter Township Supervisors give the go-ahead to draft approval of Shell’s proposed ethane cracker at a January meeting, while confronted with public concern about deficiencies in Shell’s permit applications. Photos courtesy of the Air Quality Collaborative.
The piecemeal, incremental, and fragmented approval processes for the ethane cracker – and other gas-related facilities in the making – create one major problem. They make it nearly impossible for locals, elected officials, and regulatory agencies to see the whole picture as they make decisions. The bit-by-bit approach to gas development amounts to far-reaching development with irreversible impacts to environmental and human health.
We ask readers, as they contemplate the impacts closest to them – be it a fracked well, a hazardous cryogenic facility, the heavily polluted Ohio River, a swath of land taken up for the pipeline’s right-of-way, or Shell’s ethane cracker itself – to insist that they, their elected officials, and regulators have access to the whole picture before approvals are granted. It’s hard to do with a project so enormous and far-reaching, but essential because the picture includes so many of us.
To The International League of Conservation Photographers, The Ohio Environmental Council, and The Air Quality Collaborative for sharing photographs.
To Sophie Riedel for sharing her visualizations of natural gas interstate pipelines.
To Lisa Hallowell at the Environmental Integrity Project, and Samantha Rubright and Kirk Jalbert at FracTracker, for their review of and and invaluable contributions to this series.
Feature image: Map of US counties and natural gas interstate pipeline system describes the wide-diameter (20-42 inch), high capacity trunklines that carry most of the natural gas that is transported throughout the nation. Visualization created by Sophie Riedel, Carnegie Mellon University, School of Architecture. Data on interstate natural gas supply sourced from Energy Information Administration, Form EIA176 “Annual Report of Natural Gas and Supplemental Gas Supply and Disposition,” 2007.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Pipelines-US-Graphic-Riedel-Feature.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2017-05-31 09:12:492020-03-11 15:44:40Piecing Together an Ethane Cracker
By Leann Leiter and Lisa Graves Marcucci Maps and data analysis by Kirk Jalbert
Highly industrialized operations like petrochemical plants inherently carry risks, including the possibility of large-scale disasters. In an effort to prepare, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders to fully understand the risk potential. Yet, the planned Shell ethane cracker and additional petrochemical operations being proposed for Western Pennsylvania are the first of their kind in our region. This means that residents and elected officials are without a frame of reference as they consider approving these operations. Officials find themselves tasked with reviewing and approving highly complicated permit applications, and the public remains uncertain of what questions to ask and scenarios to consider. Often overlooked in the decision-making process is valuable expertise from local first responders like police, fire and emergency crew members, HAZMAT teams, and those who protect vulnerable populations, like emergency room personnel, nursing home staff, and school officials.
Example of cracker producing ethylene, located at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site. Photo credit: BASF
In the first article in this series , we tried to identify the known hazards associated with ethane crackers. In this article, we look more closely at how that risk could play out in Beaver County, PA and strive to initiate an important dialogue that invites valuable, local expertise.
In keeping with the first article in this series, we use the terms vulnerability and capacity. Vulnerability refers to the conditions and factors that increase the disaster impact that a community might experience, and capacity consists of the strengths that mitigate those impacts. Importantly, vulnerability and capacity frequently intertwine and overlap. We might, for example, consider a fire station to be a site of “capacity,” but if it lies within an Emergency Planning Zone (discussed more below), an explosion at the plant could render it a vulnerability. Likewise, “vulnerable” populations such as the elderly may have special skills and local knowledge, making them a source of capacity.
Emergency Planning: Learning from Louisiana
FracTracker got in touch with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn how a community already living with Shell-owned and other petrochemical facilities manages risk and disclosure. The Emergency Manager we spoke with explained that they designate a two- and a five-mile area around each new facility in their jurisdiction, like ethane crackers, during their emergency planning process. They call these areas “ emergency planning zones ” or EPZs, and they maintain records of the vulnerabilities and sites of capacity within each zone. In case of a fire, explosion, or other unplanned event at any facility, having the EPZs designated in advance allows them to mobilize first responders, and notify and evacuate everyone living, working, and attending school within the zone. Whether they activate a two- or a five-mile EPZ depends on the type of incident, and factors like wind speed and direction.
Based on those procedures, the map below shows similar likely zones for the proposed plant in Beaver County, along with sites of vulnerability and capacity.
The map helps us visualize the vulnerability and capacity of this area, relative to the proposed ethane cracker. It includes three main elements: the Shell site and parcels likely to be targeted for buildout of related facilities, two Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) around the Shell facility, and infrastructure and facilities of the area that represent vulnerability and capacity.
Vacant parcels near the site
It is important to note that the proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County is merely the first of an influx of petrochemical spin-off facilities promised for the area, potentially occupying the various empty parcels indicated on the map above as “vacant properties” and presented in light gray in the screenshot left.
Each new facility would add its own risks and cumulative impacts to the equation. It would be impossible to project these additional risks without knowing what facilities will be built here, so in this article, we stick to what we do know – the risks already articulated by Shell, lessons learned from other communities hosting petrochemical industry in other parts of the country, and past disasters at similar facilities.
