A Guide to Petrochemicals, the Fossil Fuel Blindspot
A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States
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Key Facts About Petrochemicals
- The petrochemical industry is expanding in the Gulf South and the Ohio River Valley. While many of the industry’s plans have not come to fruition, petrochemicals are becoming the largest driver of oil demand and present a major threat to the climate.
- The fracking industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels for the petrochemical industry to turn into plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.
- Petrochemical plants are major sources of pollution, both permitted and illegal. The experience of fenceline communities shows that public agencies have failed to protect public health from the harms caused by the industry.
- The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions, and its environmental racism has led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s.
What are petrochemicals?
Petrochemicals are chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas.
The major petrochemicals are ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, xylene, toluene, and methanol.
Never heard of them? Petrochemicals are intermediate materials – you generally don’t buy them off the shelves but they make up things you buy off shelves, like plastic as well as many industrial products. They’re also a major blindspot in the fossil fuel debate, despite the fact that they are, according to the International Energy Agency, “becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.”
Here are a few of the common uses of petrochemicals:
- Ethylene & propylene → Plastic
- Butadiene → fake rubber, tires
- Benzene → other chemicals → Styrofoam, resins, rubbers, lubricants, dyes, synthetic fibers
- Xylene → products in the printing, rubber, resins, and leather industries, and as a paint thinner
- Toluene → paints, lacquers, adhesives, explosives (like TNT)
- Methanol → formaldehyde → adhesives, coatings, building materials, and yes, embalming bodies
By volume, the most common petrochemical produced in the US is ethylene, followed by propylene. Ethylene and propylene are made from the natural gas liquids ethane and propane. They can also be made from naphtha, a component of crude oil.
The biggest use globally for both ethylene and propylene is for plastic. Single-use packaging accounts for an estimated 40% of total plastic usage. Plastic is also the product currently driving a global petrochemical production “boom,” so this guide will largely focus on plastic’s impact on health, environment, and communities.
World consumption of petrochemicals, 2018. Source: IHS Markit, Petrochemical Industry Overview
How Petrochemicals are Made
Oil and gas extraction is the foundation of the petrochemical industry. In the United States, there are over 900,000 producing oil and gas wells. The majority of new oil and gas wells drilled in the United States utilize hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling. Learn more about this process and its impacts.
After oil and gas is extracted, it’s transported by a network of natural gas and crude oil pipelines to another facility for processing.
Natural gas is sent to processing stations or fractionators, which separate out natural gas liquids, like ethane and propane, from methane gas.
Crude oil is set to refineries and heated in a distilling column to separate out its different components like diesel, kerosene, naphtha, and gasoline.
The refined products are transported by natural gas liquid and petroleum product pipelines to refineries, chemical plants, crackers, and other industrial facilities that process them into petrochemicals. These petrochemicals may undergo several more steps before being transformed into a range of consumer and industrial products.
Natural gas liquid and petroleum product transport and processing facilities. Mapped by FracTracker using datasets from the EIA (petroleum refinery data updated July 10, 2020, pipelines data updated April 28, 2020, ethylene cracker data updated in January 13, 2020). Petrochemical plants includes a select number of facilities from EPA 2019 FLIGHT dataset.
Ethane Crackers: How do they work?
Ethane crackers transform ethane, a component of the fracked gas stream, into ethylene. Ethane crackers can be a part of a larger petrochemical complex, and include facilities that transform ethylene into polyethylene plastic. Ethylene can be used to produce other chemical products, such as antifreeze.
Ethylene crackers are similar, and include facilities that produce ethylene using crude oil.
What do they produce?
Different types of plastic are produced at an ethane cracker, including:
- low density polyethylene (LDPE)
- linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
- high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
- ethylene glycol – a chemical that goes into PET plastic and antifreeze
Source: Plastic and Health, the Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, report by CIEL
How do they work?
After gas has been extracted (read more about that process) it’s transported via pipeline to different facilities that separate ethane from other components of the gas stream. Ethane is transported to ethane crackers via pipeline.
Source: Ethane Storage and Distribution Hub in the United States, Department of Energy
Step 1) Cracking After ethane arrives at the facility, furnaces use extreme heat (1500°F), to “crack” the molecular bonds in ethane, and rearrange its atoms into ethylene.
Step 2) Cooling The ethylene is moved to a quench tower, which cools the gas by spraying it with water.
Quench towers are HUGE – the tower alone weighs upwards of 2,000 tons.
Step 3) Compression Next the cooled gas moves to a compressor, which pressurizes the ethylene gas, beginning its conversion into a liquid.
Step 4) Refrigeration A heat exchanger further cools the ethylene. By the end of this step, the majority of the ethylene has been condensed into a liquid.
Step 5) Separation The ethylene is then purified in fractionation towers. In these towers, the temperature is kept higher at the bottom and lower at the top. The different boiling points of molecules force them to separate out, and pure ethylene can be extracted.
Step 6) Polymerization An ethane cracker complex can contain multiple polyethylene units on site, where ethylene is linked up in chains to form polyethylene. This process can be engineered to produce different types of polyethylene with varying degrees of strength and elasticity. Ethylene may also be transported to other facilities for polymerization or other processing.
Step 7) Shipping The output from an ethane cracker is often small plastic pellets called nurdles. One ethane cracker may produce well over a million tons of nurdles per year. This product is shipped out by rail, barge, or truck to factories that shape it into different plastic products.
This process is very energy-intensive. Ethane crackers have power plants on site to generate steam and electricity.
Where are they?
The majority of ethane crackers in the United States are in Texas and Louisiana. There is also one in Illinois, Iowa, and Kentucky, and a new plant being built in Pennsylvania.
Expansion of the Petrochemical Industry
The petrochemical industry in the United States largely grew from demand for fuels and supplies during WWI and WW2, but it took off in the 1950s when petroleum-based plastic became popular.
In the United States, petrochemical facilities are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana – states that sit above abundant oil and gas resources, attracting corporations that have heavily manipulated the states’ political and regulatory environment. Petrochemical facilities in the Gulf South often abut schools and residential areas, and take a heavy toll of communities’ health. According to the Energy Information Administration, 95% of the country’s ethylene capacity and roughly half of the country’s petroleum refining and natural gas processing capacity is along the Gulf Coast.
The expansion of fracking technology in the 21st century has propelled another petrochemical expansion, once again focused on plastic production.
The industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels and petrochemical products like plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.
The oil and gas industry understands that it is increasingly being replaced by cheaper, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and battery power. A recent report found that demand for oil may have peaked in 2019. Petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industry’s desperate attempt to remain relevant in a post-carbon world.
According to the American Chemistry Council, the petrochemical industry proposed $200 billion worth of new and expanding projects between 2010 and 2018. These projects are largely planned for the Gulf Coast, but the industry is also planning a second “petrochemical hub” in Appalachia.
Other countries are also expanding their petrochemical capacity. While many are extracting oil and gas within their borders, others have been influenced by the fracking boom in the United States and are importing petrochemical feedstock from the shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states.
Research suggests that the industry’s bet on plastic won’t be nearly as profitable as originally expected. Meanwhile, fenceline communities are left shouldering the health impacts.
Gulf Coast Buildout
There are over 100 planned or recently completed petrochemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana alone, in addition to many more existing sites.
The Gulf Coast petrochemical expansion also includes a number of proposed and expanded plastic manufacturing facilities. Major projects include Formosa Plastic’s proposed ethane cracker complex in Saint James Parish, Louisiana which would produce polyethylene, polypropylene (types of plastic) and ethylene glycol (to make polyester and antifreeze). Another isa recently constructed ethane cracker plant (the world’s largest) in San Patricio County, Texas, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and SABIC. The project, called Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, will manufacture monoethylene glycol (for polyester and plastic products) and polyethylene plastic. These projects have faced resistance and delays from frontline communities, who are already facing negative health impacts from existing petrochemical infrastructure.
Equistar Chemicals, Dow Chemical Company, Formosa Plastics, and Ineos USA are also expanding their ethylene production capacity at existing facilities. And other types of petrochemical facilities, including methanol plants from South Louisiana Methanol and Big Lake Fuels, have also attempted to expand along the Gulf Coast.
Ohio River Valley Buildout
Fracking has opened the oil and gas floodgates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Along the Ohio River, the Marcellus Shale is rich in petrochemical feedstock (natural gas liquids, or “wet gas”) and the oil and gas industry is eager to turn this region into a second major petrochemical hub.
West Virginia has a long history of chemical industries. Major chemical companies like Union Carbide, DuPont, and Dow have all exploited the region’s vast coal, oil, gas, and salt reserves. The Kanawha River Valley has one of the highest concentrations of chemical facilities in the country, earning it the nickname Chemical Valley. These facilities produce explosives, antifreeze, solvents, pesticides, PFAS “forever” chemicals, chlorine, and other chemical products.
Industry officials have called the fracking boom a “renaissance” for the state’s chemical companies, but so far the petrochemical promises have largely been smoke and mirrors. Plus, this industry has left a long legacy of pollution and a rebirth of the undrinkable water and toxic air that residents have endured for decades leaves much to be desired.
Industry leaders have paraded the potential for five ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley Region to convert fracked ethane gas into polyethylene plastic. The Shell ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, is the first ethane cracker to be built outside the Gulf Coast in 20 years. A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio, although its owner, PTT Global Chemical, has not made a final investment decision, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. The setbacks of this project could impact another major petrochemical project in the region, the Mountaineer Storage Hub, which would store fracked gas liquids in underground salt caverns along the Ohio River.
There are many other signs that point towards the petrochemical industry’s predictions for the Ohio River Valley being overly ambitious. An ethane cracker proposed by Braskem and Odebrecht fell through after Odebrecht filed for bankruptcy and its CEO was sentenced to prison for corruption. While public officials have been courting ExxonMobil to build an ethane cracker in southwest Pennsylvania, in late 2020, an Exxon spokesperson has stated that there are no active plans for an ethane cracker in the state.
In 2017, China Energy Investment Corp. signed an agreement to invest $83.7 billion in oil, gas, and petrochemical development in West Virginia. West Virginia’s public officials touted the likelihood of new projects breaking ground within a year, but as of early 2022, there’s been no news on what happened to that $83.7 billion. The details of the agreement have not been made public, but it’s not legally binding.
The Appalachian Development Group sought a $1.9 billion loan from the Department of Energy, and an additional $1.4 billion from private investment to develop a petrochemical storage and trading hub. However, the loan in question was designed for clean energy projects, and a recent amendment solidified that this loan could only go towards projects that “avoid, reduce, or sequester” greenhouse gasses.
