A new collaboration between FracTracker Alliance and Algalita is aiming to help middle school and high school students understand the connection between plastics and fracking — and the wide ranging implications for climate change, environmental injustice, and human health.
Most young people today understand that plastics are problematic. But, there is still often a disconnect between the symptom of plastics in our oceans, and the root causes of the problem. Algalita’s mission is to empower a new generation of critical thinkers to shift the broken and unjust systems that are causing the plastic pollution crisis. Algalita’s strategy is creating educational experiences directly with the movement’s diverse leaders, and this new project with FracTracker is a perfect example.
Specifically, Algalita and FracTracker have been working together to add new lessons to Algalita’s brand-new online, gamified, action platform: Wayfinder Society. Through this program, students can guide their own exploration of the complexities of the plastics issue, and can take action at their own pace and scale, by completing lessons and action-items (called Waymarks) based on difficulty, topic, and type of impact.
The first of two FracTracker Waymarks outlines the connection between fracking and plastic production. Students explore a map showing the full plastics production process from fracking pads, to pipelines, to ethane crackers, and packaging factories.
In a second Waymark that builds off of the first, students explore the massive petrochemical buildout on the Gulf Coast and in the Ohio River Valley. The map allows students to analyze the greenhouse gas emissions predicted for this buildout using the data point pop-up boxes. They can also examine the effects of climate change on communities amongst the buildout by viewing the coastal flood zone areas in Texas and Louisiana. Beyond that, students can investigate how facilities are impacting their peers in schools close to massive ethane cracker facilities. Finally, students are introduced to the movement’s #PlasticFreePresident Campaign, giving them a direct action to apply their new knowledge.
Mapping Fracking’s Link to Plastic Production
This StoryMap was created by FracTracker for Wayfinder Society, a program by Algalita. Learn more at Algalita.org. Place your cursor over the image and scroll down to advance the StoryMap and explore a series of maps charting the fracking-for-plastic system. Click on the icon in the bottom left to view the legend. Scroll to the end of the StoryMap to learn more and access the data sources.
Algalita is excited about this partnership for so many reasons. For one, GIS is a critical skill for young people to learn. These two Waymarks pose an accessible and non-intimidating introduction to ArcGIS by using simple maps and StoryMaps like the one above. The maps let students get comfortable with GIS concepts and capabilities like layers, data attribute tables, measuring tools, and filters. Allowing students to explore how plastics are produced through a geographical lens provides a unique visual and interactive experience for them. The goal is for students to be able to connect petrochem buildout, with the plastics, climate and justice issues that they are focusing on — often separately. Our aim is that by putting this part of the story in context of real physical space they will more easily make those connections. We hope these lessons spark some students’ interest in mapping, geography, and GIS, providing a new generation of changemakers with GIS in their toolbox.
On top of that, we are stoked to be building this partnership with FracTracker because the success of our collective movement depends on strong, clear communication and synergies between the nodes of the movement’s network. The FracTracker Waymarks give our Wayfinders direct access to real-time data, visualizations, and expert insights that they can then use to level-up their actions and stories around their activism. And, they connect the dots not just for students, but also for educators and movement partners like us at Algalita — we are all for this powerful lever for change!
Check out Wayfinder Society here. Access the FracTracker Waymarks here and here— but you’ll need to be logged in. If you’re a student, get started by creating a profile, and then start earning Cairns (points)! If you’re an educator, parent or mentor, and interested in exploring the site, email us here for the guest login.
By Anika Ballent, Education Director, Algalita
Algalita empowers a new generation of critical thinkers who will shift the broken and unjust systems that are causing the plastic pollution crisis. We do this by offering educational experiences created directly with the movement’s diverse leaders.
Anika has been working in the movement against plastic pollution for ten years, studying microplastics in benthic and freshwater environments. She brings together her science background and creativity to educate young changemakers through hands-on experiences in schools, Algalita’s International Youth Summit, and online programs.
All other data points were mapped by FracTracker Alliance referencing various online sources. While this map is based on actual infrastructure, it is intended as a model of the fracking-for-plastic lifecycle and certain steps may vary in real life.
It’s been a little over a year since I visited the Texas Gulf Coast to document the oil, gas, and petrochemical landscape with our partners at LightHawk and Scott Humphries, an amazing pilot and Houston native.
Much has happened since then – in regard to and because of – the Gulf Coast’s petrochemical industry.
The fossil fuel landscape along the Gulf Coast is broad, and its impact is heavy.
The area has seen a massive build out over the last five years. New plastics and steel manufacturing facilities and pipelines from the Permian Basin that transport crude to ever-expanding tank farms and marine terminals – all with the blessings of local economic development groups and local government, despite known present and potential hazards.
Channels of Life, below, is a short video looking at what is already on the ground, and what is on the horizon. Whether you are pleasure-boating in the channels or driving down the highway, you only see the edge of industrial sprawl that already exists. The depth of the incursion is not visible from the ground. Further down in an interactive Story Map, we give you a rare look from above, while pinpointing various incidents and facilities of concern. Partnering with LightHawk, we flew from Port Aransas, up the La Quinta Channel to the Nueces Delta, and ending at Refinery Row, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling fossil fuel landscape.
How much more industrial saturation can the Coastal Bend’s public health and ecosystem withstand before it is all sacrificed?
Is it destined to become a sacrifice zone for increasing corporate wealth and prestige?
In many parts of Texas – as well as in Louisiana and New Mexico – oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities abut schools, backyards, and playgrounds. The Gulf Coast contains 95% of the country’s ethylene capacity and roughly half of the country’s petroleum refining and natural gas processing capacity. This development has propelled a new wave of petroleum and petrochemical infrastructure in recent years. There are 129 planned or recently completed petrochemical facilities in TX and LA alone.
This buildout has enormous consequences for the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, including intensifying climate change; increasing production of (often radioactive) waste and the need for its disposal; and discharging dangerous pollution into frontline communities where health has already been compromised by industry activities.
As the sacrifice builds and the losses mount, economic development corporations advertise the area as prime real estate for more facilities and infrastructure – even as markets steadily move away from fossil fuels. Exports are a tenuous lifeline for an industry drowning in an oversupply of oil and gas, but advocates like the Port of Corpus Christi Authority insist on proposing, financing, and constructing new crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals along the Gulf Coast, including the BlueWater and GulfLink terminals.
These Texan sites are further captured in the Story Map below, as are the footprints of countless other existing and proposed petrochemical infrastructure sites, from the frac sand mines south of San Antonio down into Corpus Christi Bay, the mushrooming industry along the La Quinta Channel, up the Gulf Coast to Freeport, and finally along the always hectic Houston Ship Channel that empties out into Galveston Bay.
Left to Right: Corpus Christi native and Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment (CAPE) member Dewey Magee, FracTracker Alliance’s Ted Auch, and LightHawk pilot Scott Humphries stand outside Scott’s Beechcraft Bonanza A-36 at McCampbell-Porter Airport in Aransas Pass, TX, November 11th, 2019. Photo by Errol Summerlin
The View of Corpus Christi’s Petrochemical Corridor along La Quinta Channel and Tule Lake Shipping Channel from 200’ above McCampbell-Porter Airport in Aransas Pass, TX, November 11th, 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance
I reached out to pilot and native Houstonian Scott Humphries for his thoughts on what he expected and what he gleaned from our flight. He wrote the following:
Question #1: What about our proposed flight interested you as a Texan and/or Houstonian – or just more generally – what interested you about this mission?
I’ve always tried to be environmentally conscious, and always try to have, “think globally, act locally” rummaging around in my head, but this mission (and affiliating with LightHawk generally) presented an opportunity for me to try to (hopefully) have a little more impact than just personally recycling, outlawing Styrofoam cups at our office, etc. Separately, as a longtime Houstonian, I’ve always been proud to live and work in what many refer to as the “Energy Capital of the World.” This mission seemed a useful way to do some small part to help make sure that title continues to be held responsibly.
Question #2: After conducting the flights, or as they were happening, did you learn anything, or have any thoughts that surprised you or realizations about anything particular?
I have flown along the Gulf Coast (including to/from Houston/Corpus Christi) many, many times, and if you’d asked me before this mission, I would have said, ‘Sure, there’s a decent amount of industry along that part of the coast.’ What surprised me while we were flying was two things: (1) there’s not just a decent amount of industry along that part of the coast; rather, along that route, even flying low, you’re rarely – if ever – out of sight of a significant facility of some kind, and (2) the size of the facilities – in other circumstances I’d have been flying much higher and wouldn’t get a good sense of the size of the pads. Flying as we were at just over 1000′, it was striking how massive the various plants were, both in Corpus Christi Bay and along the coast.
Another perspective on this flight and the area we flew over comes from Kevin Sims, Aransas Bay Birding Charters Operator whose Whooping Crane and Pink Spoonbill photos we feature in the story map below. Kevin has been plying the waters in and around Aransas Wildlife Refuge since 1972, and when I contacted him about using some of his photos, he told me the following:
“We need the desalination plants, but the planned discharge points are going to cripple our ecology and the business that rely on it for tourism. They could’ve discharged offshore, but instead they are discharging into the bay, and if it gets too salty the crab populations will plummet, and everything around here depends on crabs and shrimp. If we have a constant influx of brine it could really cripple us. I went to a fantastic meeting from Texas A&M, and their science told them that if red fish larvae migrated into the [Aransas Pass] shipping channel and hit a wall of salty water, they wouldn’t go further, and their population would crash. But despite these facts, they’ve chosen to discharge into the La Quinta Channel, and that is bad news! They were having fairly regular meetings on all of these proposals prior to COVID, but once COVID hit, they went all remote, and less people knew when the meetings were, and the meeting details weren’t widely disseminated … So, the next thing we knew, everything was passed, and they’re gonna [sic] go ahead and do [all of] it.