Vulnerability and Capacity in Beaver County
Red, blue, and green points on the map above and in the screenshot below stand in for hospitals like Heritage Valley Beaver; fire and emergency medical services like Vanport Volunteer Fire Company; police stations like the Beaver County Sheriff’s office; and daycares and schools like Center Grange Primary School.
Transportation routes, if impacted, could challenge evacuation. Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton pointed out that evacuations due to an event at this facility could also be complicated by the need to stay upwind, when evacuations would likely move in a downwind direction. This map lacks drinking water intakes and other essential features upon which lives depend, but which nonetheless also sit within this zone of vulnerability.
Points within EPZS
Vulnerability/capacity within 2-mile zone:
5 police stations
10 fire/EMS stations
23 schools/daycare facilities
When expanded to 5-mile zone:
9 police stations
23 fire/EMS stations
40 schools/daycare facilities
*Note: For census tracts that are partly within a zone, a ratio is determined based on the percentage of land area in the tract within the zone. This ratio is then used to estimate the fraction of the population likely within the zone.
Stakeholders’ Right to Know
No person or community should be subjected to risk without the opportunity to be fully informed and to give meaningful input. Likewise, no group of people should have to bear a disproportionate share of environmental risks, particularly stakeholders who are already frequently disenfranchised in environmental decision-making. “Environmental justice” (EJ) refers to those simple principles, and DEP designates environmental justice areas based on communities of color and poverty indicators.
Presented as blue fields on the map and shown in the screenshot below, several state-designated EJ areas fall partially or entirely within the 2- and 5-mile EPZs (a portion of two EJ areas home to 2,851 people, and when expanded to five miles, two entire EJ areas and a portion of seven more, home to 18,679 people, respectively).
EJ Areas and Emergency Planning Zones around the Site
The basic ideas behind environmental justice have major bearing in emergency scenarios. For example, those living below the poverty line tend to have less access to information and news sources, meaning they might not learn of dangerous unexpected emissions plumes coming their way. They also may not have access to a personal vehicle, rendering them dependent upon a functioning public transportation system to evacuate in an emergency. Living below poverty level may also mean fewer resources at home for sheltering-in-place during a disaster, and having less financial resources, like personal savings, may lead to more difficult post-disaster recovery.
FracTracker recently consulted with the Emergency Management Director for Beaver County, Eric Brewer, and with Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton. Both indicated that their staff have already begun training exercises with Shell -including a live drill on site that simulated a fire in a work trailer. But when asked, neither reported that they had been consulted in the permit approval process. Neither had been informed of the chemicals to be held on site, and both referred to emergency planning considerations as something to come in the future, after the plant was built.
Unfortunately, the lack of input from public safety professionals during the permit approval stage isn’t unique to Beaver County. Our emergency management contact in Louisiana pointed to the same disturbing reality: Those who best understand the disaster implications of these dangerous developments and who would be mobilized to respond in the case of a disaster are not given a say in their approval or denial. This valuable local expertise – in Louisiana and in Beaver County – is being overlooked.
All Beaver County first responders who spoke with FracTracker clearly showed their willingness to perform their duties in any way that Shell’s new facility might demand, hopefulness about its safety, and a generally positive relationship with the company so far. Chief Carlton believes that the ethane cracker will be an improvement over the previous facility on the same site, the Horsehead zinc smelter, though a regional air pollution report characterizes this as a trade off of one type of dangerous pollution for another. Director Brewer pointed to the existing emergency plans for the county’s nuclear facility as giving Beaver County an important leg-up on preparedness.
But the conversations also raised concern about what the future relationship between the community and the industry will look like. Will funds be allocated to these first responders for the additional burdens brought on by new, unprecedented facilities, in what amount, and for how long into the future? Chief Carlton pointed out that until Shell’s on-site fire brigade is in place two or three years from now, her all-volunteer department would be the first line of defense in case of a fire or other incident. In the meantime, her fire company has ordered a much-needed equipment upgrade to replace a 30-year old, outdated tanker at a cost of $400,000. They are formally requesting all corporate businesses in the township, including Shell, to share the cost. Hopefully, the fire company will see this cost covered by their corporate neighbors who use their services. But further down the road? Once all is said and done, and Shell has what they need to operate unfettered, Chief Carlton wonders, “where do we stand with them?”
Waiting for disclosure of the risks
Emergency preparedness and planning should be a process characterized by transparency and inclusion of all stakeholders. However, when it comes to the Shell ethane cracker, those who will share a fence line with such operations have not yet been granted access to the full picture. Currently, the DEP allows industrial operations like the proposed ethane cracker to wait until immediately before operations begin to disclose emergency planning information, in the form of Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency (PPC) plans. In other words, when permits are up for approval or denial prior to construction, permit applicants are not currently required to provide PPC plans, and the public and emergency managers cannot weigh the risks or provide crucial input.
According to Shell, possible risks of the proposed Beaver County petrochemical facility include fire, explosion, leaks, and equipment failures. More than mere potentialities, examples of each are already on the books. The above table presents a sampling. Shell also points out the increased risk of traffic accidents, not explored in this chart. It is worth noting, however, that the proposed facility, and likely spin-off facilities, would greatly increase vehicular and rail traffic.