Health & Safety
Petrochemicals can be toxic —you’d never want to inhale benzene or take a gulp of toluene. For one, they’re often highly flammable so there’s an explosion risk when it comes to transporting and processing them. For another, they contain toxic chemical characteristics that pose short and long term risks.
The process of turning toxic chemicals into consumer products presents health threats. And when these products break down back into those original components, either during use or disposal, there’s the potential for a health threat to emerge once again.
Air Pollution & Health
Petrochemical facilities are major sources of air pollution.
Like most industries, petrochemical plants are large sources of many of the criteria pollutants regulated under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide).
Another class of pollutants emitted by petrochemical facilities are volatile organic compounds (VOC), a class of compounds that vaporize into a gas at normal temperature and pressure.
When you walk into a freshly painted room, you’re breathing in VOCs; you’ll probably feel ok for a little bit, but if you stay in the room for a while, you’ll likely develop a headache. While some VOCs are harmless or safe at low doses, VOC exposure from petrochemical plants like ethane crackers pose a real health risk to frontline communities. Health outcomes include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea, as well as chronic impacts at high doses like kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage.
It’s important to note that many of these pollutants are invisible – making it critical that fenceline air monitors are in place and that residents have access to this information in a way that is easy to understand. Additionally, biomonitoring in conjunction with air monitoring can better assess health risks the public is exposed to (for example, testing for toxins in residents’/workers’ urine or blood).
For more on this topic, check out:
Water Pollution & Health
Petrochemical facilities are built near bodies of water because they require a lot of water for their operations and because they need to ship products and equipment by barge.
Ethylene crackers in the United States, data from the EIA, and modified using various sources, including Environmental Integrity Project to reflect the status of projects (Environmental Integrity Project (2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)
For example, at an ethane cracker site, a giant structure called a quench tower uses large volumes of water to cool ethylene. The water becomes contaminated with hydrocarbons, benzene, styrene, and other VOCs in the process. While water must be treated before being discharged into waterways, all ethane crackers are still permitted to discharge dozens of contaminants. For example, Shell’s ethane cracker in Pennsylvania is permitted to release various amounts of toxics into the Ohio River each day: an average of 0.39 pounds of benzene per day, 0.22 pounds of chloroform, and 3.41 pounds of trichloroethylene. These small amounts add up, and combined with neighboring polluters, can lead to dangerous levels of chemicals entering downstream water intakes.
Another pathway for pollutants to enter waterways is through the (sometimes highly concerning) ways the industry disposes of waste, and the leachate or runoff created at landfills that could contaminate ground or surface waters.
Wastewater discharges and water runoff are regulated in an effort to protect public health and ecosystems. However the experience of frontline communities calls into question the adequacy of regulations and enforcement of water pollution measures:
- From 1997 to 2001, a Dow Chemical Plant contaminated the water for residents of a Louisiana community with vinyl chloride, eventually forcing people to leave the area. This chemical is used to make PVC and has been linked to liver cancer, nerve damage, circulatory problems, reproductive problems, and skin lesions. The Louisiana Department of Health detected the problem but failed to tell residents. In 2011, Dow entered an agreement with the EPA and state environmental agency to keep vinyl chloride out of the city’s water. Yet the problem persisted. In 2013, a state judge found Dow partially responsible for the vinyl chloride found in the water supply, and a report filed in 2019 found again high levels of vinyl chloride in their water wells.
- For years, Formosa Plastics released small bits of plastic, called nurdles, from its ethane cracker into Lavaca Bay in Texas in violation of the Clean Water Act. Marine life and birds often mistake nurdles for food and eat them, which can harm or kill the animals, and introduces potential toxins into the food chain. Luckily, dedicated environmental activists led by Diane Wilson painstakingly collected evidence of this illegal dumping for years, and in 2019, they won a $50 million settlement. The money is going towards environmental restoration projects.
- There’s also the risk of accidents and spills, such as the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia. A ruptured storage tank caused 5,000 gallons of an industrial chemical to spill into the river, leaving over 300,000 residents without usable water. This event was a clear example that the systems in place to protect water are broken.
The rivers most threatened by recent petrochemical expansion, the Ohio and the Mississippi, are already the country’s most polluted rivers. Yet discharge permits generally fail to assess the cumulative impacts of the industry on these rivers.
For more on this topic, check out:
- What Lies Upstream – A Documentary about the Elk River Chemical Spill
- Petrochemical facilities rely on fracking operations, injection wells, and pipelines, which present additional threats to water quality. Learn more about the oil and gas industry’s impacts on water.
Do public agencies protect us?
Air and water pollution from petrochemical plants are permitted by public agencies, with the goal of keeping emissions at healthy thresholds. However, public agencies have repeatedly demonstrated a failure to protect public health:
Lack of Guidelines – For example, plants may emit pollutants that aren’t fully understood or lack regulatory guidelines. In Louisiana, a DuPont petrochemical facility was emitting chloroprene (a chemical used to manufacture neoprene) for decades before the EPA categorized it as a “likely carcinogen” in 2010. It took another 6 years before regulators established an air monitoring plan for chloroprene and began updating the plant’s chloroprene permit.
Self Policing – There’s also the fact that the regulatory framework in place largely relies on industries to self-police. That same petrochemical facility, now owned by Denka, regularly exceeds its emission standards. Meanwhile, residents living near the facility face the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the country.
Exceeding emissions isn’t a unique occurrence for petrochemical plants. A recent investigation found 10 oil refineries releasing benzene at levels above the federal action limit and at levels that could cause as many as four additional cancers per 10,000 people exposed to them. For some plant operators, violating permits and paying a fine if caught may simply be written off as the cost of doing business.
Leaks & Fugitive Emissions – “Fugitive emissions” through leaks are an additional concern. According to the EPA, leaking equipment is “the largest source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and volatile hazardous air pollutants (VHAPs) from petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities.” The EPA reports “approximately 70,367 tons per year of VOCs and 9,357 tons per year of HAPs have been emitted from equipment leaks.”
Weak Existing Regulations – Finally, there is the question of whether existing regulations are stringent enough to protect our health. A 2020 study found that “strengthening U.S. air quality standards for fine particulate pollution to be in compliance with current World Health Association (WHO) guidelines could save more than 140,000 lives over the course of a decade.”
In some cases, facilities aren’t even required to meet modern standards. The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is using a water permit that was grandfathered in from the previous industrial facility at the site, which is not up to current standards. The state limit for total dissolved solids (TDS) in wastewater discharged into a waterway was updated in 2010 to be 2,000 mg/L. Shell’s permit estimates that the TDS concentrations for the wastewater it is discharging into the Ohio River will be 4,690 mg/L to 7,375 mg/L.
By allowing the Shell ethane cracker to skirt these regulations, the DEP is not adhering to their own guidelines, accommodating Shell instead.
Emergency Incidents & Safety
As large industrial facilities that handle flammable materials, petrochemical facilities are at risk of explosion. The possibility for emergency incidents and “plant upsets” (forced shutdowns caused by mechanical problems, power outages or some other unplanned event) can release sizable amounts of toxic pollutants, seriously threatening public health and safety.
For residents of the Houston, Texas area petrochemical accidents are more a question of when and not if. In 2019, a number of industrial incidents hit the region. In March, there was a chemical fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery and a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company, a chemical storage facility, which reignited days later. Then there was an explosion at the KMCO chemical manufacturing plant that killed a worker and injured two others. In July, a fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery sent over 30 people to the hospital with injuries. In November, an explosion at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant forced residents within a half mile to evacuate, and many more to shelter in place.
Many industrial accidents can be attributed to inadequate enforcement of environmental and safety regulations. An analysis of hazardous liquid pipeline incidents by FracTracker Alliance found that 60% of incidents over the past 10 years were caused by equipment failure or incorrect operation (hazardous liquids include natural gas liquids, refined petroleum products, and crude oil).
Another factor impeding safety is the industry’s lack of transparency. Oftentimes, emergency management personnel are not informed about what type of chemicals are stored on industrial sites. They’re also often not consulted in the permit approval process – leaving out the expertise of those who best understand a community’s safety needs.
Climate change exacerbates the risks of emergency incidents. As mentioned earlier, Hurricane Ida resulted in some of the worst chemical releases ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.
To learn more about emergencies at ethane crackers, view our article Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure.
Downstream Health Impacts: Use and Disposal
Even if you don’t live near a petrochemical plant, you’re still in contact with petrochemical products like plastic every day (even you, cryptopygus antarcticus!). Using certain plastic products exposes us to toxins that have been associated with adverse carcinogenic, developmental, and endocrine-disrupting impacts. In addition to plastic, the petrochemicals that make up products in things like pesticides, paints, perfumes, and carpeting have health impacts too. Synthetic fertilizer (which is made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), can run off into surface water during rain events, leading to oxygen depletion in waterways and fish kills.
Finally, there’s the issue of disposal. Since only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, dealing with the incredible volume of waste from plastic and other petrochemical products is a major occupational and public health concern. There is no country with the resources or system in place to properly deal with all of the trash that comes from single-use plastic. While countries like the United States can ship plastic trash to other countries to keep the problem “out of sight, out of mind,” it has to end up somewhere, and often that is in rivers, oceans, city streets, and incinerators.
The Center for International Environmental Law, with input from FracTracker, produced a report on the health impacts of plastic across its lifecycle – from fracking to microplastic pollution to incineration. Key health impacts from each stage are in the graphic below.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about the toxics in our environment. We need regulatory agencies to invoke the precautionary principle to protect our health and to stop permitting new plastic facilities. Getting involved in local efforts to support zero waste systems in your community is a great way to take action to prevent these harmful impacts.
For more on this topic, check out:
Roughly a decade ago, around 2009-2013, global markets were looking favorable for petrochemical manufacturing. Advancements in fracking technology had led to an oversupply of oil and gas, keeping prices low, and global demand for plastic was increasing.
The oil and gas industry has lost billions of dollars from the fracking industry, and is facing increased competition from renewables. Companies began looking towards investment in petrochemicals as a way to profit from the surplus of oil and gas. Multinational corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, Formosa Plastics, and ExxonMobil drew up plans to build over a dozen new ethane crackers in the United States to turn oil and gas into polyethylene plastic.
Recently added and new ethylene production capacity. IEEFA March 2020 report, “Proposed PTTGC Petrochemical Complex in Ohio Faces Significant Risks Source”
But the expansion wasn’t limited to the United States. Petrochemical companies planned to build new ethane crackers in China, Iran, India, Russia, Indonesia, and South Korea as well.
The expansion led to an oversupply of ethylene in the global market. The ambitious plans made by the petrochemical industry were based on the price of plastic being $1/pound, yet soon after, prices began to drop.