My perspective comes from a lifetime of fishing and observing the Whooping Crane, and watching them progress from 157 eighteen years ago, to 507 at the present time. Well, I feel this will threaten an endangered species that they’ve been trying to bring back from the brink of extinction since the 1940s. I can remember my dad showing me the cranes in the mid-70s, and there were only 52-55. All of the projects you are mapping have the potential to decimate all the progress made, not to mention money spent on Whooping Crane recovery. From my perspective, it’s a catch-22, ‘cause [sic] the big cities take the water out of the river, and they don’t have the inflows into the bays that they did in the past. We also don’t have the rains that we used to have. The desalination plants would relieve some of that pressure if they would just put that brine offshore. The other species of concern to my industry is the Pink Spoonbills, but the Whooping Crane is the main draw.”
Channels of Life: The Gulf Coast Buildout in TX
A Story Map
This Story Map illustrates the impacts of oil and gas infrastructure from San Antonio down to Corpus Christi, and then up the Gulf Coast to Houston.
The map displays aerial photographs of infrastructure, from frac sand mines and refineries, to chemical plants and offshore drill rig construction sites. This map includes CO2 emissions from oil and gas infrastructure from 2010 – 2018 (weighted by total CO2 during this period in orange), and/or oil refineries and their myriad products (weighted by capacity in black [barrels/day oil equivalents]).
The Story Map also presents detailed information and locations for proposed petrochemical infrastructure in the Corpus Christi Bay region, courtesy of Errol Summerlin and our partners at Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment (CAPE). These proposals include dredging projects needed to accommodate more traffic from larger tanker ships, as well as desalination facilities that would collectively intake 758 million gallons of Corpus Christi Bay water each day, and discharge 507 million gallons of brine per day, with an average of 95 and 64 million gallons of desalinated water produced daily, respectively.
The perforated yellow line is the flight path we took with our LightHawk partners. When the viewer scrolls into any given region, they will see SkyTruth incident alerts within five miles of our flight path. The two examples cited at the beginning of this article are just a couple of the nearly 760 such incidents in just the Corpus Christi Shipping Channel since 2011, according to data provided by SkyTruth.
The most recent data in this map is Whooping Crane locations and number counts in TX as of November 2020, courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird data portal. This data speaks to the concerns of Mr. Sims and many of his colleagues who rely on the Whooping Crane’s attraction to birders internationally, and it also highlights that the projects photographed and in the works across Corpus Christi Bay will not just negatively affect the human communities, but will have far reaching impacts on the ecosystems of the western Gulf, and the industries that have relied on these ecosystems for all manner of ecosystems services.
Decades of oil and gas development have created a dependency on extractive industries, which has in turn hindered community health and stability.
The Port of Corpus Christi’s controversial dock expansion and Harbor Bridge replacement project at the southern end of Refinery Row has taken over community land and eclipsed their fight to protect their neighborhoods and their public health. Even after an environmental review, the preferred route cuts through these neighborhoods that are surrounded by industry, interstates, and waste treatment facilities – isolated from other residences, and subjected to heavy pollution, noise, and constant hazard.
Several activists and environmental coalitions are fighting this project and the industrial onslaught for the health of their communities. For more information on how to support their vision, visit our friends at Coastal Alliance to Protect our Environment (CAPE) and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS).
This video, Story Map and article were produced with much gratitude and appreciation for our partners at LightHawk, as well as the support and resources of Scott Humphries, Kevin Sims, and Errol Summerlin.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/TAuch_Infrastructure-Refinery-BritishPetroleum-TexasCity_TX_LightHawk_Nov2019-Feature-scaled.jpg6671500Ted Auch, PhDhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngTed Auch, PhD2020-12-23 16:23:392021-04-15 14:16:01Channels of Life: The Gulf Coast Buildout in Texas
In this article, we’ll take a look at the current trend in “re-branding” incineration as a viable option to deal with the mountains of garbage generated by our society. Incineration can produce energy for electricity, but can the costs—both economically, and ecologically—justify the benefits? What are the alternatives?
Changes in our waste stream
In today’s world of consumerism and production, waste disposal is a chronic problem facing most communities worldwide. Lack of attention to recycling and composting, as well as ubiquitous dependence on plastics, synthetics, and poorly-constructed or single-use goods has created a waste crisis in the United States. So much of the waste that we create could be recycled or composted, however, taking extraordinary levels of pressure off our landfills. According to estimates in 2017 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 30 percent of municipal solid waste is made up of organic matter like food waste, wood, and yard trimmings, almost all of which could be composted. Paper, glass, and metals – also recyclable – make up nearly 40 percent of the residential waste stream. Recycling plastic, a material which comprises 13% of the waste stream, has largely been a failed endeavor thus far.
Why say NO to incinerators?
They are bad for the environment, producing toxic chlorinated byproducts like dioxins. Incineration often converts toxic municipal waste into other forms, some of which are even more toxic than their precursors.
They often consume more energy than they produce and are not profitable to run.
They add CO2 to the atmosphere.
They promote the false narrative that we can “get something” from our trash
They detract from the conversation about actual renewable energy sources like wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy that will stop the acceleration of climate chaos.
Nevertheless, of the approximately 400 million tons of plastic produced annually around the world, only about 10% of it is recycled. The rest winds up in the waste stream or as microfragments (or microplastics) in our oceans, freshwater lakes, and streams.
According to an EPA fact sheet, by 2017, municipal solid waste generation increased three-fold compared with 1960. In 1960, that number was 88.1 million tons. By 2017, this number had risen to nearly 267.8 million tons. Over that same period, per-capita waste generation rose from 2.68 pounds per person per day, to 4.38 pounds per person per day, as our culture became more wed to disposable items.
The EPA provides a robust “facts and figures” breakdown of waste generation and disposal here. In 2017, 42.53 million tons of US waste was shipped to landfills, which are under increasing pressure to expand and receive larger and larger loads from surrounding area, and, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.
How are Americans doing in reducing waste?
On average, in 2017, Americans recycled and composted 35.2% of our individual waste generation rate of 4.51 pounds per person per day. While this is a notable jump from decades earlier, much of the gain appears to be in the development of municipal yard waste composting programs. Although the benefits of recycling are abundantly clear, in today’s culture, according to a PEW Research Center report published in 2016, just under 30% of Americans live in communities where recycling is strongly encouraged. An EPA estimate for 2014 noted that the recycling rate that year was only 34.6%, nationwide, with the highest compliance rate at 89.5% for corrugated boxes.
Figure 3. Percent of Americans who report recycling and re-use behaviors in their communities, via Pew Research center
Historically, incineration – or burning solid waste – has been one method for disposing of waste. And in 2017, this was the fate of 34 million tons—or nearly 13%– of all municipal waste generated in the United States. Nearly a quarter of this waste consisted of containers and packaging—much of that made from plastic. The quantity of packaging materials in the combusted waste stream has jumped from only 150,000 tons in 1970 to 7.86 million tons in 2017. Plastic, in its many forms, made up 16.4% of all incinerated materials, according to the EPA’s estimates in 2017.
Figure 4: A breakdown of the 34.03 tons of municipal waste incinerated for energy in the US in 2017
What is driving the abundance of throw-away plastics in our waste stream?
Sadly, the answer is this: The oil and gas industry produces copious amounts of ethane, which is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Plastics are an “added value” component of the cycle of fossil fuel extraction. FracTracker has reported extensively on the controversial development of ethane “cracker” plants, which chemically change this extraction waste product into feedstock for the production of polypropylene plastic nuggets. These nuggets, or “nurdles,” are the building blocks for everything from fleece sportswear, to lumber, to packaging materials. The harmful impacts from plastics manufacturing on air and water quality, as well as on human and environmental health, are nothing short of stunning.
FracTracker has reported extensively on this issue. For further background reading, explore:
A report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity in 2019 found that plastic production and incineration in 2019 contributed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 189 new 500-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2050, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 615 coal-fired power plants.
Just another way of putting fossil fuels into our atmosphere
Incineration is now strongly critiqued as a dangerous solution to waste disposal as more synthetic and heavily processed materials derived from fossils fuels have entered the waste stream. Filters and other scrubbers that are designed to remove toxins and particulates from incineration smoke are anything but fail-safe. Furthermore, the fly-ash and bottom ash that are produced by incineration only concentrate hazardous compounds even further, posing additional conundrums for disposal.
Incineration as a means of waste disposal, in some states is considered a “renewable energy” source when electricity is generated as a by-product. Opponents of incineration and the so-called “waste-to-energy” process see it as a dangerous route for toxins to get into our lungs, and into the food stream. In fact, Energy Justice Network sees incineration as:
… the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste – far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy – far more polluting than coal burning.
Municipal waste incineration: bad environmentally, economically, ethically
Waste incineration has been one solution for disposing of trash for millennia. And now, aided by technology, and fueled by a crisis to dispose of ever-increasing trash our society generates, waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration facilities are a component in how we produce electricity.
But what is a common characteristic of the communities in which WTEs are sited? According to a 2019 report by the Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School, 79% of all municipal solid waste incinerators are located in communities of color and low-income communities. Incinerators are not only highly problematic environmentally and economically. They present direct and dire environmental justice threats.