The ethane cracker in Beaver County plant has not yet been constructed. However, Shell operates similar operations with documented risks and their own histories of emergency events. Going forward, the various governmental agencies tasked with reviewing permit applications should require industrial operations like Shell, to make this information public as part of the review and planning process. Currently they can relegate safety information to a few vague references and get a free pass to mark it as “confidential” in permit applications. Strengthening risk disclosure requirements would be a logical and basic step toward ensuring that all stakeholders – including those with special emergency planning expertise – can have input on whether those risks are acceptable before permits are approved and site prep begins.
Until regulations are tightened, we invite Shell to fulfill its own stated objective of being a “good neighbor” by being forthcoming about what risks will be moving in next door. Shell can and should take the initiative to share information about its existing facilities, as well as lessons learned from past emergencies at those sites. Instead of waiting for the post-construction, or the “implementation” stage, all stakeholders deserve disclosure of Shell’s plans to prevent and respond to emergencies now.
In our next article, we will explore the infrastructure for the proposed Shell facility, which spans multiple states, and sort out the piecemeal approval processes of building an ethane cracker in Pennsylvania.
Emergency Managers and First Responders in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana and Potter Township and Center Township, PA.
Lisa Hallowell, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, for her review of this article series and contributions to our understanding of relevant regulations.
Kirk Jalbert, in addition to maps and analysis, for contributing key points of consideration for and expertise on environmental justice.
The International League of Conservation Photographers for sharing the feature image used in this article.
The image used on our homepage of the steam cracker at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site was taken by BASF.
By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for FracTracker Alliance and the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project and Lisa Graves Marcucci, PA Coordinator, Community Outreach of Environmental Integrity Project
With maps and analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Cracker-2-Feature-iLCP.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2017-05-03 13:56:332020-07-21 11:01:05Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure
At a Re-Imagine Beaver County gathering in Pennsylvania earlier this month, static maps became dynamic in the hands of those who live in and around the region depicted. Residents of this area in the greater Pittsburgh region gathered to depict a new vision for Beaver County, PA. This county is currently faced with the proposal of a massive Shell-owned petrochemical facility – also called a “cracker” – and further build-out that could render the area a northern version of Louisiana’s “Chemical Corridor.” Participants at this event, from Beaver County and beyond, were encouraged to collectively envision a future based on sustainable development. The picture they created was one that welcomes change – but requires it to be sustainable and for the benefit of the community that makes it happen.
Figure 1: Participants study a map of Beaver County. Photo credit: Sophie Riedel.
Re-Imagine Beaver County Participants
Panelists from municipal government, organic agriculture, and leaders and entrepreneurs of sustainable initiatives started off the event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and endorsed by the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Committee. After an hour, the room of 60 or so participants dove into the lively de- and re-construction of large format maps of the area. They were invited to markup the maps, created by Carnegie Mellon University graduate student of the School of Architecture, Sophie Riedel. Each table worked from a different base map of the same area – centering on the confluence of the Ohio and Beaver rivers, including the already heavily-industrialized riverside and the site of Shell’s proposed petrochemical facility.
Figure 2: The site of the proposed petrochemical facility in Beaver County (on left) and the Ohio River that participants hope to see reinvented as a recreational waterway buttressed by public parks. Photo credit: Garth Lenz, iLCP.
Much more than a thought exercise, the gathering represented a timely response to a growing grassroots effort around the proposed petrochemical inundation. Changes are already underway at the site, and those who live in this region have the right to give input. This right is especially salient when considering the risks associated with the petrochemical industry – including detrimental health impacts on babies before they are even born, asthma exacerbation, and increased cancer rates.
Charting a new vision
The re-invented Beaver County would be one of increased connectivity and mobility, well-equipped to provide for local needs with local means.
Many ideas included on the maps reflected a longing for transportation options independent of personal vehicles – including better, safer, more connected bike trails and walking paths, use of existing rail lines for local travel, and even the inventive suggestion of a water taxi. These inherently lower-impact means of transport coincide with preferences of millennials, according to several of the panelists, who want more walkable, bikeable communities. Ushering in such sustainable suggestions would welcome more young families to an area with an aging population. More than just about moving people, transportation ideas also included ways to get locally grown foods to those who need it, such as the elderly.
Figure 3: Participants modify maps to reflect a new vision. Photo credit: Sophie Riedel.
The value of beauty was a subtheme in many of the ideas to connect and mobilize the population and goods, ideas which often held a dual aim of protecting open space, creating new parks, and offering recreation possibilities. Participants ambitiously reimagined their river, the Ohio, from its current status as a closed-off corridor for industrial usage and waste, to a recreational resource for kayaking and fishing walleye.
Participants marked up the maps to show the resources that help sustain this community, and voiced a strong desire for development that would enable additional self-reliance. These forward-thinking changes included increased agriculture and use of permaculture techniques, and community gardens for growing food near the people who currently lack access. Ideas for powering the region abounded, like harnessing wind power and putting solar panels on every new building.
Participants were firm on local sourcing for another key resource: the labor required for these efforts, they insisted, must come from the local populace. Educational programs designed to channel learners into workers for sustainability might include training to rebuild homes to “greener” standards, and programs aimed at bringing a new generation of farmers to the fields. Perhaps a nod to the world-wide plastic glut that a petrochemical facility would add to, suggestions even included local ways of dealing with waste, like starting a composting program and establishing more recycling centers.