Meanwhile, cities, states, and countries have been working to ban single-use plastic, reducing demand for ethylene. While recycling plastic has in many ways been a failed endeavor, recycled plastics do take an additional hit at demand for virgin plastics.
Complicating factors is the coronavirus pandemic. Near the beginning of the pandemic, many oil, gas, and petrochemical companies announced setbacks. PTTG, a petrochemical company looking to build an ethane cracker in Ohio delayed their decision until 2021, and then delayed it indefinitely, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. Sasol Chemicals stated its Lake Charles Chemical Project will be a $50-100 million loss on the company’s balance sheet instead of the $50-100 million gain that was predicted. Royal Dutch Shell announced it would reduce its spending by $5 billion over that year.
At the same time, corporations have used the pandemic as an excuse to promote single-use plastic and halt plastic bans, despite the fact that health experts have stated reusables are safe and important for preventing other public health risks. The price of plastic has increased since the onset of the pandemic, however as IEEFA reports, with a small number of companies controlling the majority of the market there is a lack of transparency and regulation over prices.
In sum, the economic opportunities created by the petrochemical industry’s expansion are not on track to be nearly as profitable as once predicted.
How does the petrochemical industry impact a local economy?
Let’s start with the foundation of petrochemicals—oil and gas. While the oil and gas industry can lead to large GDP growth, a relatively small percentage of that money makes its way to the community and even the state where drilling occurs, compared to other industries. This is for several reasons:
- The new technology that has enabled the fracking boom is highly automated, and requires far fewer workers than conventional oil and gas development. Even in Pennsylvania, the country’s second largest producer of natural gas, there are actually more jobs in renewables, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, and grid modernization than the fossil fuel industry.
- Many oil and gas operators aren’t headquartered in the state (or country) they’re drilling in, and therefore the wealth they amass goes elsewhere. Many of the workers travel from out of state. Housing and feeding out-of-state workers may provide a temporary economic boost, but one that’s unsustainable if workers decide to leave. Furthermore, companies often source equipment from other states and countries, precluding opportunities for local businesses.
- The oil and gas industry has a lower “employment multiplier” than it claims. Research suggests that for every oil and gas job created, only 1.3 other jobs are created (learn more about the faulty model employed to overinflate job estimates).
- Oil and gas companies pay low state and local taxes and receive subsidies in the form of tax credits and exemptions. A 2019 study found that “conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil.”
The petrochemical industry builds off these factors. Despite the large GDP generated, a small percentage stays in the community where development is taking place, and the number of local jobs is also relatively small given the size of the investment. For example, the $1.65 billion tax break that Pennsylvania gave to Shell to build an ethane cracker will only employ 600 workers (that means that the state is spending $2.75 million for each permanent job created). Food and Water Watch found a similar investment in wind or solar industries would create 16,500 jobs.
Subsidies and Financial Agreements
In addition to receiving the largest tax break in Pennsylvania’s history, the Shell ethane cracker also received a 15-year exemption from state and local taxes – which brings up another important factor—the large tax-payer subsidies given to petrochemical companies.
In Louisiana, a statewide program (ITEP) exempts nearly all manufacturing companies from paying property taxes that would support local budgets, leading to decades of disinvestment from schools, local services, and social safety nets. Between 2006 and 2016, an estimated $13 billion was diverted from local governments because manufacturing companies weren’t paying property taxes. The program was changed in 2016 to allow local officials to reject a company’s request for tax breaks, however, in 2020, Governor Edwards backed a process that allows companies to appeal a local government’s decision to the state board.
Despite the generosity of many state governments, there is limited evidence to support that these large tax credit programs are effective.
In addition to tax breaks, ethane crackers often receive funding from public grants and economic development organizations in the public or non-profit sector. For example, Jobs Ohio gave PTT of Thailand and Daelim Industrial of South Korea $30 million for the PTT ethane cracker, and Texas Enterprise Fund granted $1.35 million to SABIC and $5 million to Exxon for the Exxon-SABIC ethane cracker.
Local investments to support the industry
To make up for these large tax breaks, companies may pledge money to make large investments in a state, repair local infrastructure, support colleges, or fund other community projects. Yet this takes power away from local government and into the hands of international corporations whose bottom line is profit, not the public’s well being.
- For example, Shell must invest $1 billion in Pennsylvania as part of its tax credit agreement to build an ethane cracker. Shell has donated $1 million to the process technology program at the Community College of Beaver County near the ethane cracker site. The money will be used to create the “Shell Center for Process Technology Education.” According to the local newspaper, this program is heavily influenced by Shell, and will educate local students to work in the petrochemical industry.
The agreements corporations make with the state are designed to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the public, yet they play a major role in influencing the opportunities available for future generations.
Many of the ways oil, gas, and petrochemical companies invest in our communities —such as an oil rig display in the New Orleans aquarium, or pro-oil K-12 curriculum—are designed to influence the public’s perception and acceptance of them.
Boom and bust
These types of industry investments also make local governments dependent on multinational corporations and throw communities onto a boom-and-bust roller coaster. Communities throughout Appalachia based around coal and steel can attest to the devastating impacts that come when a local economy is based around one company or natural resource, and what happens when that company goes bankrupt or the natural resource is no longer profitable.
Influencing elected officials
But why do those in power choose petrochemicals, when state leaders could choose companies that manufacture renewable energy, reclaim brownfields, or build out our public transportation system?
States like Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas sit above the natural resources that companies like Shell and Exxon require, and as some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, they will engage in all of the lobbying and campaign funding necessary to get what they want.
For example, an investigation by Global Witness found that Pennsylvania representatives who voted for a bill that would provide millions in tax breaks to petrochemical companies (HB 1100) received over six times more campaign funds from the oil and gas industry than those who voted no (learn more about updates on this bill).
There are also costs that don’t show up on a budget. As mentioned in previous sections, ethane crackers put a tremendous burden on their environment and therefore a community’s health. Corporations don’t have to pay the healthcare costs for increases in asthma, heart disease, or cancer associated with petrochemical facilities. A 2019 study found that the air pollution in the Appalachian Basin has been responsible for 1,200 to 4,600 deaths and comes at a cost of $12 billion to 94 billion in climate impacts.
Petrochemical plants also prevent the land from providing ecosystem services —services that we depend on to breathe, eat, drink, and play.
Picture a healthy, forested acre of land along a river. The plants are sequestering carbon, providing shade, filtering the air, soaking up rain to prevent floods, and regulating the climate; the soil is cycling nutrients and filtering rainwater that drips into aquifers; the land provides habitat for animals and opportunities for people to grow food and medicine and to recreate. The more industrialized the land becomes, the more these services are lost.
You can’t put a price on clean air, water and soil.
Percentage of the population that are people of color, and points showing oil, gas, and petrochemical plants. Data from the EPA EJ Screen (2020 Version), and 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)
The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions. These racist practices have led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana—an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s. Residents now call it Death Alley.
The petrochemical industry here is built on a legacy of racism: in a literal sense, as the petrochemical plants literally sit atop former plantations where enslaved people worked and were buried, and symbolically, as the industry benefits from the systemic oppression of Black people that has continued since.
Oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure along the Mississippi River. Mapped by FracTracker, using 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)
Beyond race and income, age plays into environmental injustices. West Virginia, home to major chemical companies like Dow and Union Carbide, has one of the highest percentages of its population over 65 in the country. Older people are also more likely to develop chronic or serious health outcomes from exposure to pollution.
The second aspect of environmental justice—the meaningful participation in decisions that impact one’s environment—is also violated by the petrochemical industry. The decision to permit a petrochemical plant ultimately comes down to a small group of elected officials and doesn’t guarantee the meaningful participation of all residents.
There are many factors impeding meaningful participation. Permit documents for petrochemical facilities are long and complicated, and nearly impossible to interpret without advice from experts. Permits for some proposed facilities are pushed forward without public hearings and/or with a short window of opportunity to provide a comment. Even when the public does voice strong opposition to a facility, it can be greenlighted anyway.
These barriers are exacerbated for non-English speakers, as hearings and notices are often not offered in other languages, even in regions where many of the residents don’t speak English.
Percentage of the population that are linguistically isolated, and points showing oil, gas, and petrochemical plants. Mapped by FracTracker, using 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)
Despite the power of the petrochemical industry, frontline communities have achieved major victories. They have forced the nation to wake up to environmental racism perpetuated by the petrochemical industry, particularly in the Gulf Coast, changing policy at the federal level. Volunteer and grassroots groups have achieved victories fighting for language justice and public participation, and taken responsibility to conduct air and water monitoring that is vital for public health. Collectively, these efforts have stopped and delayed plans for polluting infrastructure, while also fostering important conversations about how to restore environments and communities impacted by decades of extractive industries and systemic oppression.
The construction of petrochemical complexes like an ethane cracker bring an influx of workers to the region. You’ve probably heard stories about “boomtowns” throughout United States history—the gold rush in California, oilfields in Texas and Oklahoma, fracking in North Dakota. They’re stories of wealth and opportunity for some, and oppression and violence for others. The gold rush in the Western United States relied on labor of enslaved people and accelerated the genocide of Indigenous people. Sadly, these patterns continue today. Indigenous women and girls have faced increased crime and sexual violence since North Dakota’s fracking boom began in 2006, a reality that is widespread throughout North America. So-called “man camps”—temporary communities established for oil and gas workers—have been associated with increased rates of sexual violence and sex trafficking.
A sudden rise in population can strain community services and infrastructure, including human and social services. This can be a bigger issue in rural areas where public services cover large expanses of land.
Protecting marginalized communities from exploitation and violence is a much larger issue than stopping a petrochemical plant. But as a first step, communities experiencing rapid population growth must take social justice concerns seriously, and leaders should work with community members to address their concerns.
The petrochemical industry is an extension of the fossil fuel industry, and as such, it is a major threat to the climate. In fact, the petrochemical industry is the fastest growing oil consumer, and the International Energy Agency predicts the sector will make up half of oil demand by 2050.
The Gulf Coast is vulnerable to hurricanes which are increasing in intensity due to climate change. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey disrupted over one-third of the country’s chemical production. When Hurricane Ida hit in 2021, it flooded Louisiana and damaged homes, but it also impacted petrochemical plants, which as a result polluted the environment even more through spills, leaks, flaring, and venting; in fact these chemical releases may be some of the worst ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.
The petrochemical industry is eager to increase its production capacity elsewhere, namely the Ohio River Valley, simultaneously fleeing and causing climate change.
Not only does the petrochemical industry create a demand for operators to extract more oil and gas, but the entire petrochemical lifecycle emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.