Waste-to-Energy facilities in the US, existing and proposed
Activate the Layers List button to turn on Environmental Justice data on air pollutants and cancer occurrences across the United States. We have also included real-time air monitoring data in the interactive map because one of the health impacts of incineration includes respiratory illnesses. These air monitoring stations measure ambient particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the atmosphere, which can be a helpful metric.
What are the true costs of incineration?
These trash incinerators capture energy released from the process of burning materials, and turn it into electricity. But what are the costs? Proponents of incineration say it is a sensible way to reclaim or recovery energy that would otherwise be lost to landfill disposal. The US EIA also points out that burning waste reduces the volume of waste products by up to 87%.
The down-side of incineration of municipal waste, however, is proportionally much greater, with a panoply of health effects documented by the National Institutes for Health, and others.
Dioxins (shown in Figures 6-11) are some of the most dangerous byproducts of trash incineration. They make up a group of highly persistent organic pollutants that take a long time to degrade in the environment and are prone to bioaccumulation up the food chain.
Dioxins are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine and immune systems, and lead to reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous compounds produced from incineration. Compared with the air pollution from coal-burning power plants, dioxin concentrations produced from incineration may be up to 28 times as high.
Federal EPA regulations between 2000 and 2005 resulted in the closure of nearly 200 high dioxin emitting plants. Currently, there are fewer than 100 waste-to-energy incinerators operating in the United States, all of which are required to operate with high-tech equipment that reduces dioxins to 1% of what used to be emitted. Nevertheless, even with these add-ons, incinerators still produce 28 times the amount of dioxin per BTU when compared with power plants that burn coal.
Energy Justice Network, furthermore, notes that incineration is the most expensive means of managing waste… as well as making energy. This price tag includes high costs to build incinerators, as well as staff and maintain them — exceeding operation and maintenance costs of coal by a factor of 11, and nuclear by a factor of 4.2.
Figure 12. Costs of incineration per ton are nearly twice that of landfilling. Source: National Solid Waste Management Association 2005 Tip Fee Survey, p. 3.
Energy Justice Network and others have pointed out that the amount of energy recovered and/or saved from recycling or composting is up to five times that which would be provided through incineration.
The myth that incineration is a form of “renewable energy”
Waste is a “renewable” resource only to the extent that humans will continue to generate waste. In general, the definition of “renewable” refers to non-fossil fuel based energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, and biomass. Synthetic materials like plastics, derived from oil and gas, however, are not. Although not created from fossil fuels, biologically-derived products are not technically “renewable” either.
Biogenic materials you find in the residual waste stream, such as food, paper, card and natural textiles, are derived from intensive agriculture – monoculture forests, cotton fields and other “green deserts”. The ecosystems from which these materials are derived could not survive in the absence of human intervention, and of energy inputs from fossil sources. It is, therefore, more than debatable whether such materials should be referred to as renewable.
Although incineration may reduce waste volumes by up to 90%, the resulting waste-products are problematic. “Fly-ash,” which is composed of the light-weight byproducts, may be reused in concrete and wallboard. “Bottom ash” however, the more coarse fraction of incineration—about 10% overall—concentrates toxins like heavy metals. Bottom-ash is disposed of in landfills or sometimes incorporated into structural fill and aggregate road-base material.
How common is the practice of using trash to fuel power plants?
Trash incineration accounts for a fraction of the power produced in the United States. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, just under 13% of electricity generated in the US comes from burning of municipal solid waste, in fewer than 65 waste-to-energy plants nation-wide. Nevertheless, operational waste-to-incineration plants are found throughout the United States, with a concentration east of the Mississippi.
According to EnergyJustice.net’s count of waste incinerators in the US and Canada, currently, there are:
207 closed or defeated
Figure 14. Locations of waste incinerators that are already shut down. Source: EnergyJustice.net)
Precise numbers of these incinerators are difficult to ascertain, however. Recent estimates from the federal government put the number of current waste-to-energy facilities at slightly fewer: EPA currently says there are 75 of these incinerators in the United States. And in their database, updated July 2020, the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), lists 63 power plants that are fueled by municipal solid waste. Of these 63 plants, 40—or 66%—are in the northeast United States.
Regardless, advocates of clean energy, waste reduction, and sustainability argue that trash incinerators, despite improvements in pollution reduction over earlier times and the potential for at least some electric generation, are the least effective option for waste disposal that exists. The trend towards plant closure across the United States would support that assertion.
Let’s take a look at the dirty details on WTE facilities in three states in the Northeastern US.
Review of WTE plants in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey
A. New York State
Operational WTE Facilities
In NYS, there are currently 11 waste-to-energy facilities that are operational, and two that are proposed. Here’s a look at some of them:
The largest waste-to-energy facility in New York State, Covanta Hempstead Company (Nassau County), was built in 1989. It is a 72 MW generating plant, and considered by Covanta to be the “cornerstone of the town’s integrated waste service plan.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO database, this plant has no violations listed. Oddly enough, even after drawing public attention in 2009 about the risks associated with particulate fall-out from the plant, the facility has not been inspected in the past 5 years.
Other WTE facilities in New York State include the Wheelabrator plant located in Peekskill (51 MW), Covanta Energy of Niagara in Niagara Falls (32 MW), Convanta Onondaga in Jamesville (39 MW), Huntington Resource Recovery in Suffolk County (24.3 MW), and the Babylon Resource Recovery Facility also in Suffolk County (16.8 MW). Five additional plants scattered throughout the state in Oswego, Dutchess, Suffolk, Tioga, and Washington Counties, are smaller than 15 MW each. Of those, two closed and one proposal was defeated.
Closed / Defeated Facilities
The $550 million Corinth American Ref-Fuel, was proposed for Corinth, New York. It was designed to take 1.27 million tons of New York City waste/year, even more than what is planned for the CircularEnerG plant. It was defeated ~2004. Population of 864 in immediate vicinity of plant, 98% white, income $59K.
Fire Island, Saltaire Incinerator closed. Took 12 tons/day. It was opened in 1965s, but not designed to produce energy, just burn trash. There was a population of 317 in immediate vicinity of plant, 93% white, income $123K.
The Long Beach incinerator processed 200 tons per day of solid waste. This plant was operating in 1988, but closed in 1996.
The Albany Steam Plant closed in 1994. When it was operational, it took in 340-600 tons of trash per day. Environmental justice issues were plentiful at this plant, with over 99% of the area as African American, according to the LA Times coverage of the issue.
CircularEnerG, was a 50 MW plant proposed in Romulus, on the former Seneca Army Depot, in the middle of largely white Seneca County, New York. However, the nearest large population to the proposed site was the 1500-prisoner capacity Five Points Correctional facility, swaying the demographics to nearly 52% African American in the highest impact zone. More broadly, the facility was in the heart of the Finger Lakes wine region, known for its extraordinary scenery, clean lakes, and award-winning wines. This facility was broadly opposed by nearly all the surrounding municipalities and counties, and mired in controversy about improper procedures and a designation by a local zoning officer as a “renewable” source of energy in its early filing papers.
Local advocacy groups, Seneca Lake Guardian (an affiliate of the Waterkeeper Network), and the Finger Lakes Wine Business Coalition worked exhaustively with the legal group, Earthjustice, to stop the project.
Figure 15. Map of regional governments and organizations opposed to construction of Romulus waste-to-energy incinerator in New York State
In March 2019, after state lawmakers, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo came out against the trash incinerator, the special use permit application for the facility was withdrawn.
Plans were also in development for a garbage-to-gas plant in the Hudson River community of Stony Point, New York. The company, New Planet Energy, had hoped to construct the gasification plant that would accept 4,500 tons of waste daily, brought in each day by approximately 400 trucks, according to an article in Lohud, May 1, 2018. However, the owner of the property eventually backed out of the proposal shortly after the publication of the article, following an uptick in criticism about the project about environmental and traffic safety concerns. This property is also currently an active Superfund site.
Proposed WTE Facilities
In New York State, there are currently two proposed WTE facilities.
New York State has rejected the designation for WTE facilities since 2011. As of the latest reports, the company is pushing ahead with its plans, despite the widespread dislike for the project. A bill in the State Legislature has been introduced to block the project. Green Waste Energy has been proposed for Rensselaer, NY. This trash-burning gasification plant would accept 2500 tons of trash per day. However, in August 2020, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) denied the air quality permit for the facility. The developers may appeal this decision.
In New Windsor, NY, a project called W2E Orange County has been under consideration. Most recent news coverage of this project was three and a half years ago, so it is possible this project is not moving forward. The parent company of the project, Ensorga, appears to have contracted its operations to West Virginia.
Operational WTE Facilities
In Pennsylvania, six WTE facilities are currently operating. Two have been closed, and six defeated.
Proposed WTE Facilities
In Pennsylvania, there are currently no WTEs under consideration for construction.
Closed WTE Facilities
Chester Resource Recovery #1 was used from the late 1950s to 1979. The neighborhood is over 64% African American. This was one of three incinerators used here.
Westmoreland County WTE plant, which opened in 1986 and burned 25 tons of solid municipal waste per day, has been closed due to financial unviability, and lack of need for the steam that was produced, according to a report drafted in 1997. It was located in a densely populated area, and provided steam to a nursing home, jail, and low-income housing.
Defeated WTE Facility Proposals
Elroy trash-to-steam plant was located in a densely populated section of Franconia Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. It was to handle 360 tons of waste per day and was located on the grounds of a rendering plant. The application for this plant was withdrawn in June, 1989. Citizens for a Clean Environment successfully defeated this project.
The Plasma Gasification Incinerator, located in Hazle Township, Pennsylvania, was proposed to burn 4,000 tons of trash per day. The median income in the immediate vicinity of the site is $46K. The application for this project was withdrawn.