Who is a part of this vision, both in creating it and living it out? Inevitably, the selection of panelists and the interests of the audience members themselves influenced the vision this group crafted. The question of inclusion and representation found articulation among many participants, and the hosts of the event welcomed suggestions on reaching a broader audience moving forward. Looking around the room, one man asked, “Where are all the young people, and families with kids?” Indeed, only several members of this demographic were present. Though indicative of the racial makeup of Beaver County, the audience appeared to be primarily white, meaning that the racially diverse communities in the region where not represented. Others pointed out that going forward, the audience should also include those residents struggling with un- and underemployment, who have a major stake in whatever vision of Beaver County comes to fruition. Another said he would like to see more elected officials and leaders present. Notably, Potter Township Board of Supervisors Chairperson, Rebecca Matsco, who is a strong advocate for the proposed petrochemical project in her township, was present for the first half of the event.
Local means for meeting local needs
People who welcome petrochemical development in Beaver County might believe that those who voice concerns about the proposed Shell plant aren’t forward-thinking, or simply oppose change. Quite in contrast, participants at Re-Imagine Beaver County went to work reinventing their community with optimism and enthusiasm. They didn’t seem to be resisting change, but instead, wanting to participate in the process of change and to ultimately see benefits to their community. For example, discussion of solar power generated substantial excitement. According to panel speaker Hal Saville, however, the biggest challenge is making it affordable for everyone, which suggests that the estimated $1.6 billion in tax breaks going to Shell for the petrochemical plant could be better allocated.
A key narrative from supporters of the ethane cracker centers on the pressing need for jobs in this area, though some locals have expressed concern about how many of Shell’s promised jobs would go to residents. Whoever gets hired, these jobs come with serious dangers to workers. Participants at this event proposed alternative initiatives – both ambitious and small – for creating jobs within the community, like providing “sprout funds” to encourage new business start-ups, and launching a coordinated effort to rehab aging housing stock. These ideas suggest that the people of this region feel their energy and ingenuity would be best spent making Beaver County a better place to live and work, in contrast to producing disposable petrochemical products for export around the world. The fact that so many participants emphasized local means for meeting their needs in no way downplays the need for good jobs. Rather, it points to the fact that people want jobs that are good for them and for the future of their community.
Moving the vision forward
Where do we go from here? Can the momentum of this event draw in greater representation from the region to have a voice in this process? Will these visions become animated and guide the creation of a new reality? Broader and deeper planning is in order; participants and panelists alike pointed to tools like comprehensive community plans and cleaner, “greener” industrial policies. More than anything, the group articulated a need for more deliberation and participation. As panelist and farm co-owner Don Kretschmann put it, when it comes to change, we need to “think it through before we go ahead and do it.”
The maps themselves, bearing the inspirations scrawled out during the event, have not reached the end of the road. From here, these maps will accompany an upcoming exhibition of the artworks in Petrochemical America, which locals hope to bring to the greater Pittsburgh area in the coming months. League of Women Voters, for their part, continue to move the vision forward, inviting input from all on next steps, with an emphasis on pulling in a broader cross-section of the community.
To voice your vision, and to stay in the loop on future Re-Imagine Beaver County events, contact email@example.com.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Re-Imagine-Beaver-Feature-Riedel.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2017-03-24 09:11:252020-03-11 16:21:18Mapping a new vision in PA: Alternatives to petrochemical development
by Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow
map & analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
in partnership with the Environmental Integrity Project
On January 18, 2016, Potter Township Supervisors approved conditional use permits for Shell Chemical Appalachia’s proposed ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, PA. A type of petrochemical facility, an ethane cracker uses energy and the by-products of so-called natural gas to make ethylene, a building block of plastics. FracTracker Alliance has produced informative articles on the jobs numbers touted by the industry, and the considerable negative air impacts of the proposed facility. In the first in a series of new articles, we look at the potential hazards of ethane cracker plants in order to begin calculating the risk of a disaster in Beaver County.
As those who stand to be affected by — or make crucial decisions on — the ethane cracker contemplate the potential risks and promised rewards of this massive project, they should also carefully consider what could go wrong. In addition to the serious environmental and human health effects, which might only reveal themselves over time, what acute events, emergencies, and disasters could potentially occur? What is the disaster risk, the potential for “losses, in lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services,” of this massive petrochemical facility?
Known Ethane Cracker Risks
A well-accepted formula in disaster studies for determining risk, cited by, among others, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), is Disaster Risk = (Hazard x Vulnerability)/Capacity, as defined in the diagram below. In this article, we consider the first of these factors: hazard. Future articles will examine the remaining factors of vulnerability and capacity that are specific to this location and its population.
Applied to Shell’s self-described “world-scale petrochemical project,” it is challenging to quantify the first of these inputs, hazard. Not only would a facility of this size be unprecedented in this region, but Shell has closely controlled the “public” information on the proposed facility. What compounds the uncertainty much further is the fact that the proposed massive cracker plant is a welcome mat for further development in the area—for a complex network of pipelines and infrastructure to support the plant and its related facilities, and for a long-term commitment to continued gas extraction in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.