The Center for International Environmental Law produced the report Plastic & Climate with contributions from FracTracker, analyzing emissions from the entire plastic lifecycle, from extraction to the disposal of plastic. It found that in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced over 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s equal to emissions from 189 coal power plants.
The same report found that if plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions would be 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030 and by 2050, plastic could be responsible for 10 – 13% of the entire global carbon budget.
The images below from Plastic & Climate show the permitted greenhouse gas emissions from the petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley and the greenhouse gas emissions from ethylene crackers in the Gulf Coast.
Plastic & Climate, CIEL, May 15, 2019
Plastic & Climate, CIEL, May 15, 2019
There are also a number of hidden ways petrochemical manufacturing impacts the climate: clearing trees for pipeline right-of-ways and petrochemical infrastructure releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and keeping this land clear stops the land from capturing more carbon. When plastic pollution degrades in the environment, it releases methane and other greenhouse gases once again.
Many politicians and industries tout the ways plastic is part of a sustainable future, saying that
plastic is a lightweight material that makes cars more fuel efficient. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the expansion of the industry will be catering to just cars or reusable items. In fact, with the biggest use of plastic being packaging, the buildout will contribute to the growing crisis of single use plastic pollution.
RECENT PETROCHEMICAL ARTICLES
The Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking
As unconventional oil and natural gas extraction operations have expanded throughout the United States over the past decade, the harmful health and environmental effects of fracking have become increasingly apparent and are supported by a steadily growing number of scientific studies and reports. Although some uncertainties remain around the exact exposure pathways, it is clear that issues associated with fracking negatively impact public health and the surrounding environment.
Holding oil and gas companies accountable for the environmental health effects of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD), or “fracking,” has been challenging in the US because current regulations do not require drilling operators to disclose exactly what chemicals are used. However, many of the chemicals used for fracking have been identified and come with serious health consequences. The primary known compounds of concern include BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) and associated pollutants such as tropospheric ozone and hydrogen sulfide. BTEX chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans, and can lead to other serious health problems including damage to the nervous, respiratory, and immune system. While some of these BTEX chemicals can occur naturally in groundwater sources, spills and transport of these chemicals used during fracking can be a major source of groundwater contamination.
Exposure to pollution caused from fracking activity can lead to many negative short-term and long-lasting health effects. Reported health effects from short-term exposures to these pollutants include headaches, coughing, nausea, nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Recent studies have also found an association between pregnant women living in close proximity to fracking sites and low-birth weights and heart defects. Additionally, a recent study conducted in the rural area of Eagle Ford, Texas found that pregnant women living within five kilometers (or about three miles) of fracking operations that regularly engaged in “flaring,” or the burning of excess natural gas, were 50% more likely to have a preterm birth than those without exposure.
Figure 1. Summary of known health impacts associated with unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD).
Exposure to radioactive materials is also a serious concern. During the fracking process as high-pressured water and chemicals fracture the rock formations, naturally occurring radioactive elements like radium are also drawn out of the rocks in addition to oil and natural gas. As the oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground, the radioactive material primarily comes back as a component of brine, a byproduct of the extraction process. The brine is then hauled to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the ground. Exposure to radioactivity can lead to adverse health effects such as nausea, headaches, skin irritation, fatigue, and cancer.
With fracking also comes construction, excessive truck traffic, noise, and light pollution. This has led to a rise in mental health effects including stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sleep disruptions.
A 2020 report published by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General contains numerous testimonials from those impacted by fracking, as well as grand jury findings on environmental crimes among shale gas operations.
How can I be exposed?
Exposure to the hazardous materials used in fracking can occur through many pathways including breathing polluted air, drinking, bathing or cooking with contaminated water, or eating food grown in contaminated soil. Especially vulnerable populations to the harmful chemicals used in fracking include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions.
Considerations Around Scientific Certainty
While it is clear that fracking adversely impacts our health, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the exact exposure pathways and the extent that fracking can be associated with certain health effects. A compendium published in 2019 reviewed over 1,500 scientific studies and reports about the risks of fracking, and revealed that 90% found evidence of harm. Although there have been various reports of suspected pediatric cancer clusters in heavily fracked regions, there are minimal longitudinal scientific studies about the correlation between fracking and cancer. The primary reason for this is because the time between the initial exposure to a cancer-causing substance and a cancer diagnosis can take decades. Because fracking in the Marcellus Shale region is a relatively new development, this is an area of research health scientists should focus on in the coming years. While we know that drilling operations use cancer-causing chemicals, more studies are needed to understand the public’s exposure to this pollution and the extent of excess morbidity connected to fracking.
Fracking has caused detrimental impacts on local air quality, especially for those living within 3-5 miles of UOGD operations. Diesel emissions from truck traffic and heavy machinery used in the preparation, drilling, and production of natural gas release large amounts of toxins and particulate matter (PM). These small particles can infiltrate deeply into the respiratory system, elevating the risk for asthma attacks and cardiopulmonary disease. Other toxins released during UOGD operations include hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a toxic gas that may be present in oil and gas formations. Hydrogen sulfide can cause extensive damage to the central nervous system. BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) chemicals and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also released during fracking operations, and have been known to cause leukemia; liver damage; eye, nose and throat irritation; and headaches. While oil and gas workers use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from these harmful toxins, residents in surrounding communities are exposed to these hazardous conditions without protection.
Regional air quality concerns from UOGD include tropospheric ozone, or ‘smog’. VOCs and other chemicals emitted from fracking can react with sunlight to form smog. While ozone high in the atmosphere provides valuable protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays, ozone at ground level is hazardous for human health. Ozone may cause a range of respiratory effects like shortness of breath, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma and chronic respiratory disease symptoms.
Expanding beyond local and regional impacts, fracking and UOGD has global implications. With increasing emissions from truck traffic, construction, and high rates of methane leaks, fracking emissions will continue to worsen the climate change crisis. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 86 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide (on a weight basis) over a 20 year period. Fracking wells can leak 40-60% more methane than conventional natural gas wells, and recent studies have indicated that emissions are significantly higher than previously thought.
Unhealthy air quality also presents occupational exposures to oil and gas workers through frac sand mining. Frac sand, or silica, is used to hold open the fractures in the rock formations so the oil and gas can be released during the drilling process. Silica dust is extremely small in diameter and can easily be inhaled, making its way to the lower respiratory tract. Silica is classified as a human lung carcinogen, and when inhaled may lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, respiratory failure, and lung cancer.
Many states allow this brine to be reused on roads for dust control and de-icing. Regulations vary from state to state, but many areas do not require any level of pretreatment before reuse.
Not only does fracking affect water quality, but it also depletes the quantity of available fresh water. Water use per fracking well has increased dramatically in recent years, with each well consuming over 14.3 million gallons of water on average. For more information about increasing fracking water use, click here.
A summary of other water contamination pathways can be found on page 13 of Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Waste Report (2019).
In addition to air and water contamination, UOGD operations can also harm soil quality. Harmful chemicals including BTEX chemicals and heavy metals like mercury and lead have contaminated agricultural areas near fracking operations. Exposure can occur from eating produce grown on contaminated soil, or by consuming animals that consumed contaminated feed. These contaminants can also alter the pH and nutrient availability of the soil, resulting in decreased crop production and economic losses. Children are also at high risk of exposure to contaminated soil due to their frequent hand to mouth behavior. Lastly, the practice of frac sand mining can make land reclamation nearly impossible, leaving irreparable damage to the landscape.
Figure 3. Toledo Refining Company Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.
If you think that your health or environment have been negatively impacted by fracking operations, contact:
- For an emergency requiring immediate local police, fire, or emergency medical services, always call 911 first
- To report a spill or other emergency in PA, contact the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP): 1-800-541-2050 or report to your regional office. In Southwestern PA, call 412-442-4000.
- PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Environmental Complaint Line (PA only): 1-888-723-3721 or online. (To find your state environmental or health agency, click here.)
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Violations form online.
- Join the Environmental Health Project Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry & Resource Network here.
Pipelines are categorized by what they carry — natural gas, oil, or natural gas liquids (NGLs) — and where they go — interstate or intrastate. The regulatory system is complicated. This primer is a quick guide to the agencies that may be involved in Falcon’s permit reviews.
The siting of natural gas pipelines crossing state or country boundaries is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Meanwhile, determination of the location of natural gas routes that do not cross such boundaries are not jurisdictional to FERC, instead determined by the owner pipeline company. Hazardous liquids and NGL pipelines are not regulated for siting by FERC regardless of their location and destination. However, FERC does have authority over determining rates and terms of service in these cases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets involved when pipelines cross navigable waters such as large rivers and state Environmental Protection Agencies.
Pipeline design, operation, and safety regulations are established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but these regulations may vary state-by-state as long as minimal federal standards are met by the pipeline project. Notably, PHMSA’s oversight of safety issues does not determine where a pipeline is constructed as this is regulated by the different agencies mentioned above – nor are PHMSA’s safety considerations reviewed simultaneously in siting determinations done by other agencies.
These federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) investigating how the pipeline pertains to things like the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, as well as state and local laws. The image above, for instance, is a caption from the Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise, a natural gas pipeline.
An EIS is based on surveying and background research conducted by the company proposing the project, then submitted to agencies as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An EIS can exceed hundreds of pages and can go through many drafts as companies are asked to refine their EIA in order to qualify for approval.
Pipeline proposals are also evaluated by state and local agencies. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the PA DEP is responsible for assessing how to minimize pipeline impacts. The DEP’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. The PA Fish and Boat Commission oversees the avoidance or relocation of protected species. Local township zoning codes can also apply, such as to where facilities are sited near zoned residential areas or drinking reservoirs, but these can be overruled by decisions made at the federal level, especially when eminent domain is granted to the project.
Regulating the Falcon
For the Falcon pipeline, an interstate pipeline that will transport ethane (an NGL), FERC will likely have authority over determining rates and terms of service, but not siting. Construction permitting will be left state agencies and PHMSA will retain its federal authority with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) acting as PHMSA’s state agent to ensure the project complies with federal safety standards and to investigate violations. The Army Corps will almost certainly be involved given that the Falcon will cross the Ohio River. As far as we know, the Falcon will not have eminent domain status because it supplies a private facility and, thus, does not qualify as a public utility project.
Questioning Impact Assessments
The contents of EIAs vary, but are generally organized along the lines of the thematic categories that we have created for assessing the Falcon data, as seen above. However, there is also much that EISs fail to adequately address. The Army Corp’s assessment of the Atlantic Sunrise is a good example. The final EIS resulting from the operators EIA includes considerations for socioeconomic impacts, such effects on employment and environmental justice, as seen in the excerpt below. But potential negative impact in these areas are not necessarily linked to laws requiring special accommodations. For instance, federal regulations mandate achieving environmental justice by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” of projects subject to NEPA’s EIS requirement. However, there are no laws that outline thresholds of unacceptable impact that would disallow a project to proceed.