The Pittston Trash Incinerator in a very low-income area of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, was designed to burn 3,000 tons of trash per day. This project was defeated.
The $65 million Delta Thermo Muncy facility, which would have burned municipal waste and sewage sludge, was defeated in December, 2016. Citizens in the Energy Justice Network and Stop the Muncy Waste Incinerator organized and passed a set-back ordinance that made it impossible for the plant to locate there. This proposed plant, would have been located in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. The plan there was to decompose trash and sewage through a hydrothermal technique to create pellets, which would then be burned to yield energy.
Originally proposed in 2007, the $49 million Delta Thermo Allentown plant has been fought for many years by Allentown Residents for Clean Air. If built, it would generate 2 MW of energy, and receive 100 tons of municipal waste each day and 50 tons of sewage sludge. The plant is located in a densely-populated, predominately Hispanic neighborhood. There has been no news on this project in over four years, so this project appears to have been defeated.
Glendon Energy proposed building an incinerator in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. This proposal was also defeated.
C. New Jersey
Operational WTE Facilities
And in New Jersey, there are currently four operating WTE facilities. Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, is New Jersey’s largest WTE facility. It opened in 1990, houses three burners, and produces 93 MW total.
Three WTE facilities are currently proposed in New Jersey. Jefferson Renewable Energy Trash Incinerator (Jersey City, New Jersey) is designed to produce 90 MW of power, accepting 3,200 tons/day solid waste, plus 800 tons/day construction/demo waste.
Delta Thermo Sussex is designed to burn both municipal solid waste and sewage sludge. And DTE Paterson would accept 205 tons of waste/day. The price tag to build this small facility is not so small: $45 million.
Closed WTE Facilities
Two WTE plants in New Jersey are no longer in operation. These include Fort Dix, which opened in 1986 and burned 80 tons of trash per day; and Atlantic County Jail, which opened in 1990 and burned 14 tons of trash per day.
Throw-aways, burn-aways, take-aways
Looming large above the arguments about appropriate siting, environmental justice, financial gain, and energy prices, is a bigger question:
How can we continue to live on this planet at our current rates of consumption, and the resultant waste generation?
The issue here is not so much about the sources of our heat and electricity in the future, but rather “How MUST we change our habits now to ensure a future on a livable planet?”
Professor Paul Connett (emeritus, St. Lawrence University), is a specialist in the build-up of dioxins in food chains, and the problems, dangers, and alternatives to incineration. He is a vocal advocate for a “Zero Waste” approach to consumption, and suggests that every community embrace these principles as ways to guide a reduction of our waste footprint on the planet. The fewer resources that are used, the less waste is produced, mitigating the extensive costs brought on by our consumptive lifestyles. Waste-to-energy incineration facilities are just a symptom of our excessively consumptive society.
Dr. Connett suggests these simple but powerful methods to drastically reduce the amount of materials that we dispose — whether by incineration, landfill, or out the car window on a back-road, anywhere in the world:
Building Reuse, Repair and Community centers
Implementing waste reduction Initiatives
Building Residual Separation and Research centers
Better industrial design
Interim landfill for non-recyclables and biological stabilization of other organic materials
Connett’s Zero Waste charge to industry is this: “If we can’t reuse, recycle, or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it.” Reducing our waste reduces our energy footprint on the planet.
In a similar vein, FracTracker has written about the potential for managing waste through a circular economics model, which has been successfully implemented by the city of Freiburg, Germany. A circular economic model incorporates recycling, reuse, and repair to loop “waste” back into the system. A circular model focuses on designing products that last and can be repaired or re-introduced back into a natural ecosystem.
This is an important vision to embrace. Every day. Everywhere.
For more in-depth and informative background on plastic in the environment, please watch “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/). The producers of the film encourage holding group discussions after the film so that audiences can actively think through action plans to reduce plastic use.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Waste-to-Energy-facilities-in-the-US-feature--scaled.jpg6671500Karen Edelsteinhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngKaren Edelstein2020-10-19 15:11:492021-04-15 14:16:05Incinerators: Dinosaurs in the world of energy generation
FracTracker Alliance has released a new mapof drilling fluid spills along the Mariner East 2 pipeline route, showing 320 spills from its construction since 2017. Of those, a combined 147 incidents have released over 260,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Pennsylvania waterways.
The unpermitted discharge of drilling fluid, considered “industrial waste,” into waters of the Commonwealth violates The Clean Streams Law.
Construction has caused between 260,672 – 266,223 gallons of drilling fluid to spill into waterways, threatening the health of ecosystems and negatively affecting the drinking water of many residents.
There have been 36 spills since Pennsylvania entered a statewide shutdown on March 16th, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These spills released over 10,000 gallons of drilling fluid — most of which poured into Marsh Creek Lake in Marsh Creek State Park. See a map of this incident.
While the total reported volume of drilling fluid released into the environment from the pipeline’s construction is between 344,590 – 405,990 gallons, the actual total is larger, as there are 28 spills with unknown volumes. Spills of drilling mud are also referred to as “inadvertent returns,” or “frac-outs.”
Most of these spills occurred during implementation of horizontal directional drills (HDD). HDDs are used to install a pipeline under a waterway, road, or other sensitive area. This technique requires large quantities of drilling fluid (comprising water, bentonite clay, and chemical additives), which when spilled into the environment, can damage ecosystems and contaminate drinking water sources.
The Mariner East 2 pipeline project is part of the Mariner East pipeline system, which carries natural gas liquids (NGLs) extracted by fracked wells in the Ohio River Valley east, to the Marcus Hook Facility in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The NGLs will then go to Europe to be turned into plastic. Explore FracTracker’s other resources on this project:
There have been 36 spills since the Commonwealth shutdown statewide on March 16th, 2020, leaks that have jeopardized drinking water sources, putting communities at even higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On August 11th, construction caused a 15-foot wide and eight-foot deep subsidence event in the wetland (Figure 1). This caused drilling fluid to flow underground and contaminate groundwater, while also “adversely impacting the functions and values of the wetland.” Thirty-three acres of the lake are now closed to boating, fishing, and other uses of the lake — an extra blow, given the solace state parks have provided to many during this pandemic.
Figure 1. This HDD crossing in Upper Uwchlan Township, Chester County, caused over 8,000 gallons of drilling mud to spill into waterways. However, installation of the parallel 16-inch pipeline also caused spills at this same location in 2017.
Last week, the PA DEP ordered Sunoco to suspend work on this HDD site and to implement a reroute using a course Sunoco had identified as an alternative in 2017:
“A 1.01 mile reroute to the north of the HDD is technically feasible. This would entail adjusting the project route prior to this HDD’s northwest entry/exit point to proceed north, cross under the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then proceed east for 0.7 miles parallel to the turnpike, cross Little Conestoga Road, then turn south, cross under the turnpike, and then reintersect the existing project route just east of this HDD’s southeast entry/exit point. There is no existing utility corridor here, however; therefore, this route would create a Greenfield utility corridor and would result in encumbering previously unaffected properties. The route would still cross two Waters of the Commonwealth and possible forested wetlands, and would pass in near proximity or immediately adjacent to five residential home sites. Both crossings of the turnpike would require “mini” HDDs or direct pipe bores to achieve the required depth of cover under the highway. Considered against the possibility of additional IRs [inadvertent returns] occurring on the proposed HDD, which are readily contained and cleaned up with minimal affect to natural resources, the permanent taking of the new 4 easement and likely need to use condemnation against previously unaffected landowners results in SPLP’s opinion that managing the proposed HDD is the preferred option.”
Based on that description, the route could follow the general direction of the dashed line in Figure 2:
Figure 2. Possible reroute of Mariner East 2 Pipeline shown with dashed line
Residents also sounded alarm bells for this drilling site. The proposal for just this location garnered over 200 public comments, all of which called on the DEP to deny Sunoco’s permit for drilling in this area. Many implored the DEP to consider the alternate route Sunoco must now use.
George Alexander, a Delaware County resident who runs a blog on this pipeline, the Dragonpipe Diary, says, “Sunoco/Energy Transfer continues to demonstrate in real time that they cannot build the Mariner Pipelines without inflicting harm upon our communities … The Marsh Creek situation is reminiscent of the damage to another favorite Pennsylvania lake, Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County.”
In 2017, Sunoco spilled over 200,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Raystown Lake, and released millions more underground. The spill caked acres of the lakebed with a coating of mud, hurting aquatic life and limiting recreational access to the lake. Sunoco failed to report the spills when they occurred, and the DEP fined the company $1.95 million for the incident. The fine is one of many Sunoco has incurred, including a $12.6 million penalty in February 2018 for permit violations, and more recently, a $355,636 penalty for drilling fluid discharges into waterways across eight counties.
The fracking boom triggered investment in projects to convert the fracked gas to plastic, leading to an oversupply in the global market. The industry made ambitious plans based on the price of plastic being $1/pound. Now, in 2020, the price is 40 – 60 cents per pound. If the Mariner East 2 pipeline is brought online, it likely will not be as profitable as its operators expected.
The poor finances of the oil and gas industry have led to the demise of several pipeline projects over the last few months. Phillips 66 announced in March it was deferring two pipelines — the Liberty Pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Wyoming to Oklahoma — and the Red Oak Pipeline system, planned to cross from Oklahoma to Texas. Kinder Morgan expressed uncertainty for its proposed Texas Permian Pass pipeline, and Enterprise Products Partners cancelled its Midland-to-ECHO crude oil pipeline project. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline also was cancelled this past July by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, following “an unacceptable layer of uncertainty and anticipated delays,” and the Williams Constitution pipeline was also abandoned after years of challenges. In fact, the EIA recently reported that more pipeline capacity has been cancelled in 2020 than new capacity brought in service.