We can use what we do know about the hazards presented by ethane crackers and nearby existing vulnerabilities to establish some lower limit of risk. Large petrochemical facilities of this type are known to produce sizable unplanned releases of carcinogenic benzene and other toxic pollutants during “plant upsets,” a term that refers to a “shut down because of a mechanical problem, power outage or some other unplanned event.” A sampling of actual emergency events at other ethane crackers also includes fires and explosions, evacuations, injuries, and deaths.
For instance, a ruptured boiler at the Williams Company ethane cracker plant in Geismar, Louisiana, led to an explosion and fire in 2013. The event resulted in the unplanned and unpermitted release of at least 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air, including ethylene, propylene, benzene, 1-3 butadiene, and other volatile organic chemicals, as well as the release of pollutants through the discharge of untreated fire waters, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. According to the Times-Picayune, “workers scrambl(ed) over gates to get out of the plant.” The event required the evacuation of 300 workers, injured 167, and resulted in two deaths.
The community’s emergency response involved deployment of hundreds of personnel and extensive resources, including 20 ambulances, four rescue helicopters, and buses to move the injured to multiple area hospitals. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board chalked up the incident to poor “process safety culture” at the plant and “gaps in a key industry standard by the American Petroleum Institute (API).” The accident shut the plant down for a year and a half.
Potential Risks & Shell’s Mixed Messages
Shell has done little to define the potential for emergencies at the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker plant, at least in materials made available to the public. Shell has revealed that general hazards include “fire, explosion, traffic accidents, leaks and equipment failures.”
However, we located numerous versions of Shell’s handout and found one notable difference among them—the brochure distributed to community members at a December 2016 public hearing held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) excluded the word “explosion” from the list of “potential safety concerns.” The difference is seen in comparing the two documents.
Figure #1 below: Excerpt of online version of a handout for Beaver County, dated May 2015, with “explosion” included in list of “potential safety concerns.” (Other Shell-produced safety documents, like the one included as an exhibit in the conditional use permit application on file with the township, and Shell’s webpage for the project, also include “explosion” in the list of hazards.)
Figure #2 below: Excerpt of handout, dated November 2016 and provided to the community at December 15, 2016 meeting, with the word “explosion” no longer included.
Additional hints about risks are peppered throughout the voluminous permit applications submitted by Shell to the PA DEP and Potter Township, such as references to mitigating acts of terror against the plant, strategies for reducing water contamination, and the possibility of unplanned upsets. But the sheer volume of these documents, coupled with their limitedaccessibility challenge the public’s ability to digest this information. The conditional use permit application submitted by Shell indicates the existence of an Emergency Response Plan for the construction phase, but the submission is marked as confidential.
Per Pennsylvania law, and as set forth in PA DEP guidelines, Shell must submit a Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan (PPC Plan) at an unspecified point prior to operation. But at that likely too-late stage, who would hear objections to the identified hazards, when construction of the plant is already a done deal? Even then, can we trust that the plan outlined by that document is a solid and executable one?
Shell’s defense of the Beaver County plant is quick to point out differences between other plants and the one to come, making the case that technical advances will result in safety improvements. But it is noteworthy that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board attributes failures at the Williams Geismar plant, in part, to “the ineffective implementation of…process safety management programs… as well as weaknesses in Williams’ written programs themselves.” The Geismar explosion demonstrates some of the tangible hazards that communities experience in living near ethane cracker plants. It is worth noting that the proposed Beaver County facility will have about 2½ times more ethylene processing capacity than the Geismar plant had at the time of the 2013 explosion.
Opening the Floodgates
In an effort to expand our understanding of risk associated with the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker and the extent of related developments promised by industry leaders, FracTracker Alliance has constructed the below map. It shows the site of the Shell facility and nearby land marked by Beaver County as “abandoned” or “unused.” These land parcels are potential targets for future build-out of associated facilities. Two “emergency planning zones” are indicated—a radius of 2 miles and a radius of 5 miles from the perimeter of Shell’s site. These projections are based upon FracTracker’s discussions with officials at the Saint Charles Parish Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who are responsible for emergency planning procedures in Norco, Louisiana, the site of another Shell ethane cracker facility. The emergency zones are also noted in the 2015 Saint Charles Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Also shown on the map is an estimated route of the Falcon pipeline system Shell intends to build, which will bring ethane from the shale gas fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note that this is an estimated route based on images shown in Shell’s announcement of the project. Finally, our map includes resources and sites of vulnerability, including schools, fire stations, and hospitals. The importance of these sites will be discussed in the next article of this series.
While the site of the Shell cracker is worth attending to, it would be a mistake to limit assessments of disaster risk to the site of the facility alone. Shell’s proposed plant is but one component in a larger plan to expand ethane-based processing and use in the region, with the potential to rival the Gulf Coast as a major U.S. petrochemical hub. An upcoming conference on petrochemical construction in the region, scheduled for June 2017 in Pittsburgh, shows the industry’s commitment to further development. These associated facilities (from plants producing fertilizers to plastics) would utilize their own mix of chemicals, and their potential interactions would produce additional, unforeseen hazards. Ultimately, a cumulative impact assessment is needed, and should take into account these promised facilities as well as existing resources and vulnerabilities. The below Google Earth window gives a sense of what this regional build-out might look like.
What might an ethane cracker and related petrochemical facilities look like in Beaver County? For an idea of the potential build-out, take a tour of Norco, Louisiana, which includes Shell-owned petrochemical facilities.