Furthermore, the narratives of EIAs are almost always written by the companies proposing the project, using sources of data that better support their claims of minimal or positive impact. This is again seen in the Atlantic Sunrise EIS, where several studies are cited on how pipelines have no affect on property values or mortgages, with no mention of other studies that contradict such findings. Other factors that may be important when considering pipeline projects, such as concerns for sustainability, climate change, or a community’s social well-being, are noticeably absent.
Complicating matters, some pipeline operators have been successful in skirting comprehensive EIAs. This was seen in the case of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Despite being the largest pipeline project in Pennsylvania’s history, a NEPA review was never conducted for ME2.
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By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance
Pipeline Construction: Step by Step Guide
The current natural gas pipeline boom gives many homeowners a first row seat to the process of pipeline construction. The rush to move natural gas to markets places pipelines too close to homes, with construction taking place in backyards, farms, pastures, and right at the mailboxes of residents throughout the country. This page walks you through the process of a natural gas pipeline currently being constructed.
Getting started: After all federal and state level permits are approved and easement agreements or eminent domain condemnations completed, the process of pipeline construction can begin. Crews flag the boundaries of all locations where construction activities will take place. The flags mark the extent of the temporary construction zone surrounding the pipeline right-of-way (ROW), as well as the staging and storage areas. The width of the right-of-way is determined based on the diameter of the pipe (8 – 42 inches), with widths ranging from 80 – 125. While existing roads are used when possible, temporary access roads are also constructed to create direct paths from staging areas to the pipeline ROW.
Step 1: Construction Staging Areas & Storage Yards
In order to construct a pipeline, staging areas and storage yards are cleared, strategically located along the planned right-of-way. These areas are used to stockpile pipe and to store fuel tanks, sand bags, silt fencing, stakes, and equipment parts. They provide parking for construction equipment, employee trucks, and locations for office trailers.
Staging areas are cleared and covered in rough stone gravel, often reinforced with large wood timber matting. These areas can be located in fields, pasture, or forested land and can impact streams and wetlands. Often, these areas require the construction of access roads to and from paved roads, and to and from the areas to the pipeline ROW.
Hoover over or click on the images below to explore each stage in Step 1:
Step 2: Clear Cutting the ROW
After the equipment is accessible in the staging area, work will begin to clear cut the pipeline right-of-way. Landowners have the option of selling the timber themselves, or allowing the company responsibility for its sale or disposal. Large trees are stockpiled or hauled off, while the branches and tree tops are placed into piles and burned. A stump grinder then removes the remaining tree stumps in the ROW.
Step 3: Excavating the Trench
The trench for the pipeline is dug after the ROW is cleared of trees. As seen in several of the photos below, the hillsides are so steep that trench diggers are lowered and secured to larger bulldozers with a tether line. If rocks ledges are encountered, track hoes with jack hammers are brought in to create the trench. Sandbags are placed within the trench to restrict water flow and to support the pipe.
Step 4: Pipe Transport, Stringing, & Assembly
When the trench is completed, pre-coated segments of pipe, usually 40 ft in length, are transported from stockpiles in the staging area to the right-of-way. Pipes are laid above ground beside the trench, or within the trench on top of supportive sandbags in steep terrain. Certain pipe sections are bent using a pipe bending tool to allow the pipeline to follow the planned route and the terrain. The pipe sections will then be welded together, sand blasted, and the weld joints coated with epoxy to prevent corrosion. Finally, the weld joints are inspected with x-ray to ensure their quality. Connected lengths of pipe can then be lowered into the trench.
Step 5: Obstacles: Roads & Streams
Pipelines cross existing roads, highways, streams, rivers and wetlands. Typically, pipelines are constructed underneath these obstacles by either boring for shallow depth or using horizontal directional drilling (HDD) for deeper placement. Other obstacles include abandoned mines, karst topography, and densely populated areas. Each obstacles requires a unique method and order of operations.
Step 6: Testing & Restoration
After the pipe is inspected, the trench is filled in. Before completing the project, the pipeline integrity must be verified using hydrostatic testing. Pipeline companies receive permits to withdraw millions of gallons of water from streams and rivers along the pipeline path. This water is sent through the pipeline and the pressure is increased to above the maximum operational level. If the pipeline remains intact during this test, it is deemed operational. After this, the surface of the ROW is seeded and fertilized, and above-ground markers are placed along the pipeline path.
While the majority of a pipeline is underground, there are several types of supporting infrastructure that are constructed during a pipeline project. Compressor stations, facilities that maintain the pressure level within the pipeline, are built to support new pipeline projects, or existing stations are upgraded. Additionally, valve stations are built above the right-of-way along the pipeline, allowing operators to shut off sections of the line for maintenance or in an emergency. Metering stations are built along the length of pipelines, providing a measure of the flow of gas throughout the line.
To ensure pipeline integrity, welds must be x-rayed and the pipe hydro-tested. This process involves pumping in clean water, pressured above the expected MAOP — maximum average operating pressure. Then, all water is removed and “pigs” are inserted into the pipe to clean it out. When the pigs eventually exit the far end of the pipe clean, then the line will be filled with dry air. Air compressors pump up the air, and the air is run thru a drier. The air will be sampled and tested for moisture content. When those parameters get low enough, the complete pipeline is filled with nitrogen to absorb more of the remaining moisture. Only then is the pipeline ready to transport natural gas.
This resource page provides an overview of a typical pipeline construction project. Pipelines vary in size, length, and location, however, and each one present different challenges and operations. Construction plans for current proposed pipelines can be found on the FERC docket for that specific project.
- Bill Hughes: construction of the Ohio Valley Connector 30” natural gas pipeline in West Virginia
- Sierra Shamer: construction of the Columbia Line MB extension in Maryland.
By: Wendy Fan, FracTracker Alliance Intern
North America consists of a vast network of inter- and intrastate pipelines that serve a vital role in transporting water, hazardous liquids, and raw materials. There is an estimated 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the nation, and it delivers trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products each year. Because the pipeline network fuels the nation’s daily functions and livelihoods by delivering resources used for energy purposes, it is crucial to shed light on this transportation system. This article briefly discusses oil and gas pipelines, what they are, why they exist, their potential health and environmental impacts, proposed projects, and who oversees them.
What are pipelines, and what are they used for?
The pipeline network in the U.S. is a transportation system used to move goods and materials. Pipelines transport a variety of products such as sewage and water. However, the most common products transported are for energy purposes, which include natural gas, biofuels, and liquid petroleum. Pipelines exist throughout the country, and they vary by the goods transported, the size of the pipes, and the material used to make pipes.
While some pipelines are built above ground, the majority of pipelines in the U.S. are buried underground. Because oil and gas pipelines are well concealed from the public, most individuals are unaware of the existence of the vast network of pipelines.
Extent of U.S. Pipeline System
The United States has the most miles of pipelines than any other country, with 1,984,321 km (1,232,999 miles) in natural gas transport and 240,711 km (149,570 miles) in petroleum products. The country with the second most miles of pipelines is Russia with 163,872 km (101,825 miles), and then Canada with 100,000 km (62,137 miles).
Types of Oil and Gas Pipelines
There are two main categories of pipelines used to transport energy products: petroleum pipelines and natural gas pipelines.
- Petroleum pipelines transport crude oil or natural gas liquids, and there are three main types of petroleum pipelines involved in this process: gathering systems, crude oil pipeline systems, and refined products pipelines systems. The gathering pipeline systems gather the crude oil or natural gas liquid from the production wells. It is then transported with the crude oil pipeline system to a refinery. Once the petroleum is refined into products such as gasoline or kerosene, it is transported via the refined products pipeline systems to storage or distribution stations.
- Natural gas pipelines transport natural gas from stationary facilities such as gas wells or import/export facilities, and deliver to a variety of locations, such as homes or directly to other export facilities. This process also involves three different types of pipelines: gathering systems, transmission systems, and distribution systems. Similar to the petroleum gathering systems, the natural gas gathering pipeline system gathers the raw material from production wells. It is then transported with large lines of transmission pipelines that move natural gas from facilities to ports, refiners, and cities across the country. Lastly, the distribution systems consist of a network that distributes the product to homes and businesses. The two types of distribution systems are the main distribution line, which are larger lines that move products close to cities, and the service distribution lines, which are smaller lines that connect main lines into homes and businesses.
Before pursuing plans to build new pipelines, a ROW needs to be secured from private and public landowners, which pipeline companies usually will pay for. ROW are easements that must be agreed and signed upon by both the landowner and pipeline company, and permits pipeline operators to go forth with installing and maintaining pipelines on that land. Pipeline operators can obtain ROW by purchasing the property or through a court-ordered procedure. ROW can be permanent or temporary acquisitions, and needs approval from FERC.
Depending on the type of pipeline, what it is transferring, what it is made of, and where it runs, there are various federal or state agencies that have jurisdiction over its regulatory affairs.
A. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)
Interstate pipelines, those that either physically cross state boundaries or carry product that will cross state boundaries, are all permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The FERC is an independent organization within the U.S. Department of Energy that permits interstate electricity and natural gas infrastructure. The FERC’s authority lies within various acts of energy legislation, beginning with the Natural Gas Act of 1938 to the more recent Energy Policy Act of 2005. The U.S. President appoints its four commissioners. Other agencies such as the Dept. of Transportation, regional authorities such as the River Basin Commissions, and the Army Corps of Engineers may also be involved. FERC approves the location, construction, operation, and abandonment of interstate pipelines. They do not have jurisdiction over the siting of intrastate natural gas pipelines nor hazardous liquids.
B. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA)
Under the U.S. Department of Transportation, the PHMSA oversees, develops, and enforces regulations to ensure the safe and environmentally sound pipeline transportation system. There are two offices within the PHMSA that fulfill these goals. The Office of Hazardous Materials Safety develops regulations and standards for classifying, handling, and packaging hazardous materials. The Office of Pipeline Safety develops regulations and risk management approaches to assure safe pipeline transportation, and ensures safety in the design, construction, operation and maintenance, and spill response of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipeline transportation. Below are some regulations enforced by PHMSA:
1. Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 or Pipeline Safety Act 2011
This act reauthorizes PHMSA to continue with the examination and improvement of the pipeline safety regulations. It allows PHMSA to:
- Provide the regulatory certainty necessary for pipeline owners and operators to plan infrastructure investments and create jobs
- Improve pipeline transportation by strengthening enforcement of current laws and improving existing laws where necessary
- Ensure a balanced regulatory approach to improving safety that applies cost-benefit principles
- Protect and preserve Congressional authority by ensuring certain key rule-makings are not finalized until Congress has an opportunity to act
2. Federal Pipeline Safety Regulations: Public Awareness Programs
- Enforced by PHMSA, the Public Awareness Program mandates that pipeline companies and operators to develop and implement public awareness programs that follow guidance provided by the American Petroleum Institute.