Will the Mariner East 2 be the next to fall?
Before you go
A note from the Safety 7: The Safety 7 are seven residents of Delaware and Chester Counties who are challenging Sunoco before the [Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission]. If you are outraged at the ongoing threat to our communities from this dangerous, destructive pipeline, please consider donating to the Safety 7 Legal fund … Our next hearing begins September 29, and funds from your support are urgently needed. This motion is representative of the kind of legal work we need, if we are to prevail in protecting our communities from this dangerous pipeline project. Please contribute today if you are able, and please share this appeal widely and let your friends and family know why this case matters to you!
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/ME2FeatureImage.jpg6661500Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngErica Jackson2020-09-17 11:20:062021-04-15 14:16:08Mariner East 2 Causes Dozens of Spills Since Lockdown Began, Over 300 in Total
In this special one-day fundraiser event, two intrepid FracTracker teams will build and share a live virtual map as we travel throughout the Ohio River Valley Region documenting oil, gas, and its effects on our health, climate, and environment.
How many sites can we visit in one day? What will we find?
We’ll share our findings to build awareness about the plight of this region—and so many other places victimized by this rogue industry. Plus, viewers will gain a firsthand understanding of how FracTracker turns data into real-world impact.
Proceeds will benefit the ongoing work of FracTracker to decarbonize our economy and promote environmental justice.
Whether you are able to contribute financially at this time or not, we hope you’ll join us on this virtual journey. You’ll see regular video updates along the way as we share our progress, and watch as a story map is updated throughout the day.
Join our team of explorers in spirit and pledge your support! We’re excited to share this journey with you.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/FracTracker-in-the-Field-promotion5-scaled.jpg8441500FracTracker Alliancehttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngFracTracker Alliance2020-08-14 12:44:552021-04-15 14:16:11FracTracker in the Field: Building a Live Virtual Map
Challenges have plagued Shell’s construction of the Falcon Pipeline System through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, according to documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Records show that at least 70 spills have occurred since construction began in early 2019, releasing over a quarter million gallons of drilling fluid. Yet the true number and volume of spills is uncertain due to inaccuracies in reporting by Shell and discrepancies in regulation by state agencies.
A drilling fluid spill from Falcon Pipeline construction near Moffett Mill Road in Beaver County, PA. Source: Pennsylvania DEP
Releases of drilling fluid during Falcon’s construction include inadvertent returns and losses of circulation – two technical words used to describe spills of drilling fluid that occur during pipeline construction.
Drilling fluid, which consists of water, bentonite clay, and chemical additives, is used when workers drill a borehole horizontally underground to pull a pipeline underneath a water body, road, or other sensitive location. This type of installation is called a HDD (horizontal directional drill), and is pictured in Figure 1.
Figure 1. An HDD operation – Thousands of gallons of drilling fluid are used in this process, creating the potential for spills. Click to expand. Source: Enbridge Pipeline
Here’s a breakdown of what these types of spills are and how often they’ve occurred during Falcon pipeline construction, as of March, 2020:
Loss of circulation
Definition: A loss of circulation occurs when there is a decrease in the volume of drilling fluid returning to the entry or exit point of a borehole. A loss can occur when drilling fluid is blocked and therefore prevented from leaving a borehole, or when fluid is lost underground.
Cause: Losses of circulation occur frequently during HDD construction and can be caused by misdirected drilling, underground voids, equipment blockages or failures, overburdened soils, and weathered bedrock.
Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 49 losses of circulation releasing at least 245,530 gallons of drilling fluid. Incidents include:
15 losses in Ohio – totaling 73,414 gallons
34 losses in Pennsylvania – totaling 172,116 gallons
Definition: An inadvertent return occurs when drilling fluid used in pipeline installation is accidentally released and migrates to Earth’s surface. Oftentimes, a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return when underground formations create pathways for fluid to surface. Additionally, Shell’s records indicate that if a loss of circulation is large enough, (releasing over 50% percent of drilling fluids over 24-hours, 25% of fluids over 48-hours, or a daily max not to exceed 50,000 gallons) it qualifies as an inadvertent return even if fluid doesn’t surface.
Cause: Inadvertent returns are also frequent during HDD construction and are caused by many of the same factors as losses of circulation.
Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 20 inadvertent returns, releasing at least 5,581 gallons of drilling fluid. These incidents include:
18 inadvertent returns in Pennsylvania – totaling 5,546 gallons
2,639 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)
2 inadvertent returns Ohio – totaling 35 gallons
35 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)
However, according to the Ohio EPA, Shell is not required to submit reports for losses of circulation that are less than the definition of an inadvertent return, so many losses may not be captured in the list above. Additionally, documents reveal inconsistent volumes of drilling mud reported and discrepancies in the way releases are regulated by the Pennsylvania DEP and the Ohio EPA.
Very few of these incidents were published online for the public to see; FracTracker obtained information on them through a public records request. The map below shows the location of all known drilling fluid releases from that request, along with features relevant to the pipeline’s construction. Click here to view full screen, and add features to the map by checking the box next to them in the legend. For definitions and additional details, click on the information icon.
Our investigation into these incidents began early this year when we received an anonymous tip about a release of drilling fluids in the range of millions of gallons at the SCIO-06 HDD over Wolf Run Road in Jefferson County, Ohio. The source stated that the release could be contaminating drinking water for residents and livestock.
Working with Clean Air Council, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, and DeSmog Blog, we quickly discovered that this spill was just the beginning of the Falcon’s construction issues.
Documents from the Ohio EPA confirm that there were at least eight losses of circulation at this location between August 2019 and January 2020, including losses of unknown volume. The SCIO-06 HDD location is of particular concern because it crosses beneath two streams (Wolf Run and a stream connected to Wolf Run) and a wetland, is near groundwater wells, and runs over an inactive coal mine (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Losses of circulation that occurred at the SCIO-06 horizontal directional drill (HDD) site along the Falcon Pipeline in Jefferson County Ohio. Data Sources: OH EPA, AECOM
According to Shell’s survey, the coal mine (shown in Figure 2 in blue) is 290 feet below the HDD crossing. A hazardous scenario could arise if an HDD site interacts with mine voids, releasing drilling fluid into the void and creating a new mine void discharge.
A similar situation occurred in 2018, when EQT Corp. was fined $294,000 after the pipeline it was installing under a road in Forward Township, Pennsylvania hit an old mine, releasing four million gallons of mine drainage into the Monongahela River.
The Ohio EPA’s Division of Drinking and Ground Waters looked into the issues around this site and reported, “GIS analysis of the pipeline location in Jefferson Co. does not appear to risk any vulnerable ground water resources in the area, except local private water supply wells. However, the incident location is above a known abandoned (pre-1977) coal mine complex, mapped by ODNR.”
While we cannot confirm if there was a spill in the range of millions of gallons as the source claimed, the reported losses of circulation at the SCIO-06 site total over 60,000 gallons of drilling fluid. Additionally, on December 10th, 2019, the Ohio EPA asked AECOM (the engineering company contracted by Shell for this project) to estimate what the total fluid loss would be if workers were to continue drilling to complete the SCIO-06 crossing. AECOM reported that, in a “very conservative scenario based on the current level of fluid loss…Overall mud loss to the formation could exceed 3,000,000 gallons.”
Despite this possibility of a 3 million+ gallon spill, Shell resumed construction in January, 2020. The company experienced another loss of circulation of 4,583 gallons, reportedly caused by a change in formation. However, in correspondence with a resident, Shell stated that the volume lost was 3,200 gallons.
Whatever the amount, this January loss of circulation appears to have convinced Shell that an HDD crossing at this location was too difficult to complete, and in February 2020, Shell decided to change the type of crossing at the SCIO-06 site to a guided bore underneath Wolf Run Rd and open cut trench through the stream crossings (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The SCIO-06 HDD site, which may be changed from an HDD crossing to an open cut trench and conventional bore to cross Wolf Run Rd, Wolf Run stream (darker blue), an intermittent stream (light blue) and a wetland (teal). Click to expand.
An investigation by DeSmog Blog revealed that Shell applied for the route change under Nationwide Permit 12, a permit required for water crossings. While the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the route change on March 17th, one month later, a Montana federal court overseeing a case on the Keystone XL pipeline determined that the Nationwide Permit 12 did not meet standards set by federal environmental laws – a decision which may nullify the Falcon’s permit status. At this time, the ramifications of this decision on the Falcon remain unclear.
Inconsistencies in Reporting
In looking through Shell’s loss of circulation reports, we noted several discrepancies about the volume of drilling fluid released for different spills, including those that occurred at the SCIO-06 site. As one example, the Ohio EPA stated an email about the SCIO-06 HDD, “The reported loss of fluid from August 1, 2019 to August 14, 2019 in the memo does not appear to agree with the 21,950 gallons of fluid loss reported to me during my site visit on August 14, 2019 or the fluid loss reported in the conference call on August 13, 2019.”
In addition to errors on Shell’s end, our review of documents revealed significant confusion around the regulation of drilling fluid spills. In an email from September 26, 2019, months after construction began, Shell raised the following questions with the Ohio EPA:
when a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA clarifies: “For purposes of HDD activities in Ohio, an inadvertent return is defined as the unintended return of any fluid to the surface, as well as losses of fluids to underground formations which exceed 50-percent over a 24-hour period and/or 25-percent loss of fluids or annular pressure sustained over a 48-hour period;”
when the clock starts for the aforementioned time periods – the Ohio EPA says the time starts when “the drill commences drilling;”
whether Shell needs to submit loss of circulation reports for losses that are less than the aforementioned definition of an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA responds, “No. This is not required in the permit.”
How are these spills measured?
A possible explanation for why Shell reported inconsistent volumes of spills is because they were not using the proper technology to measure them.
Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns from HDD: Assessment, Preparedness, Prevention and Response Plan” states that drilling rigs must be equipped with “instruments which can measure and record in real time, the following information: borehole annular pressure during the pilot hole operation; drilling fluid discharge rate; the spatial position of the drilling bit or reamer bit; and the drill string axial and torsional loads.”
In other words, Shell should be using monitoring equipment to measure and report volumes of drilling fluid released.
Despite that requirement, Shell was initially monitoring releases manually by measuring the remaining fluid levels in tanks. After inspectors with the Pennsylvania DEP realized this in October, 2019, the Department issued a Notice of Violation to Shell, asking the company to immediately cease all Pennsylvania HDD operations and implement recording instruments. The violation also cited Shell for not filing weekly inadvertent return reports and not reporting where recovered drilling fluids were disposed.
In Ohio, there is no record of a similar request from the Ohio EPA. The anonymous source that originally informed us of issues at the SCIO-6 HDD stated that local officials and regulatory agencies in Ohio were likely not informed of the full volumes of the industrial waste releases based on actual meter readings, but rather estimates that minimize the perceived impact.
While we cannot confirm this claim, we know a few things for sure: 1) there are conflicting reports about the volume of drilling fluids spilled in Ohio, 2) according to Shell’s engineers, there is the potential for a 3 million+ gallon spill at the SCIO-06 site, and 3) there are instances of Shell not following its permits with regard to measuring and reporting fluid losses.
The inconsistent ways that fluid losses (particularly those that occur underground) are defined, reported, and measured leave too many opportunities for Shell to impact sensitive ecosystems and drinking water sources without being held accountable.
What are the impacts of drilling fluid spills?
Drilling fluid is primarily composed of water and bentonite clay (sodium montmorillonite), which is nontoxic. If a fluid loss occurs, workers often use additives to try and create a seal to prevent drilling fluid from escaping into underground voids. According to Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns From HDD” plan, it only uses additives that meet food standards, are not petroleum based, and are consistent with materials used in drinking water operations.
However, large inadvertent returns into waterways cause heavy sedimentation and can have harmful effects on aquatic life. They can also ruin drinking water sources. Inadvertent returns caused by HDD construction along the Mariner East 2 pipeline have contaminated many water wells.
Losses of circulation can impact drinking water too. This past April in Texas, construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline caused a loss that left residents with muddy well water. A 3 million gallon loss of circulation along the Mariner East route led to 208,000 gallons of drilling mud entering a lake, and a $2 million fine for Sunoco, the pipeline’s operator.
Our Falcon Public EIA Project found 240 groundwater wells within 1/4 mile of the pipeline and 24 within 1,000 ft of an HDD site. The pipeline also crosses near surface water reservoirs. Drilling mud spills could put these drinking water sources at risk.
But when it comes to understanding the true impact of the more than 245,000+ gallons of drilling fluid lost beneath Pennsylvania and Ohio, there are a lot of remaining questions. The Falcon route crosses over roughly 20 miles of under-mined land (including 5.6 miles of active coal mines) and 25 miles of porous karst limestone formations (learn more about karst). Add in to the mix the thousands of abandoned, conventional, and fracked wells in the region – and you start to get a picture of how holey the land is. Where or how drilling fluid interacts with these voids underground is largely unknown.
Other Drilling Fluid Losses
In addition to the SCIO-04 HDD, there are other drilling fluid losses that occurred in sensitive locations.
In Robinson Township, Pennsylvania, over a dozen losses of circulation (many of which occurred over the span of several days) released a reported 90,067 gallons of drilling fluid into the ground at the HOU-04 HDD. This HDD is above inactive surface and underground mines.
The Falcon passes through and near surface drinking water sources. In Beaver County, Pennsylvania, the pipeline crosses the headwaters of the Ambridge Reservoir and the water line that carries out its water for residents in Beaver County townships (Ambridge, Baden, Economy, Harmony, and New Sewickley) and Allegheny County townships (Leet, Leetsdale, Bell Acres, and Edgeworth). The group Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir, which formed in 2012 to protect the reservoir from unconventional oil and gas infrastructure, led efforts to stop Falcon Construction, and the Ambridge Water Authority itself called the path of the pipeline “not acceptable.”In response to public pressure, Shell did agree to build a back up line to the West View Water Authority in case issues arose from the Falcon’s construction.
Unfortunately, a 50-gallon inadvertent return was reported at the HDD that crosses the waterline (Figure 4), and a 160 gallon inadvertent return occurred in Raccoon Municipal Park within the watershed and near its protected headwaters (Figure 5). Both of these releases are reported to have occurred within the pipeline’s construction area and not into waterways.
Figure 4) HOU-10 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 50 gallons were released on the drill pad on 7/9/2019
Figure 5) SCIO-05 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 160 gallons were released on 6/10/19, within the pipeline’s LOD (limit of disturbance)
Farther west, the pipeline crosses through the watershed of the Tappan Reservoir, which provides water for residents in Scio, Ohio and the Ohio River, which serves over 5 million people.
A 35- gallon inadvertent return occurred at a conventional bore within the Tappan Lake Protection Area, impacting a wetland and stream. We are not aware of any spills impacting the Ohio River.
Pipelines in a Pandemic
This investigation makes it clear that weak laws and enforcement around drilling fluid spills allows pipeline construction to harm sensitive ecosystems and put drinking water sources at risk. Furthermore, regulations don’t require state agencies or Shell to notify communities when many of these drilling mud spills occur.
The problem continues where the 97-mile pipeline ends – at the Shell ethane cracker. In March, workers raised concerns about the unsanitary conditions of the site, and stated that crowded workspaces made social distancing impossible. While Shell did halt construction temporarily, state officials gave the company the OK to continue work – even without the waiver many businesses had to obtain.
The state’s decision was based on the fact it considered the ethane cracker to “support electrical power generation, transmission and distribution.” The ethane cracker – which is still months and likely years away from operation – does not currently produce electrical power and will only provide power generation to support plastic manufacturing.
This claim continues a long pattern of the industry attempting to trick the public into believing that we must continue expanding oil and gas operations to meet our country’s energy needs. In reality, Shell and other oil and gas companies are attempting to line their own pockets by turning the country’s massive oversupply of fracked gas into plastic. And just as Shell and state governments have put the health of residents and workers on the line by continuing construction during a global pandemic, they are sacrificing the health of communities on the frontlines of the plastic industry and climate change by pushing forward the build-out of the petrochemical industry during a global climate crisis.
This election year, while public officials are pushing forward major action to respond to the economic collapse, let’s push for policies and candidates that align with the people’s needs, not Big Oil’s.
By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach & Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/FalconPipelineFrontPage-scaled.jpg4301500Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngErica Jackson2020-06-16 11:47:062021-04-15 14:16:44Falcon Pipeline Construction Releases over 250,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid in Pennsylvania and Ohio
COVID-19 and the oil and gas industry are at odds. Air pollution created by oil and gas activities make people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19. Simultaneously, the economic impact of the pandemic is posing major challenges to oil and gas companies that were already struggling to meet their bottom line. In responding to these challenges, will our elected leaders agree on a stimulus package that prioritizes people over profits?
Air pollution from oil and gas development can come from compressor stations, condensate tanks, construction activity, dehydrators, engines, fugitive emissions, pits, vehicles, and venting and flaring. The impact is so severe that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost due to increased exposure to pollution.
Yes, air quality has improved in certain areas of China and elsewhere due to decreased traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite our eagerness for good news, sightings of dolphins in Italian waterways does not mean that mother earth has forgiven us or “hit the reset button.”
Significant environmental health concerns persist, despite some improvements in air quality. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was caused by another coronavirus, patients from areas with the high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to those who lived in places with little pollution.
On March 8th, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke looked at the impacts of air quality improvements under COVID-19, and offered this important caveat:
“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. Again I emphasize that the effects calculated above are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of social and economic disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms could exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution. But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e. the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”
This is an environmental justice issue. Higher levels of air pollution tend to be in communities with more poverty, people of color, and immigrants. Other health impacts related to oil and gas activities, from cancer to negative birth outcomes, compromise people’s health, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Plus, marginalized communities experience disproportionate barriers to healthcare as well as a heavier economic toll during city-wide lockdowns.
Financial Instability of the Oil & Gas Industry in the Face of COVID-19
The COVID-19 health crisis is setting off major changes in the oil and gas industry. The situation may thwart plans for additional petrochemical expansion and cause investors to turn away from fracking for good.
Persistent Negative Returns
Oil, gas, and petrochemical producers were facing financial uncertainties even before COVID-19 began to spread internationally. Now, the economics have never been worse.
In 2019, shale-focused oil and gas producers ended the year with net losses of $6.7 billion. This capped off the decade of the “shale revolution,” during which oil and gas companies spent $189 billion more on drilling and other capital expenses than they brought in through sales. This negative cash flow is a huge red flag for investors.
“North America’s shale industry has never succeeded in producing positive free cash flows for any full year since the practice of fracking became widespread.” IEEFA
The oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has been taking a toll on oil and gas prices as well. Saudi Arabia plans to increase oil production by 2 – 3 million barrels per day in April, bringing the global total to 102 million barrels produced per day. But with the global COVID-19 lockdown, transportation has decreased considerably, and the world may only need 90 million barrels per day.
If you’ve taken Econ 101, you know that when production increases as demand decreases, prices plummet. Some analysts estimate that the price of oil will soon fall to as low as $5 per barrel, (compared to the OPEC+ intended price of $60 per barrel).
Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety
Oil and gas industry lobbyists have asked Congress forfinancial support in response to COVID-19. Two stimulus bills in both the House and Senate are currently competing for aid.
Speaker McConnell’s bill seeks to provide corporate welfare with a $415 billion fund. This would largely benefit industries like oil and gas, airlines, and cruise ships. Friends of the Earth gauged the potential bailout to the fracking industry at $26.287 billion. In another approach, the GOP Senate is seeking to raise oil prices by directly purchasing for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s emergency oil supply.
Speaker Pelosi’s proposed stimulus bill includes $250 billion in emergency funding with stricter conditions on corporate use, but doesn’t contain strong enough language to prevent a massive bailout to oil and gas companies.
Hopefully with public pressure, Democrats will take a firmer stance and push for economic stimulus to be directed to healthcare, paid sick leave, stronger unemployment insurance, free COVID-19 testing, and food security.
Grasping at straws
Fracking companies were struggling to stay afloat before COVID-19 even with generous government subsidies. It’s becoming very clear that the fracking boom is finally busting. In an attempt to make use of the oversupply of gas and win back investors, the petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly. There are currently plans for $164 billion of new infrastructure in the United States that would turn fracked natural gas into plastic.
The location of the proposed PTTGC Ethane Cracker in Belmont, Ohio. Go to this map.
There are several fundamental flaws with this plan. One is that the price of plastic is falling. A new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) states that the price of plastic today is 40% lower than industry projections in 2010-2013. This is around the time that plans started for a $5.7 billion petrochemical complex in Belmont County, Ohio. This would be the second major infrastructural addition to the planned petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley, the first being the multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
Secondly, there is more national and global competition than anticipated, both in supply and production. Natural gas and petrochemical companies have invested in infrastructure in an attempt to take advantage of cheap natural gas, creating an oversupply of plastic, again decreasing prices and revenue. Plus, governments around the world are banning single-use plastics, and McKinsey & Company estimates that up to 60% of plastic production could be based on reuse and recycling by 2050.
Sharp declines in feedstock prices do not lead to rising demand for petrochemical end products.
Third, oil and gas companies were overly optimistic in their projections of national economic growth. The IMF recently projected that GDP growth will slow down in China and the United States in the coming years. And this was before the historic drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The risks are becoming insurmountable. The price of plastics is sinking and the market is already oversupplied due to industry overbuilding and increased competition,” said Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of finance and author of the report.
Oil, gas, and petrochemical companies are facing perilous prospects from demand and supply sides. Increasing supply does not match up with decreasing demand, and as a result the price of oil and plastics are dropping quickly. Tens of thousands of oil and gas workers are being fired, and more than 200 oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy in North America in the past five years. Investors are no longer interested in propping up failing companies.
Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants. At this point, the economy is bound to move towards cleaner and more economically sustainable energy solutions.
It’s not always necessary or appropriate to find a “silver lining” in crises, and it’s wrong to celebrate reduced pollution or renewable energy achievements that come as the direct result of illness and death. Everyone’s first priority must be their health and the health of their community. Yet the pandemic has exposed fundamental flaws in our energy system, and given elected leaders a moment to pause and consider how we should move forward.
It is a pivotal moment in terms of global energy production. With determination, the United States can exercise the political willpower to prioritize people over profits– in this case, public health over fossil fuel companies.
Top photo of petrochemical activity in the Houston, Texas area. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/HoustonArea_feature.jpg6661500Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngShannon Smith2020-03-24 15:48:412021-04-15 14:16:51COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry
Natural gas compressor stations (1,367) – Facilities built along a pipeline route that pressurize natural gas to keep it flowing through the pipeline.
Crude oil rail terminals (94) – Rail terminals that load and unload crude oil (liquid hydrocarbons that have yet to be processed into higher-value petroleum products).
Liquefied natural gas import/export terminals (8) – Facilities that can a) liquefy natural gas so it can be exported as LNG (liquefied natural gas) and/or b) re-gasify LNG so it can be used as natural gas. Natural gas is transported in a liquid state because it takes up less space as a liquid than as a gas.
Natural Gas Underground Storage (486) – Locations where natural gas is stored underground in aquifers, depleted gas fields, and salt formations.
Petroleum Product Terminals (1,484) – Terminals with a storage capacity of 50,000 barrels or more and/or the ability to receive volumes from tanker, barge, or pipeline. Petroleum products include products “produced from the processing of crude oil and other liquids at petroleum refineries, from extraction of liquid hydrocarbons at natural gas processing plants, and from production of finished petroleum products at blending facilities.”
Petroleum Ports (242) – A port that can import and/or export 200,000 or more short tons of petroleum products a year.
Natural gas import/export pipeline facility (54) – A facility where natural gas crosses the border of the continental United States.
Crude oil pipelines – major crude oil pipelines, including interstate truck lines and selected intrastate lines, but not including gathering lines.
Natural gas liquid pipelines – Also referred to as hydrocarbon gas liquid pipelines, they carry the heavier components of the natural gas stream which are liquid under intense pressure and extreme cold, but gas in normal conditions.
Natural gas pipelines– Interstate and intrastate natural gas pipelines. Due to the immensity of this pipeline network and lack of available data, this pipeline layer in particular varies in degree of accuracy.
Petroleum Product Pipelines – Major petroleum product pipelines.
Recent Pipeline Projects – Pipeline projects that have been announced since 2017. This includes projects in various stages, including under construction, complete, planned or canceled. Click on the pipeline for the status.
Processing & Downstream
Natural Gas Processing Plants (478) – Plants that separate impurities and components of the natural gas stream.
Chemical plants (36) – Includes two types of chemical plants – petrochemical production and ammonia manufacturing – that report to EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.
Ethylene Crackers (30) – Also referred to as ethane crackers, these petrochemical complexes that converts ethane (a natural gas liquid) into ethylene. Ethylene is used to make products like polyethylene plastic.
Petroleum Refineries (135) – A plant that processes crude oil into products like petroleum naphtha, diesel fuel, and gasoline.
Power Plants (9,414) – Electric generating plants with a capacity of at least one megawatt, sorted by energy source.
Wind Turbines (63,003) – Zoom in on wind power plants to see this legend item appear.
Shale Plays (45) – Tight oil and gas shale plays, which are formations where oil and gas can be extracted.
Solar Energy Potential – Potential solar energy generation, in kilowatt-hours per square meter per day – averaged annually.
This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?
Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.
The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?
In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.
In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.
This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.
The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”
The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.
This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.
In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.
Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.
One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others. The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.
Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.
The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.
China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.
In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.
We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.
Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.
Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.
Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.
The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.
As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.
Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.
Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.
“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”
Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.
Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)
In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”
What will this map look like in the next 30 years?
A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”
Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?
Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/National-map-feature-3.png400900Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngErica Jackson2020-02-28 17:35:142022-05-02 15:21:42National Energy and Petrochemical Map
Despite the ever-increasing heaps of violations and drilling waste, Pennsylvania’s fracked wells continue to produce an excess supply of gas, driving prices down. To cut their losses, the oil and gas industry is turning towards increased exports and petrochemical production. Continuing to expand fracking in Pennsylvania will only increase risks to the public and to the climate, all for what may amount to another boom and bust cycle that is largely unprofitable to investors.
Let’s take a look at gas production, waste, newly drilled wells, and violations in Pennsylvania in the past year to understand just how precarious the fracking industry is.
Fracked hydrocarbon production continues to rise in Pennsylvania, resulting in an increase in waste production, violations, greenhouse gas emissions, and public health concerns. There are three types of hydrocarbons produced from wells in Pennsylvania: gas, condensate, and oil. Gas is composed mostly of methane, the most basic of the hydrocarbons, but in some parts of Pennsylvania, there can be significant quantities of ethane, propane, and other so-called “natural gas liquids” (NGLs) mixed in. Each of these NGLs are actually gaseous at atmospheric conditions, but operators try to separate these with a combination of pressure and low temperatures, converting them to a liquid phase. Some of these NGLs can be separated on-site, and this is typically referred to as condensate. Fracked wells in Pennsylvania also produce a relatively tiny amount of oil.
For those of you wondering why we are looking at the November, 2018 through October, 2019 time frame, this is simply a reflection of the available data. In this 12-month period, 9,858 fracked Pennsylvania wells, classified as “unconventional,” reported producing 6.68 trillion cubic feet of gas (Tcf), 4.89 million barrels of condensate, and just over 70,000 barrels of oil.
By means of comparison, Pennsylvania consumed about 1.46 Tcf of gas across all sectors in 2018, of which just 253 billion cubic feet (Bcf) was used in the homes of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents. In fact, the amount of gas produced in Pennsylvania exceeds residential consumption in the entire United States by almost 1.7 Tcf. However, less than 17% of all gas consumed in Pennsylvania is for residential use, with nearly 28% being used for industrial purposes (including petrochemical development), and more than 35% used to generate electricity.
Figure 1. Fracked gas production compared to all fracked gas consumption and residential gas consumption in Pennsylvania from 2013 through 2018. Data from ref. Energy Information Administration.
While gas production has expansive hotspots in the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state, the liquid production comes from a much more limited geography. Eighty percent of all condensate production came from Washington County, while 87% of all fracked oil came from wells in Mercer County.
Because the definition of condensate has been somewhat controversial in the past (while the oil export ban was still in effect), I asked the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the definition, and was told that if hydrocarbons come out of the well as a liquid, they should be reported as oil. If they are gaseous but condense to a liquid at standard temperature and pressure (60 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure 14.7 PSIA) on-site, then it is to be reported as condensate. Any NGLs that remain gaseous but are removed from the gas supply further downstream are reported as gas in this report. For this reason, it is not really possible to use the production report to find specific amounts of NGLs produced in the state, but it certainly exceeds condensate production by an appreciable margin.
The volume of gas withdrawn from fracked wells in Pennsylvania in just one year is equal to the volume of 3.2 Mount Everests!
Hydrocarbons aren’t the only thing that come out of the ground when operators drill and frack wells in Pennsylvania. Drillers also report a staggering amount of waste products, including more than 65 million barrels (2.7 billion gallons) of liquid waste and 1.2 million tons of solid waste in the 12-month period.
Waste facilities have significant issues such as inducing earthquakes, toxic leachate, and radioactive sediments in streambeds.
Liquid Waste (Barrels)
Solid Waste (Tons)
Drilling Fluid Waste
Other Oil & Gas Wastes
Soil Contaminated by Oil & Gas Related Spills
Spent Lubricant Waste
Synthetic Liner Materials
Unused Fracturing Fluid Waste
Waste Water Treatment Sludge
Figure 2. Oil and gas waste generated by fracked wells as reported by drillers from November 1, 2018 through October 31, 2019. Data from ref: PA DEP.
Some of the waste is probably best described as sludge, and several of the categories allow for reporting in barrels or tons. Almost all of the waste was in the well bore at one time or another, although there are some site-related materials that need to be disposed of, including filter socks which separate liquid and solid waste, soils contaminated by spills, spent lubricant, liners, and unused frack fluid waste.
Where does all of this waste go? We worked with Earthworks earlier this year to take a deep dive into the data, focusing on these facilities that receive waste from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas wells. While the majority of the waste is dealt with in-state, a significant quantity crosses state lines to landfills and injection wells in neighboring states, and sometimes as far away as Idaho.
Oil and gas operators have started the drilling process for 616 fracking wells in 2019, which appear on the Pennsylvania DEP spud report. This is less than one third of the 2011 peak of 1,956 fracked wells, and 2019 is the fifth consecutive year with fewer than 1,000 wells drilled. This has the effect of making industry projections relying on 1,500 or more drilled wells per year seem rather dubious.
Figure 3. Unconventional (fracked) wells drilled from 2005 through December 23, 2019, showing totals by regional office. Data from ref: PA DEP.
Oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania fall under the jurisdiction of three different regional offices. By looking at Figure 2, it becomes apparent that the North Central Regional Office (blue line) was a huge driver of the 2009 to 2014 drilling boom, before falling back to a similar drilling rate of the Southwest Regional Office.
The slowdown in drilling for gas in recent years is related to the lack of demand for the product. In turn, this drives prices down, a phenomenon that industry refers to as a “price glut.” The situation it is forcing major players in the regions such as Range Resources to reduce their holdings in Appalachia, and some, such as Chevron, are pulling out entirely.
Disturbingly, 2019 was the fifth straight year that the number of violations issued by DEP will exceed the total number of wells drilled.
Figure 4. Unconventional (fracked) drilled wells and issued violations from 2005 through December 2019. Data from ref: DEP.
Violations related to unconventional drilling are a bit unwieldy to summarize. The 13,833 incidents reported in Pennsylvania fall into 359 different categories, representing the specific regulations in which the drilling operator fell short of expectations. The industry likes to dismiss many of these as being administrative matters, and indeed, the DEP does categorize the violations as either “Administrative” or “Environmental, Health & Safety”. However, 9,998 (72%) of the violations through December 3, 2019, are in the latter category, and even some of the ones that are categorized as administrative seem like they ought to be in environmental, health, and safety. For example, let’s look at the 15 most frequent infractions:
SWMA301 – Failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of a residual waste.
Environmental Health & Safety
CSL 402(b) – POTENTIAL POLLUTION – Conducting an activity regulated by a permit issued pursuant to Section 402 of The Clean Streams Law to prevent the potential of pollution to waters of the Commonwealth without a permit or contrary to a permit issued under that authority by the Department.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.4 – Failure to minimize accelerated erosion, implement E&S plan, maintain E&S controls. Failure to stabilize site until total site restoration under OGA Sec 206(c)(d)
Environmental Health & Safety
SWMA 301 – MANAGEMENT OF RESIDUAL WASTE – Person operated a residual waste processing or disposal facility without obtaining a permit for such facility from DEP. Person stored, transported, processed, or disposed of residual waste inconsistent with or unauthorized by the rules and regulations of DEP.
Environmental Health & Safety
601.101 – O&G Act 223-General. Used only when a specific O&G Act code cannot be used
402CSL – Failure to adopt pollution prevention measures required or prescribed by DEP by handling materials that create a danger of pollution.
Environmental Health & Safety
78.54* – Failure to properly control or dispose of industrial or residual waste to prevent pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth.
Environmental Health & Safety
401 CSL – Discharge of pollutional material to waters of Commonwealth.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.4(b)1 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL REQUIREMENTS – Person conducting earth disturbance activity failed to implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.5(m)4 – PERMIT REQUIREMENTS – GENERAL PERMITS – Person failed to comply with the terms and conditions of the E & S Control General Permit.
Environmental Health & Safety
78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances.
78a53 – EROSION AND SEDIMENT CONTROL AND STORMWATER MANAGEMENT – Person proposing or conducting earth disturbance activities associated with oil and gas operations failed to comply with 25 Pa. Code § 102.
Environmental Health & Safety
102.11(a)1 – GENERAL REQUIREMENTS – BMP AND DESIGN STANDARDS – Person failed to design, implement and maintain E & S BMPs to minimize the potential for accelerated erosion and sedimentation to protect, maintain, reclaim and restore water quality and existing and designated uses.
Environmental Health & Safety
CSL 401 – PROHIBITION AGAINST OTHER POLLUTIONS – Discharged substance of any kind or character resulting in pollution of Waters of the Commonwealth.
Environmental Health & Safety
OGA3216(C) – WELL SITE RESTORATIONS – PITS, DRILLING SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT – Failure to fill all pits used to contain produced fluids or industrial wastes and remove unnecessary drilling supplies/equipment not needed for production within 9 months from completion of drilling of well.
Environmental Health & Safety
Figure 5. Top 15 most frequently cited violations for unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania through December 3, 2019. Data from ref: DEP.
Of the 15 most common categories, only two are considered administrative violations. One of these is a general code, where we don’t know what happened to warrant the infraction without reading the written narrative that accompanies the data, and is therefore impossible to categorize. The only other administrative violation in the top 15 categories reads, “78.56(1) – Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances,” which certainly sounds like it would have some real-world implications beyond administrative concerns.
To address the excess supply of gas, companies have tried to export the gas and liquids to other markets through pipelines. Those efforts have been fraught with trouble as well. Residents are reluctant to put up with an endless barrage of new pipelines, yielding their land and putting their safety at risk for an industry that can’t seem to move the product safely. The Revolution pipeline explosion hasn’t helped that perception, nor have all of the sinkholes and hundreds of leaky “inadvertent returns” along the path of the Mariner East pipeline system. In a sense, the industry’s best case scenario is to call these failures incompetence, because otherwise they would be forced to admit that the 2.5 million miles of hydrocarbon pipelines in the United States are inherently risky, prone to failure any time and any place.
Pennsylvania’s high content of NGLs is a selling point by the industry, because they have an added value when compared to gas. While all of these hydrocarbons can burn and produce energy in a similar manner, operators are required to remove most of them to get the energy content of the gas into an acceptable range for gas transmission lines. Because of this, enormous facilities have to be built to separate these NGLs, while even larger facilities are constructed to consume it all. Shell’s Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex ethane cracker being built in Beaver County, PA is scheduled to make 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year, mostly for plastics.
This comes at a time when communities around the country and the world are enacting new regulations to rein in plastic pollution, which our descendants are going to finding on the beach for thousands of years, even if everyone on the planet were to stop using single-use plastics today. Of course, none of these bans or taxes are currently permitted in Pennsylvania, but adding 1.6 million metric tons per year to our current supply is unnecessary, and indeed, it is only the beginning for the region. A similar facility, known as the PTT Global Chemical cracker appears to be moving forward in Eastern Ohio, and ExxonMobil appears to be thinking about building one in the region as well. Industry analysts think the region produces enough NGLs to support five of these ethane crackers.
Despite all of these problems, the oil and gas industry still plans to fill the Ohio River Valley with new petrochemical plants, gas processing plants, and storage facilities in the hopes that someday, somebody may want what they’ve taken from the ground.
Here’s hoping that 2020 is a safer and healthier year than 2019 was. But there is no need to leave it up to chance. Together, we have the power to change things, if we all demand that our voices are heard. As a start, consider contacting your elected officials to let them know that renewing Pennsylvania’s blocking of municipal bans and taxes on plastic bags is unacceptable.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/PA-2019-Fracked-Gas-Production-Feature-scaled.jpg6671500Matt Kelso, BAhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngMatt Kelso, BA2020-01-07 18:02:382021-04-15 14:55:32Fracking in Pennsylvania: Not Worth It
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/IMG_5312-1-scaled.jpg6661500Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2021-FracTracker-logo-horizontal.pngErica Jackson2019-11-24 13:59:482021-04-15 14:55:35The Circular Economy: What it means for Fracking and Plastic