As discussed in the introduction, “hazard,” “vulnerability,” and “capacity” are the elements of the formula that, in turn, exacerbate or mitigate disaster risk. While much of this article has focused on drastic “hazards,” such as disastrous explosions or unplanned chemical releases, these should not overshadow the more commonplace public health threats associated with petrochemical facilities, such as detrimental impact on air quality and the psychological harm of living under the looming threat of something going wrong.
The second and third articles in this series will dig deeper into “vulnerability” and “capacity.” These terms remind us of the needs and strengths of the community in question, but also that there is a community in question.
Formulas, terminology, and calculations should not obscure the fact that people’s lives are in the balance. The public should not be satisfied with preliminary and incomplete risk assessments when major documents that should detail the disaster implications of the ethane cracker are not yet available, as well as when the full scale of future build-out in the area remains an unknown.
Much gratitude to Lisa Graves-Marcucci and Lisa Hallowell of the Environmental Integrity Project for their expertise and feedback on this article.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ethane-cracker-hazards-1-header.jpg400900FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgFracTracker Alliance2017-02-08 13:30:042020-05-14 16:39:56A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker
How annual incomes in the shadow of oil refineries compare to state and regional prosperity
Figure 1. North American Oil Refinery Capacity
Typically, we analyze the potential economic impacts of oil refineries by simply quantifying potential and/or actual capacity on an annual or daily basis. Using this method, we find that the 126 refineries operating in the U.S. produce an average of 100,000-133,645 barrels per day (BPD) of oil – or 258 billion gallons per year.
In all of North America, there are 158 refineries. When you include the 21 and 27 billion gallons per year produced by our neighbors to the south and north, respectively, North American refineries account for 23-24% of the global refining capacity. That is, of course, if you believe the $113 dollar International Energy Agency’s 2016 “Medium-Term Oil Market Report” 4.03 billion gallon annual estimates (Table 1 and Figure 1).
Table 1. Oil Refinery Capacity in the United States and Canada (Barrels Per Day (BPD))
Prince George & Moose Jaw Refining in BC and SK, 12-15K BPD
Pemex’s Ciudad Madero Refinery, 152K BPD
Exxon Mobil in TX & LA, 502-560K BPD
Valero and Irving Oil Refining in QC & NS, 265-300K BPD
Pemex’s Tula Refinery, 340K BPD
Census Tract Income Disparities
However, we would propose that an alternative measure of a given oil refinery’s impact would be neighborhood prosperity in the census tract(s) where the refinery is located. We believe this figure serves as a proxy for economic justice. As such, we recently used the above refinery location and capacity data in combination with US Census Bureau Cartographic Boundaries (i.e., Census Tracts) and the Census’ American FactFinder clearinghouse to estimate neighborhood prosperity near refineries.
Our analysis involved merging oil refineries to their respective census tracts in ArcMAP 10.2, along with all census tracts that touch the actual census tract where the refineries are located, and calling that collection the oil refinery’s sphere of influence, for lack of a better term. We then assigned Mean Income in the Past 12 Months (In 2014 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) values for each census tract to the aforementioned refinery tracts – as well as surrounding regional, city, and state tracts – to allow for a comparison of income disparities. We chose to analyze mean income instead of other variables such as educational attainment, unemployment, or poverty percentages because it largely encapsulates these economic indicators.
In today’s world, the enormous gap in the distribution of wealth, income and public benefits is growing ever wider, reflecting a general trend that is morally unfair, politically unwise and economically unsound… excessive income inequality restricts social mobility and leads to social segmentation and eventually social breakdown…In the modern context, those concerned with social justice see the general increase in income inequality as unjust, deplorable and alarming. It is argued that poverty reduction and overall improvements in the standard of living are attainable goals that would bring the world closer to social justice.
Environmental regulatory agencies like to separate air pollution sources into point and non-point sources. Point sources are “single, identifiable” sources, whereas non-point are more ‘diffuse’ resulting in impacts spread out over a larger geographical area. We would equate oil refineries to point sources of socioeconomic and/or environmental injustice. The non-point analysis would be far more difficult to model given the difficulties associated with converting perceived quality of life disturbance(s) associated with infrastructure like compressor stations from the anecdotal to the empirical.
Primarily, residents living in the shadow of 80% of our refineries earn nearly $16,000 less than those in the surrounding region – or, in the case of urban refineries, the surrounding Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Only residents living in census tracts within the shadow of 25 of our 126 oil refineries earn around $10,000 more annually than those in the region.
On average, residents of census tracts that contain oil refineries earn 13-16% less than those in the greater region and/or MSAs (Figure 2). Similarly, in comparing oil refinery census tract incomes to state averages we see a slightly larger 17-21% disparity (Figure 3).
Figure 4. United States Oil Refinery Income Disparities (Note: Larger points indicate oil refinery census tracts that earn less than the surrounding region or city.)
Oil refinery income disparities seem to occur not just in one region, but across the U.S. (Figure 4).