- Under this regulation, pipeline operators must provide the public with information on how to recognize, respond, and report to pipeline emergencies.
3. Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968
- This act authorizes the Department of Transportation to regulate pipeline transportation of flammable, toxic, or corrosive natural gas, or other gases, as well as transportation and storage of liquefied natural gas.
The PHMSA also designed an interactive national pipeline mapping system for the public to access and utilize. However, the map can only be viewed one county at a time, it does not include distribution or gathering lines, and when you zoom in too far, the pipelines disappear. In fact, the site warns that the map should not be used to determine accurate locations of pipelines, stating that the locations can be incorrect by up to 500 ft. PHMSA argues that these restrictions exist in the interest of national security.
C. United States Army Corps of Engineers
Permits must be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if a pipeline is to be constructed through navigable bodies of water, including wetlands. State environmental regulatory agencies, such as PA’s Department of Environmental Protection, are also involved in the approval process of pipeline construction through waterways and wetlands.
Environmental Health and Safety Risks
Although pipeline transportation of natural gas and petroleum is considered safer and cheaper than ground transportation, pipeline failures, failing infrastructure, human error, and natural disasters can result in major pipeline disasters. As such, previous incidents have been shown to cause detrimental effects to the environment and the public’s safety.
A. Land Use and Forest Fragmentation
In order to bury pipelines underground, an extensive amount of forest and land is cleared out to meet the pipe’s size capacity. States, such as Pennsylvania, that consist of rich ecosystem due to their abundance of forests, are at critical risk of diminishing habitats for plant species, and are at risk of the eradication of certain animal species. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) aimed to quantify the amount of land disturbance in Bradford and Washington counties in PA as a result of oil and gas activity including pipeline implementation. The USGS report concluded that pipeline construction was one of the highest sources of increasing forest patch numbers. Bradford County, PA had an increase of 306 patches, in which 235 were attributable to pipeline construction. Washington County increased by 1,000 patches, in which half was attributable to pipeline construction.
B. Compressor Stations
Compressor stations play an important role in processing and transporting the materials that pass through the pipeline. However, compressor stations present significant environmental health hazards. Even when the process of drilling and fracking is completed, compressor stations remain in the area to keep the gas in pipelines continually flowing. The stationary nature of this air pollution source means that a combination of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), formaldehyde, and greenhouse gases are continually being released into the atmosphere. These pollutants are known to produce deleterious health impacts to the respiratory system, nervous system, or lung damage. In addition to pollutants emitted, the noise level generated by compressor stations can reach up to 100 decibels. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports hearing loss can occur by listening to sounds at or above 85 decibels over an extended period of time.
C. Erosion and Sedimentation
Heavy rainfall or storms can lead to excessive soil disruption, in turn increasing opportunities for erosion and sedimentation to occur. Erosion can uncover pipelines buried underground, and rainfall of more than 5 inches (13 cm) can move or erode berms, and also disrupt mounds of soil used to protect against flooding. Soil erosion increases underground pipelines’ vulnerability to damage from scouring or washouts, and damage from debris, vehicles, or boats.
D. Eminent Domain
Eminent domain allows state or federal government bodies to exercise their power to take private property from residents or citizens for public use and development. In some cases, private companies have exercised power to seize land for their own profit. Owners of the property are then given a compensation in exchange for their land. However, landowners may end up spending more than they receive. In order to receive compensation, owners must hire their own appraiser and lawyer, and they are also not usually compensated for the full value of the land. Furthermore, property values decrease once pipelines are established on their land, making it more difficult to sell their home in the future.
E. Spills and Leaks
Poorly maintained and faulty pipelines that transport liquefied natural gas or crude oil may pose high health and environmental risks should the fluids spill or leak into the soil. Crude oil can contain more than 1,000 chemicals that are known carcinogen to humans, such as benzene. The release of the potentially toxic chemical or oil can infiltrate into the soil, exposing communities to fumes in the atmosphere as well as contaminating groundwater and surface water. Not only are the incidents costly to control and clean up, the chemical or oil spills can also have long lasting impacts to the environment and the public. A ruptured pipeline that leaked 33,000 gallons of crude oil in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2010 exposed residents in a nearby community to chemical fumes, causing them to experience drowsiness and lethargy. After being commissioned in 2010, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline had reported 35 leaks and spills in its first year alone. In April 2016, the Keystone pipeline leaked 17,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Older pipelines are more likely to leak than newer ones, so this issue will only increase as pipeline infrastructure ages.
Natural gas pipelines have also been shown to leak methane, a major component in natural gas, at levels that far exceed what is estimated. Not only does methane contribute to climate change, it puts surrounding communities at risk of gas explosions, and exposes them to dangerously high levels of methane in the air they breathe.
Explosions are also common with faulty pipelines that leak natural gas. Unlike oil or liquid spills, which generally spread and infiltrate into the soil, gas leaks can explode due to the hydrocarbon’s volatility. A recent pipeline explosion in Westmoreland County, PA, for example, caused a man to incur severe burns, as well as caused dozens of homes to be evacuated. Another pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California resulted in 8 people dead, 6 missing, and 58 injured. Thirty-eight homes were also destroyed and 70 others were damaged. This explosion exposed the haphazard system of record keeping for the tens of thousands of miles of gas pipelines, shoddy construction, and inspection practices.
Upcoming Proposed Projects
An estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipelines will be completed by 2018. Below are just a few major projects that are currently being proposed or are in the process of obtaining a permit.
This pipeline will include 194 miles throughout the state of Pennsylvania. It will be constructed to cut through portions of 10 different PA counties, including Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton, and Lycoming. This project will require a 125-foot ROW, and will traverse through 52 areas designed as “protected land” in Pennsylvania. This proposed project is still in review by FERC – a decision is expected late 2016 or early 2017.
Spectra Energy (Houston), DTE Energy (Detroit), and Enbridge Inc. (Canada) are partnering to build a $2 billion gas line that would travel from eastern Ohio to Michigan to Ontario. Already applied with FERC and will start construction early 2017. It proposed a 255-mile pipeline and will be 36-inch wide line.
This pipeline will expand the existing pipeline’s capacity from 70,000 barrels a day to 345,000. It has plans to deliver propane, butane, ethane, and other natural gas liquids across state to Delaware, Berks, and Lebanon counties in PA. Currently, the construction is delayed due to push back and permits acquisition.
This project was intended to expand an existing pipeline by 420 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania and passing through New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Recently in April 2016, Kinder Morgan decided to suspend further development of this proposed pipeline.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline had initial plans to establish 550 miles of pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, and to cut through dozens of Chesapeake headwater streams, two national forests, and across Appalachian Trail. Their permit to construct this pipeline was denied by the US Forest Service on January 2016; thus, delaying the project at the moment.
With approval by FERC, Spectra Energy has begun 37 miles of pipeline construction through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The pipeline location is particularly worrisome because it is critically close to the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Ruptures or leaks from the pipeline can threaten the public’s safety, and even result in a power plant meltdown. Spectra Energy has also submitted two additional proposals: the Atlantic Bridge and Access Northeast. Both projects will expand the Algonquin pipeline to reach New England, and both are still in the approval process with FERC.
The Constitution pipeline had initially planned to include 124 miles from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, New York, and was denied by NY State in April 2016.
To view the routes of proposed pipelines, visit FracTracker’s North American Pipeline and Oil and Gas Infrastructure Proposals map.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if there are any unanswered questions you would like us to answer or include.
Update: this article was edited on June 21, 2016 due to reader feedback and suggestions.
By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison
For anyone who even casually follows Marcellus and Utica shale gas exploration and production, such as in the active gas fields of West Virginia or Southwestern PA or Ohio, we know there are many concerns surrounding the natural gas production process. These issues range from air pollution, water consumption and contamination, to waste disposal. We know that, after all well the pad drilling and construction traffic are done, we must also have pipelines to get the gas to compressor stations, processing plants, and to markets in the Eastern United States (and likely Europe and Asia in the near future). Gas companies in Wetzel County, WV, and in neighboring tri-state counties, are convinced that building pipelines – really big pipelines – will be the silver bullet to achieving some semblance of stability and profitability.
Problems With Proposed Pipelines
One of the new, very large diameter (42”) proposed gas pipelines getting attention in the press is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will originate in the village of Mobley in eastern Wetzel County, WV and extend Southeast, through national forests and over the Appalachian Mountains into the state of Virginia. Even if the residents of Wetzel County and other natural gas fields are guinea pigs for experiments with hydraulic fracturing, we know how to build pipelines, don’t we? The equipment, knowledge, and skill sets needed for pipeline construction is readily available and commonly understood compared to high pressure horizontal drilling with large volumes of slick water. So, what could go wrong?
I can answer that question first hand from my hayfield in Wetzel County. Almost two years ago, EQT wanted to survey my property for a similar proposed pipeline – this one 30” in diameter, called the Ohio Valley Connector (OVC). The application for this project has now been filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The below map shows a section of the OVC as proposed almost two years ago. The red outlined area is my property. The yellow line shows one proposed pathway of the 30” pipeline that would cross our land. Multiple routes were being explored at first. Were this version approved, it would have gone right through my hayfield and under our stream.
Pipeline opponents express concern about habitat fragmentation, the crossing of pristine streams and rivers, erosion and sedimentation issues, spills, gas leaks, and possible explosions. These are all very valid concerns. But the potential for other logistical errors in the building process – from very simple to potentially serious ones – are also worth consideration. In this article I will use my recent personal experience as a detailed and documented example of how a professionally surveyed location on my property contained an error of almost one mile – over 4,000 feet – as part of a pipeline construction planning project. Yes, you read that right.
Part I: How Did We Get To This Point
Before we get to my story, I should review my first contact with EQT on this issue. In February of 2014, an EQT land agent asked me for permission to walk my property for preliminary evaluation of a route that would send their 30” high-pressure pipe through our land, from south to north.
It is important to keep in mind that almost every landowner in Wetzel County has been contacted by mail, phone or in person, by land agents promising cash with a verbal assurance that all will be well. The goal is to get a landowner’s signature on a loosely worded “right of way” (RoW) lease contract, with terms favorable to the gas company, and move on. Unfortunately, pipeline lease offers cannot be ignored. Not objecting or not questioning can sometime leave the landowner with fewer choices later. This is because many of the bigger interstate transmission lines are being proposed as FERC lines. When final approval is granted by FERC, these pipelines will have the legal power of eminent domain, where the property owner is forced to comply. Just filing a FERC application does not grant eminent domain in West Virginia, as it seems to in Virginia, but the potential for eminent domain gives land agents power over landowners.
I was not ready to give them surveying permission (to drive stakes or other permanent markers). Since a natural gas pipeline would affect all my neighbors, however, I agreed to allow a preliminary walk through my property and to hang surveyor ribbons in exchange for answering my questions about the project. For instance, one of my biggest concerns was the potential for significant habitat fragmentation, splitting up the forest and endangering wildlife habitat.
There are many questions residents should consider when approached by land agent. A list of these questions can be found in the appendix below.
I never did get answers to most of my questions in the few e-mail exchanges and phone conversations with EQT. I never saw the surveyors either. They simply came and left their telltale colored ribbons. Later, at a public meeting an EQT representative said the closest they would run the pipe to any residence would be 37.5 feet. That number is correct. I asked twice. They said they had the right to run a pipeline that close to a residence but would do their best not to. The 37.5 feet is just one half of the permanent RoW of 75 feet, which was also only part of a 125 foot RoW requested for construction. A few months later, a very short e-mail said that the final pipeline route had changed and they would not be on my property. For a time we would enjoy some peace and quiet.
A Word On Surveyors
Most folks can relate to the work and responsibility of bookkeepers or Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). They measure and keep track of money. And their balance sheets and ledgers actually have to, well, BALANCE. Think of Surveyors as the CPAs of the land world. When they go up a big hill and down the other side, the keep track of every inch — they will not tolerate losing a few inches here and there. They truly are professionals, measuring and documenting everything with precision. Most of the surveyors I have spoken with are courteous and respectful. They are a credit to their profession. They are aware of the eminent domain threat and their surveying success depends on treating landowners with respect. They are good at what they do. However, as this article will show, their professional success and precision depends on whether or not they are given the correct route to survey.
Part II: Surveyor Stakes and Flags
Over the next year we enjoyed peace and quiet with no more surveyors’ intrusions. However, in my regular travels throughout the natural gas fields here, countless signs of surveyor activity were visible. Even with the temporary slowdown in drilling, the proposed pipeline installations kept these surveyors busy. Assorted types of stakes and ribbons and markings are impossible to miss along our roads. I usually notice many of the newer surveyor’s flags and the normal wooden stakes used to mark out future well pads, access roads, compressor stations, and more recently pipelines. Given that survey markings are never taken down when no longer needed, the old ones sometimes hide the new ones.
It can be difficult keeping track of all of them and hard at first to identify why they are there. Even if sometimes I am not sure what a stake and flag might indicate, when one shows up very unexpectedly in what is essentially my front yard, it is impossible to not see it. That is what happened in August of 2015. Despite being unable to get our hay cut due to excessive rain the previous month, the colored flags were highly visible. Below shows one of the stakes with surveyor’s tape, and the hay driven down where the surveyors had parked their trucks in my field alongside my access road.
To call it trespassing might not be legally defensible yet. The stakes were, after all, near a public roadway – but the pins and stakes and flags were on my property. Incidents like this, whether intentional or accidental, are what have given the natural gas companies a reputation as bad neighbors. There were surveyors’ stakes and flags at two different locations, my hay was driven down, and I had no idea what all this meant given that I had no communication from anyone at EQT in over 18 months. I consider myself fortunate that the surveyors did not stray into wooded areas where trees might have been cut. It’s been known to happen.
Below shows the two sets of wooden stakes, roughly 70-80 feet apart, with flags and capped steel rebar pins. Both stakes were near the road’s gravel lane, which is a public right of way. Nevertheless, the stakes were clearly on my property. The markings on one side of the stake identify the latitude, longitude, and the elevation above sea level of the point. The other side of the stake identified it as locating the OVC pipeline (seen here as “OVC 6C):
These identifying numbers are unique to this pin which is used to denote a specific type of location called a “control point.” Control points are usually located off to the side of the center-line of the pipeline:
It seemed that somehow, without informing me or asking permission to be on my land, EQT had changed their mind on the OVC route and were again planning to run a pipeline through my property. If this was intentional, both EQT and I had a problem. If this was some kind of mistake, then only EQT would have a problem. Either way I could not fathom how this happened. Trespassing, real or perceived, is always a sensitive topic. This is especially true since, when I had initially allowed the surveyor to be on my property, I had not given permission for surveying. Given concerns about eminent domain, I wanted answers quickly. I documented all this with detailed pictures in preparation for contacting EQT representatives in Pittsburgh, PA, with my complaints.
Part III: What Happened & How?
I think it is safe to say that, in light of my well-known activism in documenting all things Marcellus, I am not your average surface owner. I have over 10,000 photographs of Marcellus operations in Wetzel County and I document every aspect of it. Frequently this leads to contacting many state agencies and gas operators directly about problems. I knew which gas company was responsible and I also knew exactly who in Pittsburgh to contact. To their credit, the person I contacted at EQT, immediately responded and it took most of the day to track down what had happen. The short story was that it was all a simple mistake—a 4,300 foot long mistake—but still just a mistake. The long story follows.
The EQT representative assured me that someone would be out to remove their stakes, flags and the steel pins. I told them that they needed to be prompt and that I would not alter or move their property and locating points. The next day, when I got home, the stakes with flags were gone. Just a small bare patch of dirt remained near the white plastic fencepost I had placed to mark the location. However, since I am a cultivated skeptic—adhering to the old Russian proverb made famous by President Reagan, “Trust but Verify”—I grabbed a garden trowel, dug around a bit, and clink, clink. The steel pin had just been driven deeper to look good, just waiting for my tiller to locate someday. I profusely re-painted the pin, photographed it, and proceeded to send another somewhat harsh e-mail to EQT. The pin was removed the next day.
After all the stakes, ribbons, and steel pins were removed, EQT provided further insights into what had transpired. Multiple pipeline routes were being evaluated by EQT in the area. Gas companies always consider a wide range of constraints to pipeline construction such as road and stream crossings, available access roads, permission and cooperation of the many landowners, steepness of terrain, etc. At a certain point in their evaluation, a final route was chosen. But for unknown reasons the surveyor crew was given the old, now abanoned, route on which to establish their control points. The magnitiude of the error can be seen on the map below. The bright blue line is the original path of the OVC pipeline through my property and the red line shows where the FERC filed pipeline route will go. A new control point has now been established near the highway where the pipeline was meant to cross.
Part IV: Lessons To Be Learned
Given the likely impact of many proposed large-diameter, very long, pipelines being planned, it seems useful to examine how these errors can happen. What can we learn from my personal experience with the hundreds of miles of new pipelines constructed in Wetzel County over the past eight years? First, it is important to ask whether or not similar problems are likely to happen elsewhere, or if this was this just an isolated incident. Can we realistically expect better planning on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will run for over 300 miles? Can the residents and landowners living along these pipeline RoWs expect more responsible construction and management practices?
In general, many of the pipeline projects with which landowners, such as those in Wetzel County, are familiar with fall into the unregulated, gathering line category. They might be anywhere from six inches in diameter up to sixteen inches. As we review their track record, we have seen every imaginable problem, both during construction and after they were put into operation. We have had gas leaks and condensate spills, hillside mud slips, broken pipes, erosion and sedimentation both during construction and afterwards.
Now for some apparently contradictory assumptions—I am convinced that, for the most part, truck drivers, pipeliners, equipment operators, drilling and fracturing crews, well tenders and service personnel at well sites, all do the best job they can. If they are given the proper tools and materials, accurate directions with trained and experienced supervision, the support resources and the time to do a good job, then they will complete their tasks consistently and proudly. A majority of employees in these positions are dedicated, trained, competent, and hard working. Of course, there are no perfect contractors out there. These guys are human too. And on the midnight shift, we all get tired. In the context of this story, some pipeline contractors are better and more professional than others, some are more experienced, and some have done the larger pipelines. Therefore, despite best intentions, significant errors and accidents will still occur.
The Inherent Contradictions
It seems to me that the fragile link in natural gas production and pipeline projects is simply the weakness of any large organization’s inherent business model. Every organization needs to constantly focus on what I refer to as the “four C’s—Command and Control, then Coordination and Communication—if they are to be at all successful. It is a challenge to manage these on a daily basis even when everyone is in the same big building, working for the same company, speaking the same language. This might be in a university, or a large medical complex, or an industrial manufacturing plant.
But the four C’s are nearly impossible to manage due to the simple fact that the organizational structure of the natural gas industry depends completely on hundreds of sub-contractors. And those companies, in turn, depend on a sprawling and transient, expanding and collapsing, network of hundreds of other diverse and divergent independent contractors. For example, on any given well pad, during the drilling or fracturing process, there might be a few “company” men on site. Those few guys actually work for the gas company in whose name the operating permit is drawn. Everyone else is working for another company, on site temporarily until they are ready to move on, and their loyalty is elsewhere.
In the best of situations, it is next to impossible to get the right piece of information to the right person at just the right time. Effective coordination among company men and contractors is also next to impossible. I have seen this, and listened in, when the drilling company is using one CB radio channel and the nearby pipeline company is using some private business band radio to talk to “their people.” In that case, the pipeline contractors could not talk to the well pad—and it did not matter to them. In other cases, the pilot vehicle drivers will unilaterally decide to use another CB radio channel and not tell everyone. I have also watched while a massive drill rig relocation was significantly delayed simply because a nearby new gas processing plant was simultaneously running at least a hundred dump trucks with gravel on the same narrow roadway. Constant communication is a basic requirement for traffic coordination, but next to impossible to do properly and consistently when these practices are so prevalent.
These examples illustrate how companies are often unable to coordinate their operations. Now, if you can, just try to picture this abysmal lack of command and control, and minimal communication and coordination, in the context of building a 300-mile length of pipeline. The larger the pipeline diameter, and the greater the overall length of the pipeline, the more contractors will be needed. With more contractors and sub-contractors, the more coordination and communication are essential. A FERC permit cannot fix this, nor would having a dozen FERC permits. Unfortunately, I do not envision the four Cs improving anytime soon in the natural gas industry. It seems to be the nature of the beast. If, as I know from personal experience, a major gas company can arrange to locate a surveyed control point 4,300 feet from where it should have been, then good luck with a 300 mile pipeline. Even with well-intentioned, trained employees, massive problems are still sure to come.
The FERC approvals for these pipelines might not be a done deal, but I would not bet against them. So vigilance and preparation will still be of the essence. Citizen groups must be prepared to observe, monitor, and document these projects as they unfold. If massive pipelines like the MVP and OVC are ever built, they should become the most photographed, measured, scrutinized, and documented public works projects since the aqueducts first delivered water to ancient Rome. For the sake of protecting the people and environment of Wetzel County and similar communities, I hope this is the case.
By Bill Hughes, WV Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Read more Field Diary articles.
Appendix: Questions to Ask When Approached by a Land Agent (Landsman)
These questions can be modified to suit your location. The abbreviation “Gas Corp.” is used below to reference a typical natural gas company or a pipeline subsidiary to a natural gas company. These subsidiaries are frequently called Midstream Companies. Midstream companies build and manage the pipelines, gas processing, and some compressor stations on behalf of natural gas companies.
- Please provide a Plain English translation of your landowner initial contract.
- What will Gas Corp. be allowed to do, and not allowed to do, short term and long term?
- What will Gas Corp. be required to do, and not required to do?
- What is the absolute minimum distance this pipeline will be placed away from any dwelling anywhere along its entire length?
- What restrictions will there be on the my land after you put in the pipelines?
- Who will be overseeing and enforcing any environmental restrictions (erosion and sedimentation, slips, stream crossings, etc.)?
- Who will be responsible for my access road upkeep?
- Who will be responsible for long term slips and settlements of surface?
- When would this construction begin?
- When would all work be completed?
- Who would be responsible for long term stability of my land?
- Will the pipeline contractor(s) be bound to any of our agreements?
- Who are the pipeline contractor(s)?
- What will be transported in the pipeline?
- Will there be more than one pipe buried?
- How wide is the temporary work RoW?
- How wide is the permanent RoW?
- How deep will the pipeline(s) be buried?
- What size pipe will it be; what wall thickness?
- How often will the welds on the individual pipe segments be inspected?
- Will there be any above ground pipeline components left visible?
- Where will the pipe(s) originate and where will they be going to?
- What will the average operating pressure be?
- What will the absolute maximum pressure ever be?
- At this pressure and diameter, what is the PIR—Potential Impact Radius?
- Will all pipeline and excavating and laying equipment be brought in clean and totally free from any invasive species?
- How will the disturbed soil be reclaimed?
- Will all top soil be kept separate and replaced after pipeline is buried?
- Also, After all the above is settled, how much will I be paid per linear foot of pipeline?
The following guide is a simplified description of a variety of markings that are used by land surveyors. Throughout an active shale gas field, the first signs of pending expansions are the simple markings of stakes, flags, and pins. Many months or even years before the chain saw fells the first tree or the first dozer blade cuts the dirt at a well pad location, the surveyors have “marked the target” on behalf of their corporate tactical command staff.
The three most commonly used markings are the simple stakes, flags and pins. These surveyor symbols are common to any construction project and guarantee that everything gets put in the right place. In an active gas field, these marking tools are used for all aspects of exploration and production:
- access roads to well pads,
- widening the traveled portion of the roadway,
- well locations,
- ponds and impoundment locations,
- temporary water pipeline paths,
- surface disturbance limits,
- compressor stations,
- gas processing sites, and
- rights-of-way for roads and pipelines.
Quite frequently these simple markings are undecipherable by themselves, especially by non-professionals. One cannot just know what is happening, what is likely to occur, or how concerned one should be. Context and additional information are usually needed. Sometimes the simple colors and combinations of colored tapes might only make sense in conjunction with similar markings nearby. Sometimes public notices in the newspaper and regulatory permits must be used to decipher what is planned.
For an example, the proposed 30″ diameter EQT pipeline called the Ohio Valley Connector seems to be regularly marked using a combination of blue and white (see figure 10 below) surveyors tape to mark the actual pipeline location, then green and white (see figure 4 below) to mark all the proposed access roads along the routes that will be used to get pipe trucks and excavation equipment into the right of way. These access roads might be public roadways or cut across private leased property.
Common surveyor symbols & signs (click on images to zoom in)
Surveyor flags and tape: Sometime the flags or streamers are just attached to trees, fence posts, or put on a stake to make them visible above the weeds. There might be no markings on the stake, or only simple generic markings. This could just mean that this is the correct road and turn here. It could also signal a proposed or approximate location for some future work.
Surveyor flags and tapes: These are a selection of typical surveyor tapes, also called flags or ribbons. Many other specialty color combinations are available to the professional surveyor.
Stakes with simple markings: Flags with some type of identification (it might be names or numbers). This one was used for a proposed well pad access road location. There are no dimensions given on these.
Stakes with simple flags and basic identification: The stakes shown here all indicate an access route to be used for equipment and trucks to get to a proposed pipeline right of way. The “H310″ is the EQT name for the 30” OVC pipeline.
Control points: These three stakes are identifying a control point that is outside the limits of disturbance (LoD). These markings surround a pin to be used for reference.
Controls points: This stake is also identifying a control point location. All control points will have some type of driven metal rod, usually with a plastic cap identifying the surveyor. Frequently there are three stakes with extra flags or tape. They are always set off to the side of the intended work area. They are not to be disturbed.
Control points: Another set of three stakes marking a Control Point location. It is common to see triple stakes with elaborate, multiple flags. Even if only two stakes are present, there always will be a driven steel pin and identifying cap.
Control points: This shows a close-up of the identifying cap on a metal driven steel pin. Control point locations are not meant to be disturbed as they are for future and repeated reference. They might give the latitude and longitude on the stake plus the altitude above sea level.
Control points: This is another, older control point location. This represents a typical arrangement where the stakes somewhat try to protect the metal pin from a bulldozer blade by warning its operator.
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” here means the limits of disturbance. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. The stakes shown here indicates that this is the outside limit of where the contractor will be disturbing the original contour of the surface soil.
Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” means the limits of disturbance of the proposed pipeline right of way. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. This could also be used for the outside edge of well pads or access roads or pond locations.
Pipelines: Stakes with flags and “center line” markings are usually for pipelines. Here you see the symbol for center line: a capital letter “C” imposed on the letter “L”.
Pipelines: Again you see the capital letter “C” super imposed on top of the letter “L” used frequently for pipe line center lines, but can also be used for proposed access roads.
Pipelines: As shown here, “C” and “L” center line flags can also be used for future well pad access roads.
Precise location markings: Stakes like this will usually have a steel pin also associated with it. This stake gives the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the site.
Permanent property lines: You may also find markings, like this one inch steel rod with an alum cap, that denote permanent property lines and corners of property.
Permanent property lines: Another kind of permanent property line or corner marker is the “boundary survey monument.” This is likely an aluminum cap on top of a one inch diameter steel bar.
The most difficult thing for the frac-sand industry will be to reclaim mined properties to meet their end use stated in their reclamation plans which are required under Wisconsin Statues. Most of the hills that are being mined have extremely shallow topsoil as well as limited sub-soil… In the reclamation trial that Chippewa County Land Conservation Department has put together they are proceeding with a few inches of topsoil over about a foot of sub-soil according to the preliminary plans. Part of the site will incorporate fines from the washing process, part will have dairy manure, part both of them and part will have neither amendment. In addition due to the source of a large part of the materials-forested hillsides-it is expected to have a rather low pH, fertility issues, and poor moisture holding ability. It is the opinion of many of us that the end result will be a very poor stand of grass with some woody plants of very poor quality and little value on the whole for wildlife. Some areas may be reclaimed as crop land, however it is our opinion that substantial inputs such as commercial fertilizer as well as irrigation will be required in most if not all cases in order to produce an average crop. In addition we fear that due to the loosely consolidated nature of the profile and nearness of the mine floor to the water table (3-5 feet in some cases) there will be a substantial risk of groundwater contamination from pesticides and fertilizers in these cases.
I often wonder what it was like before the boom, before fortunes were built on castles of sand and resultant moonscapes stretched as far as the eye could see. In the past few years alone, the nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has become a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, Illinois. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate and threaten thewellbeing of our people and rural ecosystem.
There are numerous questions regarding frac-sand mining about which we do not yet have adequate scientific data but we are slowly, but too slowly, in the process of getting them.
What will the soils on the reclaimed sites support?
In Chippewa County alone, there are 285 sand and gravel pits historically providing material for local construction industry. Despite the fact that Wis. Statutes NR 135 requires reclamation of all sites, only 2 sites in the County have been reclaimed in the past 18 years. None two sites are capable of supporting the growing of food. They grow trees and some cover grass, but that is all. General scientific research says that the reclaimed soils lose up to 75% of their agricultural productivity. Most of these gravel pits acre in the glacial outwash area of Chippewa County. However, the picture is worse when it comes to the bedrock sandstone geology from which frac sand is extracted and processed. These mines are required to stay 5 feet above the water table because of the potential for leaching lead and iron into the groundwater if one goes below the water table. In that case, the loss of fertility, microbial habitat, arability, infiltration and retention of water, and other soil properties would require heavy use of chemicals to produce anything and that is prohibited because of the inevitable contamination of the groundwater being so close to the table without any real buffering capacity in the soil to prevent the contamination. I serve on an advisory board of the Chippewa County Land Conservation Department which has entered into a partnership study with the University of Wisconsin River Falls Department of Soil Science and two frac-sand companies to study reclaimed soil characteristics. When that is completed in a year or soil, we will know more—but I believe the results will not be good.
We do not now know what the total projected loss of currently arable farmland to frac sand mining will be over a period of just the next 20 years. We have no estimate of the cost and the loss of thousands of sustainable agricultural acres in our water rich region when the “breadbasket” in the central plains states is going to disappear due in part to climate change but more importantly to the irrigation – pumping of the remaining 25% left of the Ogallala aquifer (a confined acquirer that does not get replenished by average rainfall) in the next 25-40 years. Right now we are paying farmers not to plant arable land, but I suspect that we not be the practice when we fall show of sustainable would for a growing national and world population.
Explore a Fracking Operation – Virtually
Modern oil and gas extraction no longer involves just a well, pump, and tank. The process can be so overwhelmingly complex that in lieu of taking a tour in person, it helps to explore each stage through photos. On this page you will find a virtual guide to the process of unconventional oil and gas extraction, as shown through the eyes of our Community Liaison, Bill Hughes. Eventually we will add a section on frac sand mining and transport, as well as other ancillary sectors.
Scroll down this page to explore the 14 key processes by section. Use the right & left arrows in each section to advance the images.
- Site Prep
- Drilling overview
- Well Casing & Cementing
- Completions & Hydraulic Fracturing
- Storage & Impoundments
- Hydraulic Fracturing Pumps & Mixers
- Sand Cans, Kings, & Castles
- Fracturing Chemicals, Trucks, & Totes
- After Production: Flaring, Well Heads, Storage Tanks
- Production Separators
- Multipurpose Equipment
- Pipelines & Compressors
- Waste Disposal