The biggest regional/MSA disparities occur in northeastern Denver neighborhoods around the Suncor Refinery complex (103,000 BPD), where the refinery’s census tracts earn roughly $42,000 less than Greater Denver residents1. California, too, has some issues near its Los Angeles’ Valero and Tesoro Refineries and Chevron’s Bay Area Refinery, with a combined daily capacity of nearly 600 BPD. There, two California census associations in the shadow of those refineries earn roughly $38,000 less than Contra Costa and Los Angeles Counties, respectively. In the Lone Star state Marathon’s Texas City, Galveston County refinery resides among census tracts where annual incomes nearly $33,000 less than the Galveston-Houston metroplex. Linden, NJ and St. Paul, MN, residents near Conoco Phillips and Flint Hills Resources refineries aren’t fairing much better, with annual incomes that are roughly $35,000 and nearly $33,000 less than the surrounding regions, respectively.
Click on the images below to explore each of the top disparate areas near oil refineries in the U.S. in more detail. Lighter shades indicate census tracks with a lower mean annual income ($).
Clearly, certain communities throughout the United States have been essentially sacrificed in the name of Energy Independence and overly-course measures of economic productivity such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The presence and/or construction of mid- and downstream oil and gas infrastructure appears to accelerate an already insidious positive feedback loop in low-income neighborhoods throughout the United States. Only a few places like Southeast Chicago and Detroit, however, have even begun to discuss where these disadvantaged communities should live, let alone how to remediate the environmental costs.
Internally Displaced People
There exists a robust history of journalists and academics focusing on Internally Displaced People (IDP) throughout war-torn regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia – to name a few – and most of these 38 million people have “become displaced within their own country as a result of violence.” However, there is a growing body of literature and media coverage associated with current and potential IDP resulting from rising sea levels, drought, chronic wildfire, etc.
The issues associated with oil and gas infrastructure expansion and IDPs are only going to grow in the coming years as the Shale Revolution results in a greater need for pipelines, compressor stations, cracker facilities, etc. We would propose there is the potential for IDP resulting from the rapid, ubiquitous, and intense expansion of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex here in the United States.
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator & Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
Communities living along the North Coast of the East Bay region in California are the most impacted by the presence of the petrochemical industry in their communities.
Emissions from these facilities disproportionately degrade air quality in this corridor region putting residents at an elevated risk of cancer and other health impacts.
People of color are more likely to live near the refineries and are therefore disproportionately affected.
Refinery Corridor Introduction
The North Coast of California’s East Bay region hosts a variety of heavy industries, including petroleum refineries, multiple power plants and stations, chemical manufacturing plants, and hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities. Nationwide, the majority of petroleum refineries are located in heavily industrialized areas or near crude oil sources. The north coast region is unique. Access to shipping channels and the location being central to the raw crude product from North Dakota and Canada to the North, and California’s central valley oil fields to the south has resulted in the development of a concentrated petrochemical infrastructure within the largely residential Bay Area. The region’s petrochemical development includes seven fossil fuel utility power stations that produce a total of 4,283 MW, five major oil refineries operated by Chevron, Phillips 66, Shell Martinez, Tesoro, and Valero, and 4 major chemical manufacturers operated by Shell, General Chemical, DOW, and Hasa Inc. This unequal presence has earned the region the title, “refinery corridor” as well as “sacrifice zone” as described by the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition.
The hazardous emissions from refineries and other industrial sites are known to degrade local air quality. It is therefore important to identify and characterize the communities that are affected, as well as identify where sensitive populations are located. The communities living near these facilities are therefore at an elevated risk of exposure to a variety of chemical emissions. In this particular North Coast region, the high density of these industrial point sources of air pollution drives the risk of resultant health impacts. According to the U.S.EPA, people of color are twice as likely to live near refineries throughout the U.S. This analysis by FracTracker will consider the community demographics and other sensitive receptors near refineries along the north coast corridor.
In the map below (Figure 1) U.S. EPA risk data in CalEnviroscreen is mapped for the region of concern. The map shows the risk resulting specifically from industrial point sources. Risk along the North Coast is elevated significantly. Risk factors calculated for the region show that these communities are elevated above the average. The locations of industrial sites are also mapped, with specific focus on the boundaries or fencelines of petrochemical sites. Additional hazardous sites that represent the industrial footprint in the region have been added to the map including sites registered with Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) permits as well as Superfund and otherComprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) sites. The Toxmap TRI sites are facilities that require a permit to emit hazardous air pollutants. The superfund and other CERCLA sites are locations where a historical footprint of industry has resulted in contamination. The sites are typically abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites that are part of register for tax-funded clean-ups.
Figure 1. Interactive map of risk in the East Bay’s North Coast refinery corridor
Oil refineries in particular are unique sources of air emissions. There are 150 large domestic refineries throughout the United States. They are shown in the map in Figure 2 below. The majority (90%) of the refined products from these refineries are fuels; motor vehicle gasoline accounts for 40%. The refinery sites have hundreds of stacks, or point sources, and they emit a wide variety of pollutants, as outlined by the U.S. EPA:
Criteria Air Pollutants (CAPs)
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Particulate Matter (PM)
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs)
Carcinogens, including benzene, naphthalene, 1,3-butadiene, PAH
Non-carcinogenic HAP, including HF and HCN
Persistent bioaccumulative HAP, including mercury and nickel
Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S)
Figure 2. Map of North American Petroleum Refineries
Disparate health impacts are therefore a known burden for these Bay Area communities. The region includes the cities of Richmond, Pinole, Hercules, Rodeo, Crockett, Port Costa, Benicia, Martinez, Mt. View, Pacheco, Vine Hill, Clyde, Concord, Bay Point, Antioch, and Oakley. In addition to preserving the ecological system health of this intercostal region is also important for both the ecological biodiversity of the marsh as well as commercial and recreational purposes. These wetlands provide a buffer, able to absorb rising waters and abate flooding.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (BAAQMD) Cumulative Impacts report identified areas where air pollution’s health impacts are relatively high in the San Francisco Bay Area. The report is does not limit their analysis to the North Coast, but shows that these regions with the most impacts are also the most vulnerable due to income, education level, and race and ethnicity. The report shows that there is a clear correlation between socio-economic disadvantages and racial minorities and the impacted communities. Figure 3 shows the regions identified by the BAAQMD as having the highest pollution indices.
This analysis by FracTracker focuses specifically on the north shore of the East Bay region. Like the BAAQMD report, National Air toxic Assessment (NATA) data to identify census tracts with elevated risk. Specifically, elevated cancer and non-cancer risk from point sources emitting hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) as regulated by the U.S. EPA were used. CalEnviroScreen 2.0 data layers were also incorporated, specifically the U.S. EPA’s Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) data. RSEI uses toxic release inventory (TRI) data, emission locations and weather to model how chemicals spread in the air (in 810m-square grid units), and combines air concentrations with toxicity factors.
The census tracts that were identified as disproportionately impacted by air quality are shown in the map below (Figure 4). The demographics data for these census tracts are presented in the tables below. Demographics were taken from the U.S. census bureau’s 2010 Census Summary File 1 Demographic Profile (DP1). The census tracts shapefiles were downloaded from here.
Figure 4. Interactive Map of Petrochemical Sites and Neighboring Communities in the East Bays North Coast Industrial Corridor
Buffers were created at 1,000 ft; 2,000 ft; and 3,000 ft buffers from petrochemical sites. These distances were developed as part of a hazard screening protocol by researchers at the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to assess environmental justice impacts. The distances are based on environmental justice literature, ARB land use guidelines, and state data on environmental disamenities (Sadd et al. 2011). A demographical profile was summarized for the population living within a distance of 3,000 feet, and for the census tracts identified as impacted by local point sources in this region. The analysis is summarized in Table 1 below. Additional data on the socioeconomic status of the census tracts is found in Table 2.
Based on the increased percentage of minorities and indicators of economic hardship shows that the region within the buffers and the impacted census tracts host a disproportionate percentage of vulnerable populations. Of particular note is 30% increase in Non-white individuals compared to the rest of the state. We see in Table 2 that this is disparity is specifically for Black or African American communities, with an over 150% increase compared to the total state population. The number of households reported to be in poverty in the last 12 months of 2014 and those households receiving economic support via EBT are also elevated in this region. Additional GIS analysis shows that 7 healthcare facilities, 7 residential elderly care facilities, 32 licensed daycares, and 17 schools where a total of 10,474 students attended class in 2014. Of those students, 54.5% were Hispanic and over 84% identified as “Non-white.”
Table 1. Demographic Summaries of Race. Data within the 3,000 ft buffer of petrochemical sites was aggregated at the census block level.
Hispanic or Latino
Hispanic or Latino (%ile)
Impacted Census Tracts
3,000 ft. Buffer
Table 2. Additional Status Indicators taken from the 2010 census at the census tract level
Indicators (Census Tract data)
Children, Age under 5
Black or African American
Food Stamps (households)
The results of the refinery corridor analysis show that the communities living along the North Coast of the East Bay region are the most impacted by the presence of the petrochemical industry in their communities. Emissions from these facilities disproportionately degrade air quality in this corridor region putting residents at an elevated risk of cancer and other health impacts. The communities in this region are a mix of urban and single family homes with residential land zoning bordering directly on heavy industry zoning and land use. The concentration of industry in this regions places an unfair burden on these communities. While all of California benefits from the use of fossil fuels for transportation and hydrocarbon products such as plastics, the residents in this region bear the burden of elevated cancer and non-cancer health impacts.
Additionally, the community profile is such that residents have a slightly elevated sensitivity when compared to the rest of the state. The proportion of the population that is made up of more sensitive receptors is slightly increased. The region has suburban population densities and more children under the age of 5 than average. The number of people of color living in these communities is elevated compared to background (all of California). The largest disparity is for Black or African American residents. There are also a large number of schools located within 3,000 ft of at least one petrochemical site, where over half the students are Hispanic and the vast majority are students of color. Overall, people of color are disproportionately affected by the presence of the petrochemical industry in this region. Continued operation and any increases in production of the refineries in the East Bay disproportionately impact the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
With this information, FracTracker will be elaborating on the work within these communities with additional analyses. Future work includes a more in depth look at emissions and drivers of risk on the region, mapping crude by rail terminals, and working with the community to investigate specific health endpoints. Check back soon.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/chevron-refinery_cover.jpg400900Kyle Ferrar, MPHhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgKyle Ferrar, MPH2016-03-30 20:56:352020-03-12 17:30:45Petrochemical Industry Presence in East Bay CA’s North Coast Refinery Corridor
FracTracker Alliance studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation.