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Literally Millions of Failing, Abandoned Wells

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

In California’s Central Valley and along the South Coast, there are many communities littered with abandoned oil and gas wells, buried underground.

Many have had homes, buildings, or public parks built over top of them. Some of them were never plugged, and many of those that were plugged have since failed and are leaking oil, natural gas, and toxic formation waters (water from the geologic layer being tapped for oil and gas). Yet this issue has been largely ignored. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted without consideration for failing and failed plugged wells. When leaking wells are found, often nothing is done to fix the issue.

As a result, greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere and present an explosion risk for homes built over top of them. Groundwater, including sources of drinking water, is known to be impacted by abandoned wells in California, yet resources are not being used to track groundwater contamination.

Abandoned wells: plugged and orphaned

The term “abandoned” typically refers to wells that have been taken out of production. At the end of their lifetime, wells may be properly abandoned by operators such as Chevron and Shell or they may be orphaned.

When operators properly abandon wells, they plug them with cement to prevent oil, natural gas, and salty, toxic formation brine from escaping the geological formation that was tapped for production. Properly plugging a well helps prevent groundwater contamination and further air quality degradation from the well. The well-site at the surface may also be regraded to an ecological environment similar to its original state.

Wells that are improperly abandoned are either plugged incorrectly or are “orphaned” by their operators. When wells are orphaned, the financial liability for plugging the well and the environmental cleanup falls on the state, and therefore, the taxpayers.

You don’t see them?

In California’s Central Valley and South Coast abandoned wells are everywhere. Below churches, schools, homes, they even under the sidewalks in downtown Los Angeles!

FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks recently spent time in Los Angeles with an infrared camera that shows methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. We visited several active neighborhood drilling sites and filmed plumes of toxic and carcinogenic VOCs floating over the walls of well-pads and into the surrounding neighborhoods. We also visited sites where abandoned, plugged wells had failed.

In the video below, we are standing on Wilshire Blvd in LA’s Miracle Mile District. An undocumented abandoned well under the sidewalk leaks toxic and carcinogenic VOCs through the cracks in the pavement as mothers push their children in walkers through the plume. This is just one case of many that the state is not able to address.

California regulatory data shows that there are 122,466 plugged wells in the state, as shown below in the map below. Determining how many of them are orphaned or improperly plugged is difficult, but we can come up with an estimate based on the wells’ ages.

While there are no available data on the dates that wells were plugged, there are data on “spud dates,” the date when operators begin drilling into the ground. Of the 18,000 wells listing spud dates, about 70% were drilled prior to 1980. Wells drilled before 1980 have a higher risk of well casing failures and are more likely to be sources of groundwater contamination.

Additionally, wells plugged prior to 1953 are not considered effective, even by industry standards. Prior to 1950, wells either were orphaned or plugged and abandoned with very little cement. Plugging was focused on protecting the oil reservoirs from rain infiltration rather than to “confine oil, gas and water in the strata in which they are found and prevent them from escaping into other strata.” Of the wells with drilling dates in the regulatory data, 30% are listed as having been drilled prior to the use of cement in well plugging.

With a total of over 245,000 wells in the state database, and considering the lack of monitoring prior to 1950, it’s reasonable to assume there are over 80,000 improperly plugged and unplugged wells in California.

Map of California’s Plugged Wells

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The regions with the highest counts of plugged wells are the Central Valley and the South Coast. The top 10 county ranks are listed below in Table 1. Kern County has more than half of the total plugged wells in the entire state.

Table 1. Ranks of Counties by Plugged Well Counts
  • Rank
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • County
  • Kern
  • Los Angeles
  • Orange
  • Fresno
  • Ventura
  • Santa Barbara
  • Monterey
  • San Luis Obispo
  • Solano
  • Yolo
  • Plugged Well Count
  • 65,733
  • 17,139
  • 7,259
  • 6,970
  • 4,302
  • 4,192
  • 2,266
  • 1,463
  • 1,456
  • 1,383

The issue is not unique to California. Nationally, an estimated 2.56 million oil and gas wells have been drilled and 1.93 million wells had been abandoned by 1975. Using interpolated data, the EPA estimates that as of 2016 there were 3.12 million abandoned wells in the U.S. and 69% of them were left unplugged.

In 2017, FracTracker Alliance organized an exercise to track down the locations of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells that are not included in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s digital records. Using paper maps and the FracTracker Mobile App, volunteers explored Pennsylvania woodlands in search of these hidden greenhouse gas emitters.

What are the risks?

Emissions

Studies by Kang et al. 2014, Kang et al 2016, Boothroyd et al 2016, and Townsend-Small et al. 2016 have all measured methane emissions from abandoned wells. Both properly plugged and improperly abandoned wells have been shown to leak methane and other VOCs to the atmosphere as well as into the surrounding groundwater, soil, and surface waters. Leaks were shown to begin just 10 years after operators plugged the wells.

Well density

The high density of aging and improperly plugged wells is a major risk factor for the current and future development of California’s oil and gas fields. When fields with old wells are reworked using new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, CO2 flooding, or solvent flooding (including acidizing, water flooding, or steam flooding), the injection of additional fluid and gas increases pressure in a reservoir. Poorly plugged or aging wells often lack the integrity to avoid a blowout (the uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas from a well). There is a consistent risk that formation fluids will be forced to migrate up the plugged wellbores and bypass the existing plugs.

Groundwater

In a 2014 report, the U.S. Geological Service warned the California State Water Resources Control Board that the integrity of abandoned wells is a serious threat to groundwater sources, stating, “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways.”

The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) has also suggested the need for additional research on existing aquifer contamination. In 2014, they called for widespread testing of groundwater near oil and gas fields, which has still not occurred.

Leaks

In addition to the contamination of underground sources of drinking water, abandoned well failures can even create a pathway for methane and fluids to escape to Earth’s surface. In many cases, such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California, where drilling began prior to the turn of the 20th century, many wells have been left unplugged. Of the abandoned wells that were plugged, the plugging process was much less adequate than it is today.

If plugged wells are allowed to leak, surface expressions can form. These leaks can travel to the Earth’s crust where oil, gas, and formation waters saturate the topsoil. A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued high-pressure injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.

California regulations

Following David Taylor’s death in 2011, California regulators vowed to make urgent reforms to the management of underground injection, and new rules finally went into effect on April 1, 2018. These regulations require more consistent monitoring of pressure and set maximum pressure standards. While this will help with the management of enhanced oil recovery operations, such as steam and water flooding and wastewater disposal, the issue of abandoned wells is not being addressed.

New requirements incentivizing operators to plug and abandon idle wells will help to reduce the number of orphan wells left to the state, but nothing has been done or is proposed to manage the risk of existing orphaned wells.

Conclusion

Why would the state of California allow new oil and gas drilling when the industry refuses to address the existing messes? Why are these messes the responsibility of private landholders and the state when operators declare bankruptcy?

New bonding rules in some states have incentivized larger operators to plug their own wells, but old low-producing or idle wells are often sold off to smaller operators or shell (not Shell) companies prior to plugging. This practice has been the main source of orphaned wells. And regardless of whether wells are plugged or not, research shows that even plugged wells release fugitive emissions that increase with the age of the plug.

If the fossil fuel industry were to plug the existing 1.666 million currently active wells, there would be nearly 5 million plugged wells that require regular inspections, maintenance, and for the majority, re-plugging, to prevent the flow of greenhouse gases. This is already unattainable, and drilling more wells adds to this climate disaster.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

A Hazy Future Report Cover

A Hazy Future: Pennsylvania’s Energy Landscape in 2045

Report Calculates Impacts from PA’s Planned Natural Gas Infrastructure

FracTracker Alliance released the report: A Hazy Future: Pennsylvania’s Energy Landscape in 2045 today, which details the potential future impacts of a massive buildout of Marcellus Shale wells and associated natural gas infrastructure.

Industry analysts forecast 47,600 new unconventional oil and gas wells may be drilled in Pennsylvania by 2045, fueling new natural gas power plants and petrochemical facilities in PA and beyond. Based on industry projections and current rates of consumption, FracTracker – a national data-driven non-profit – estimates the buildout would require 583 billion gallons of fresh water, 386 million tons of sand, 798,000 acres of land, 131 billion gallons of liquid waste, 45 million tons of solid waste, and more than 323 million truck trips to drilling sites.

A Hazy Future - Impact Summary

“Only 1,801 of the 10,851 unconventional wells already drilled count as a part of this projection, meaning we could see an additional 45,799 such wells in the coming decades,” commented Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology for FracTracker and lead author on the report.

Why the push for so much more drilling? Out of state – and out of country – transport is the outlet for surplus production.

“The oil and gas industry overstates the need for more hydrocarbons,” asserted FracTracker Alliance’s Executive Director, Brook Lenker. “While other countries and states are focusing more on renewables, PA seems resolute to increase its fossil fuel portfolio.”

The report determined that the projected cleared land for well pads and pipelines into the year 2045 could support solar power generation for 285 million homes, more than double the number that exist in the U.S.

A Hazy Future shows that a fossil fuel-based future for Pennsylvania would come at the expense of its communities’ health, clean air, water and land. It makes clear that a dirty energy future is unnecessary,” said Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Field Advocate, Leann Leiter. Earthworks endorsed FracTracker’s report. She continued, “I hope Governor Wolf reads this and makes the right choices for all Pennsylvanians present and future.”

A Hazy Future reviews the current state of energy demand and use in Pennsylvania, calculates the footprint of industry projections of the proposed buildout, and assesses what that would look like for residents of the Commonwealth.

About FracTracker Alliance

Started in 2010 as a southwestern Pennsylvania area website, FracTracker Alliance is a national organization with regional offices across the United States in Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, New York, Ohio, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Its goal is to support advocacy groups at the local, regional, and national level, informing their actions to positively shape our nation’s energy future.

Questions? Email us: info@fractracker.org.

Photo courtesy of Claycord.com

Tracking Refinery Emissions in California’s Bay Area Refinery Corridor

Air quality in the California Bay Area has been steadily improving over the last decade, and the trend can even be seen over just the course of the last few years. In this article we explore data from the ambient air quality monitoring networks in the Bay Area, including a look at refinery emissions.

From the data and air quality reports we find that that many criteria pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX) have decreased dramatically, and areas that were degraded are now in compliance.

While air pollution from certain sectors such as transportation have been decreasing, the north coast of the East Bay region is home to a variety of petrochemical industry sites. This includes five petroleum refineries. The refineries not only contribute to these criteria pollutants, but also emit a unique cocktail of toxic and carcinogenic compounds that are not monitored and continue to impact cardiovascular health in the region. This region, aptly named the “refinery corridor” has a petroleum refining capacity of roughly 800,000 BPD (barrels per day) of crude oil.

Petroleum refineries in California’s East Bay have always been a contentious issue, and several of the refineries date back to almost the turn of the 20th century. The refineries have continuously increased their capacities and abilities to refine dirtier crude oil through “modernization projects.” As a result, air quality and health impacts became such a concern that in 2006 and again in 2012, Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party candidate, was elected as Mayor of the City of Richmond. Richmond, CA became the largest city in the U.S. with a Green Party Mayor. While there have been many strides in the recent decade to clean up these major sources of air pollution, health impacts in the region including cardiovascular disease and asthma, as well as cancer rates, are still disproportionately high.

Regulations

To give additional background on this issue, let’s discuss some the regulations tasked with protecting people and the environment in California, as well as climate change targets.

New proposals for meeting California’s progressive carbon emissions standards were proposed in January of 2017. A vote to decide on the plan to meet the aggressive new climate target and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% across all sectors of the economy will happen this month, May 2017! Over the last ten years the refineries have invested in modernization projects costing more than $2 billion to reduce emissions.

However – a current proposal will actually allow the refineries to process more crude oil by setting a standard for emissions by volume of crude/petroleum refined, rather than an actual cap on emissions. The current regulatory approach focuses on “source-by-source” regulations of individual equipment, which ignores the overall picture of what’s spewing into nearby communities and the atmosphere. Even the state air resources board has supported a move to block the refineries from accepting more heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands.

New regulatory proposals incentivize refineries to continue expanding operations to refine more oil, resulting in a larger burden on the health of these already disproportionately impacted environmental justice communities. Chevron, in particular, is upgrading their Richmond refinery in a way as to allow it to process dirtier crude in larger volumes from the Monterey Shale and Canada’s Tar Sands. Since the production volumes of lighter crudes are shrinking, heavier dirtier crudes are becoming a larger part of the refinerys’ feedstocks. Heavier crudes require more energy to refine and result in larger amounts of hazardous emissions.

Upgrades are also being implemented to address greenhouse gas emissions. While the upgrades address the carbon emissions, regulatory standards without strict caps for other pollutants will allow emissions of criteria and toxic air pollutants such as VOC’s, nitrosamines, heavy metals, etc… to increase. In fact, newly proposed emissions standards for refineries will make it easier for the refineries to increase their crude oil volumes by regulating emissions on per-barrel standards. Current refining volumes can be seen below in Table 1, along with their maximum capacity.

Table 1. Bay Area refineries average oil processed and total capacity

Refinery Location Ave. oil processed
Barrels Per Day (2012 est.)
Max. capacity (BPD)
Chevron U.S.A. Inc. Richmond Refinery Richmond 245,271 >350,000
Tesoro Refining & Marketing, Golden Eagle Refinery Martinez 166,000 166,000
Shell Oil Products US, Martinez Refinery Martinez 156,400 158,000
Valero Benicia Refinery Benicia 132,000 150,000
Phillips 66, Rodeo San Francisco Refinery Rodeo 78,400 100,000

Source: California Energy Commission. One barrel of oil = 42 U.S. gallons.

Environmental Health Inequity

The Bay Area, and in particular the city of Richmond, have been noted in the literature as a place where environmental racism and environmental health disparity exist. The city’s residents of color disproportionately live near the refineries and chemical plants, which is noted in early works on environmental racism by pioneers of the idea, such as Robert Bullard (Bullard 1993a,b).

Since the issue has been brought to national attention by environmental justice groups like West County Toxics Coalition, progress has been made to try to bring justice, but it has been limited. People of color are still disproportionately exposed to toxic, industrial pollution in that area. A recent study showed 93% of respondents in Richmond were concerned about the link between pollution and health, and 81% were concerned about a specific polluter, mainly the Chevron Refinery (Brody et al. 2012). Recent health reports continue to show the trend that these refinery communities suffer disproportionately from cases of asthma and cardiovascular disease and higher mortality rates from a variety of cancers.

Health Impact Studies

Manufacturing and refining are known to produce particularly toxic pollution. Additionally, there has been research done on the specific makeup of pollution in the refinery corridor. The best study to do this is the Northern California Household Exposure Study (Brody et al. 2009). They examined indoor and outdoor air in Richmond, a refinery corridor community, and Bolinas, a nearby but far more rural community. They found 33% more compounds in Richmond, along with higher concentrations of each compound. The study also found very high concentrations of vanadium and nickel in Richmond, some of the highest levels in the state. Vanadium and nickel have been shown to be some of the most dangerous PM2.5 components as we previously stated, which gives reason to believe the air pollution in Richmond is more toxic than in surrounding areas.

Another very similar study compared the levels of endocrine disrupting compounds in Richmond and Bolinas homes, and found 40 in Richmond homes and only 10 in Bolinas (Rudel et al. 2010). This supports the idea that a large variety of pollutants with synergistic effects may be contributing to the increased mortality and hospital visits for communities in this region. This small body of research on pollution in Richmond suggests that the composition of air pollution may be more toxic and thus trigger more pollution-related adverse health outcomes than in surrounding communities.

Air Quality Monitoring

As discussed above and in FracTracker’s previous reports on the refinery corridor, the refinery emissions are a unique cocktail whose synergistic effects may be driving much of the cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer risk in the region. Therefore, the risk drivers in the Bay Area need to be prioritized, in particular the compounds of interest emitted by the petrochemical facilities.

The targets for emissions monitoring are compounds associated with the highest risk in the neighboring communities. An expert panel was convened in 2013 to develop plans for a monitoring network in the refinery corridor. Experts found that measurements should be collected at 5 minute intervals and displayed to the public real-time. The gradient of ambient air concentrations is determined by the distance from refinery, so a network of three near-fence-line monitors was recommended. Major drivers of risk are supposed to be identified by air quality monitoring conducted as a part of Air District Regulation 12m Rule 15: Petroleum Refining Emissions tracking. According to the rule, fence-line monitoring plans by refinery operators:

… must measure benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes (BTEX) and HS concentrations at refinery fence-lines with open path technology capable of measuring in the parts per billion range regardless of path length. Open path measurement of SO2, alkanes or other organic compound indicators, 1, 3-butadiene, and ammonia concentrations are to be considered in the Air Monitoring Plan.

The following analysis found that the majority of hazardous pollutants emitted from refineries are not monitored downwind of the facility fence-lines, much less the list explicitly named in the regulations above.

As shown below in Figure 1, the most impacted communities are in those directly downwind of the facility. According to the BAAQMD, each petroleum refinery is supposed to have fence-line monitoring. Despite this regulation developed by air quality and health experts, only two out of the five refineries have even one fence-line monitor. Real-time air monitoring data at the Chevron Richmond fence-line monitor and the Phillips 66 Rodeo fence-line monitor can be found on fenceline.org. Data from these monitors are also aggregated by the U.S. EPA, and along with the other local monitors, can be viewed on the EPA’s interactive mapping platform.

Figure 1. Map of Hydrogen Sulfide Emissions from the Richmond Chevron Refinery
Refinery emissions - H2S gradient

Hazardous Emissions and Ambient Pollution

Since the majority of hazardous chemicals emitted from the refineries are not measured at monitoring sites, or there are not any monitoring sites at the fence-line or downwind of the facility, our mapping exercises instead focus on the hazardous air pollution for which there is data.

As shown in the map of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) above, the communities immediately neighboring the refineries are subjected to the majority of hazardous emissions. The map shows the rapidly decreasing concentration gradient as you get away from the facility. H2S would have been a good signature of refinery emissions throughout the region if there were more than three monitors. Also, those monitors only existed until 2013, when they were replaced with a singular monitor in a much better location, as shown on the map. The 2016 max value is much higher because it is more directly downwind of Chevron Refinery.

The interpolated map layer was created using 2013 monitoring data from three monitors that have since been removed. The 2016 monitoring location is in a different location and has a maximum value more than twice what was recorded at the 2013 location.

Table 2. Inventory of criteria pollutant emissions for the largest sectors in the Bay Area

Annual average tons per day
PM10 PM2.5 ROG NOX SOX CO
Area wide 175.51 52.90 87.95 19.92 0.62 161.86
Mobile 20.33 16.27 183.12 380.52 14.93 1541.50
Total Emissions 16.30 12.14 106.58 50.59 45.95 44.31

Table adapted from the BAAQMD Refinery Report. PM10 = particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter  (about the width of a human hair); PM2.5 = PM less than 2.5 microns in diameter; ROG = reactive organic gases; NOX = nitrogen oxides; SOX = sulfur oxides; CO = carbon monoxide.

Additionally, exposure assessment can also rely on using surrogate emissions to understand where the plumes from the refineries are interacting with the surrounding communities. It is particularly important to also discriminate between different sources of pollution. As we see in Table 2 above, the largest volume of particulate matter (PM), NOX, and CO emissions actually come from mobile sources, whereas the largest source of sulfur dioxide and other oxides (SOX) is from stationary sources. Since the relationship between PM2.5 and health outcomes is most established, the response to ambient levels of PM2.5 in the refinery corridor gives insight into the composition of PM as well as the presence of other species of hazardous air pollution. On the other hand, SO2 can be used as a surrogate for the footprint of un-monitored air toxics.

Pollutants’ Fingerprints

Particulate Matter

Figure 2. Map of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 2 above displays ambient levels of PM2.5, and as the map shows, the highest levels of particulate matter surround the larger metro area of downtown Oakland and also track with the larger commuting corridors. The map shows evidence that the largest contributor to PM2.5 is truly the transportation (mobile) sector. PM2.5 is one hazardous air pollutant which negatively impacts health, causing heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), among other conditions. PM2.5 is particulate matter pollution, meaning small particles suspended in the air, specifically particles under 2.5 microns in diameter. Exposure to high levels of PM2.5 increases the risk of MI within hours and for the next 1-2 days (Brooks et al. 2004; Poloniecki et al. 1997).While refineries may not be the largest source of PM in the Bay Area, they are still large point sources that contribute to high local conditions of smog.

The chemical make-up of the particulate matter also needs to be considered. In addition, the toxicity of PM from the refineries is of particular concern. Since particulate matter acts like small carbon sponges, the source of PM affects its toxicity. The cocktail of hazardous air toxics emitted by refineries absorb and adsorb to the surfaces of PM. When inhaled with PM, these toxics including heavy metals and carcinogens are delivered deep into lung tissue.

Pooled results of many studies showed that for every 10 micrograms per meter cubed increase in PM2.5 levels, the risk of MI increases 0.4-1% (Brooks et al. 2010).  However, this relationship has not been studied in the context of EJ communities. EJ communities are generally low income communities of color (Bullard 1993), which have higher exposures to pollution, more sources of stress, and higher biological markers of stress (Szanton et al. 2010; Carlson and Chamberlein 2005). All of these factors may affect the relationship between PM2.5 and MI, and increase the health impact of pollution in EJ communities relative to what has been found in the literature.

Sulfur Dioxide

Figure 3 below shows the fingerprint of the refinery emissions on the refinery corridor, using SO2 emissions as a surrogate for the cocktail of toxic emissions. The relationship between SOand health endpoints of cardiovascular disease and asthma have also been established in the literature (Kaldor et al. 1984).

In addition to assessing SO2 as a direct health stressor, it is also the most effective tracer of industrial emissions and specifically petroleum refineries for a number of reasons. Petroleum refineries are the largest source of SO2 in the BAAQMD by far (Table 1), and there are more monitors for SO2 than any of the other emitted chemical species that can be used to fingerprint the refineries. The distribution of SO2 is therefore representative of the cocktail of a combination of the hazardous chemicals released in refinery emissions.

Figure 3. Map of Sulfur Dioxide for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Further Research

The next step for FracTracker Alliance is to further explore the relationship between health effects in the refinery communities and ambient levels of air pollution emitted by the refineries. Our staff is currently working with the California Department of Public Health to analyze the response of daily emergency room discharges for a variety of health impacts including cardiovascular disease and asthma.

References

Brody, J. G., R. Morello-Frosch, A. Zota, P. Brown, C. Pérez, and R. A. Rudel. 2009. Linking Exposure Assessment Science With Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study. American Journal of Public Health 99:S600–S609.

Brook, R. D., B. Franklin, W. Cascio, Y. Hong, G. Howard, M. Lipsett, R. Luepker, M. Mittleman, J. Samet, S. C. Smith, and I. Tager. 2004. Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 109:2655–2671.

Brooks, R. D., S. Rajagopalan, C. A. Pope, J. R. Brook, A. Bhatnagar, A. V. Diez-Roux, F. Holguin, Y. Hong, R. V. Luepker, M. A. Mittleman, A. Peters, D. Siscovick, S. C. Smith, L. Whitsel, and J. D. Kaufman. 2010. Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 121:2331–2378.

Bullard, R. D. 1993a. Race and Environmental Justice in the United States Symposium: Earth Rights and Responsibilities: Human Rights and Environmental Protection. Yale Journal of International Law 18:319–336.

Bullard, R. D. 1993b. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. South End Press.

Carlson, E.D. and Chamberlain, R.M. (2005), Allostatic load and health disparities: A theoretical orientation. Res. Nurs. Health, 28: 306–315. doi:10.1002/nur.20084

Kaldor, J., J. A. Harris, E. Glazer, S. Glaser, R. Neutra, R. Mayberry, V. Nelson, L. Robinson, and D. Reed. 1984. Statistical association between cancer incidence and major-cause mortality, and estimated residential exposure to air emissions from petroleum and chemical plants. Environmental Health Perspectives 54:319–332.

Poloniecki, J. D., R. W. Atkinson, A. P. de Leon, and H. R. Anderson. 1997. Daily Time Series for Cardiovascular Hospital Admissions and Previous Day’s Air Pollution in London, UK. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 54:535–540.

Rudel, R. A., R. E. Dodson, L. J. Perovich, R. Morello-Frosch, D. E. Camann, M. M. Zuniga, A. Y. Yau, A. C. Just, and J. G. Brody. 2010. Semivolatile Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds in Paired Indoor and Outdoor Air in Two Northern California Communities. Environmental Science & Technology 44:6583–6590.

Szanton SL, Thorpe RJ, Whitfield KE. Life-course Financial Strain and Health in African-Americans. Social science & medicine (1982). 2010;71(2):259-265. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.04.001.


By Daniel Menza, Data & GIS Intern, and Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo credit: Claycord.com

Shell Ethane Cracker

A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker

by Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow
map & analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
in partnership with the Environmental Integrity Project

On January 18, 2016, Potter Township Supervisors approved conditional use permits for Shell Chemical Appalachia’s proposed ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, PA. A type of petrochemical facility, an ethane cracker uses energy and the by-products of so-called natural gas to make ethylene, a building block of plastics. FracTracker Alliance has produced informative articles on the jobs numbers touted by the industry, and the considerable negative air impacts of the proposed facility. In the first in a series of new articles, we look at the potential hazards of ethane cracker plants in order to begin calculating the risk of a disaster in Beaver County.

As those who stand to be affected by — or make crucial decisions on — the ethane cracker contemplate the potential risks and promised rewards of this massive project, they should also carefully consider what could go wrong. In addition to the serious environmental and human health effects, which might only reveal themselves over time, what acute events, emergencies, and disasters could potentially occur? What is the disaster risk, the potential for “losses, in lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services,” of this massive petrochemical facility?

Known Ethane Cracker Risks

A well-accepted formula in disaster studies for determining risk, cited by, among others, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), is Disaster Risk = (Hazard x Vulnerability)/Capacity, as defined in the diagram below. In this article, we consider the first of these factors: hazard. Future articles will examine the remaining factors of vulnerability and capacity that are specific to this location and its population.

disaster-risk-infographic-websize

Applied to Shell’s self-described “world-scale petrochemical project,” it is challenging to quantify the first of these inputs, hazard. Not only would a facility of this size be unprecedented in this region, but Shell has closely controlled the “public” information on the proposed facility. What compounds the uncertainty much further is the fact that the proposed massive cracker plant is a welcome mat for further development in the area—for a complex network of pipelines and infrastructure to support the plant and its related facilities, and for a long-term commitment to continued gas extraction in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.

williams-geismar-explosion-websize

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Williams Geismar Case Study, No. 2013-03-I-LA, October 2016.

We can use what we do know about the hazards presented by ethane crackers and nearby existing vulnerabilities to establish some lower limit of risk. Large petrochemical facilities of this type are known to produce sizable unplanned releases of carcinogenic benzene and other toxic pollutants during “plant upsets,” a term that refers to a “shut down because of a mechanical problem, power outage or some other unplanned event.” A sampling of actual emergency events at other ethane crackers also includes fires and explosions, evacuations, injuries, and deaths.

For instance, a ruptured boiler at the Williams Company ethane cracker plant in Geismar, Louisiana, led to an explosion and fire in 2013. The event resulted in the unplanned and unpermitted release of at least 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air, including ethylene, propylene, benzene, 1-3 butadiene, and other volatile organic chemicals, as well as the release of pollutants through the discharge of untreated fire waters, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. According to the Times-Picayune, “workers scrambl(ed) over gates to get out of the plant.” The event required the evacuation of 300 workers, injured 167, and resulted in two deaths.

The community’s emergency response involved deployment of hundreds of personnel and extensive resources, including 20 ambulances, four rescue helicopters, and buses to move the injured to multiple area hospitals. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board chalked up the incident to poor “process safety culture” at the plant and “gaps in a key industry standard by the American Petroleum Institute (API).” The accident shut the plant down for a year and a half.

Potential Risks & Shell’s Mixed Messages

Shell has done little to define the potential for emergencies at the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker plant, at least in materials made available to the public. Shell has revealed that general hazards include “fire, explosion, traffic accidents, leaks and equipment failures.”

However, we located numerous versions of Shell’s handout and found one notable difference among them—the brochure distributed to community members at a December 2016 public hearing held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) excluded the word “explosion” from the list of “potential safety concerns.” The difference is seen in comparing the two documents.

Figure #1 below: Excerpt of online version of a handout for Beaver County, dated May 2015, with “explosion” included in list of “potential safety concerns.” (Other Shell-produced safety documents, like the one included as an exhibit in the conditional use permit application on file with the township, and Shell’s webpage for the project, also include “explosion” in the list of hazards.)

Figure #2 below: Excerpt of handout, dated November 2016 and provided to the community at December 15, 2016 meeting, with the word “explosion” no longer included.

 

Additional hints about risks are peppered throughout the voluminous permit applications submitted by Shell to the PA DEP and Potter Township, such as references to mitigating acts of terror against the plant, strategies for reducing water contamination, and the possibility of unplanned upsets. But the sheer volume of these documents, coupled with their limited accessibility challenge the public’s ability to digest this information. The conditional use permit application submitted by Shell indicates the existence of an Emergency Response Plan for the construction phase, but the submission is marked as confidential.

Per Pennsylvania law, and as set forth in PA DEP guidelines, Shell must submit a Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan (PPC Plan) at an unspecified point prior to operation. But at that likely too-late stage, who would hear objections to the identified hazards, when construction of the plant is already a done deal? Even then, can we trust that the plan outlined by that document is a solid and executable one?

Shell’s defense of the Beaver County plant is quick to point out differences between other plants and the one to come, making the case that technical advances will result in safety improvements. But it is noteworthy that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board attributes failures at the Williams Geismar plant, in part, to “the ineffective implementation of…process safety management programs… as well as weaknesses in Williams’ written programs themselves.” The Geismar explosion demonstrates some of the tangible hazards that communities experience in living near ethane cracker plants. It is worth noting that the proposed Beaver County facility will have about 2½ times more ethylene processing capacity than the Geismar plant had at the time of the 2013 explosion.

Opening the Floodgates

In an effort to expand our understanding of risk associated with the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker and the extent of related developments promised by industry leaders, FracTracker Alliance has constructed the below map. It shows the site of the Shell facility and nearby land marked by Beaver County as “abandoned” or “unused.” These land parcels are potential targets for future build-out of associated facilities. Two “emergency planning zones” are indicated—a radius of 2 miles and a radius of 5 miles from the perimeter of Shell’s site. These projections are based upon FracTracker’s discussions with officials at the Saint Charles Parish Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who are responsible for emergency planning procedures in Norco, Louisiana, the site of another Shell ethane cracker facility. The emergency zones are also noted in the 2015 Saint Charles Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Also shown on the map is an estimated route of the Falcon pipeline system Shell intends to build, which will bring ethane from the shale gas fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note that this is an estimated route based on images shown in Shell’s announcement of the project. Finally, our map includes resources and sites of vulnerability, including schools, fire stations, and hospitals. The importance of these sites will be discussed in the next article of this series.

Ethane Cracker Hazards Map


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

While the site of the Shell cracker is worth attending to, it would be a mistake to limit assessments of disaster risk to the site of the facility alone. Shell’s proposed plant is but one component in a larger plan to expand ethane-based processing and use in the region, with the potential to rival the Gulf Coast as a major U.S. petrochemical hub. An upcoming conference on petrochemical construction in the region, scheduled for June 2017 in Pittsburgh, shows the industry’s commitment to further development. These associated facilities (from plants producing fertilizers to plastics) would utilize their own mix of chemicals, and their potential interactions would produce additional, unforeseen hazards. Ultimately, a cumulative impact assessment is needed, and should take into account these promised facilities as well as existing resources and vulnerabilities. The below Google Earth window gives a sense of what this regional build-out might look like.

What might an ethane cracker and related petrochemical facilities look like in Beaver County? For an idea of the potential build-out, take a tour of Norco, Louisiana, which includes Shell-owned petrochemical facilities.

Final Calculations

As discussed in the introduction, “hazard,” “vulnerability,” and “capacity” are the elements of the formula that, in turn, exacerbate or mitigate disaster risk. While much of this article has focused on drastic “hazards,” such as disastrous explosions or unplanned chemical releases, these should not overshadow the more commonplace public health threats associated with petrochemical facilities, such as detrimental impact on air quality and the psychological harm of living under the looming threat of something going wrong.

The second and third articles in this series will dig deeper into “vulnerability” and “capacity.” These terms remind us of the needs and strengths of the community in question, but also that there is a community in question.

Formulas, terminology, and calculations should not obscure the fact that people’s lives are in the balance. The public should not be satisfied with preliminary and incomplete risk assessments when major documents that should detail the disaster implications of the ethane cracker are not yet available, as well as when the full scale of future build-out in the area remains an unknown.

Much gratitude to Lisa Graves-Marcucci and Lisa Hallowell of the Environmental Integrity Project for their expertise and feedback on this article.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws. 

Oil and gas production on public lands

Interactive maps show nearness of oil and gas wells to communities in 5 states

As an American, you are part owner of 640 million acres of our nation’s shared public lands managed by the federal government. And chances are, you’ve enjoyed a few of these lands on family picnics, weekend hikes or summer camping trips. But did you know that some of your lands may also be leading to toxic air pollution and poor health for you or your neighbors, especially in 5 western states that have high oil and gas drilling activity?

A set of new interactive maps created by FracTracker, The Wilderness Society, and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of  federal oil and gas wells – people who may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.

Altogether, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the 5 western states we examined. The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include ColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaUtah and Wyoming.

Close up of threat map in Colorado

Figure 1. Close up of threat map in Colorado

In each state, the data show populations living near heavy concentrations of wells. For example just northeast of Denver, Colorado, in the heavily populated Weld County, at least 11,000 people are threatened by oil and gas development on public lands (Figure 1).

Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.

Colorado: Wells concentrated on Western Slope, Front Range

Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.

In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits.

But nearly 16,000 people – the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state – are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.

Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65% of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.

In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.

State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.

New Mexico: Pollution seen from space threatens 50,000 people

With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space.

Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico – 40% of the population in San Juan County – live within a half mile of a well. 

Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20% Hispanic, almost 40% Native American, and over 20% living in poverty.

Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties – with around 50% of the population Hispanic – are threatened by toxic air pollution.

Wyoming: Oil and gas emissions add to coal mining pollution

Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40% of the coal produced in the United States.

Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining. 

With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.

Utah: Air quality far below federal standards

Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah’s counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah – where the majority of oil and development occurs – a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.

North Dakota: Dark skies threatened by oil and gas activity

The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.

Nearly 650 wells on public lands are clustered together here, directly impacting popular recreational lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The 70,000-plus-acre park – named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape – is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky, but oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.

You own public lands, but they may be hurting you

Pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands is only a part of a larger problem. Toxic emissions from oil and gas development on both public and private lands threaten 12.4 million people living within a half mile of wells, according to an oil and gas threat map created by FracTracker for a project by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.

Now that we can see how many thousands of people are threatened by harmful emissions from our public lands, it is more important than ever that we finalize strong federal regulations that will help curb the main pollutant of natural gas – methane – from being leaked, vented, and flared from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

We need to clean up our air now

With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.

Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing federal regulations that are expected by the end of 2016. These regulations are expected to curb emissions from existing sources – wells already in production – that are a significant source of methane pollution on public lands. This is crucial, since by 2018, it is estimated that nearly 90% of methane emissions will come from sources that existed in 2011.

Federal regulations by the BLM should also help decrease the risk to communities living near oil and gas wells and helping cut methane emissions by 40 to 45% by 2025 to meet climate change reduction goals.

Final regulations from the Bureau of Land Management will also add to other regulations from the EPA and guidance from the Obama administration to modernize energy development on public lands for the benefit of the American people, landscapes and the climate. In the face of a changing climate, we need to continue to monitor fossil fuel development on public lands and continue to push the government towards better protections for land, air, wildlife and local communities.


By The Wilderness Society – The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.

Air emissions from drilling rig

A Review of Oil and Gas Emissions Data in Pennsylvania

By Wendy Fan, 2016 Intern, FracTracker Alliance

From 2011-2013, the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) required air emission data to be conducted and reported by oil and gas drillers in Pennsylvania. We have tried to look at this data in aggregate to give you a sense of the types and quantities of different pollutants. Corresponding to their degree of oil and gas drilling activity, Washington, Susquehanna, Bradford, Greene, and Lycoming counties are the highest emitters of overall pollutants between the specified years. Despite the department’s attempt to increase transparency, the data submitted by the operators severely underestimates the actual amount of pollutants released, especially with regard to methane emissions. Furthermore, gaps such as inconsistent monitoring systems, missing data, and a lack of a verification process of the self-reported data weaken the integrity and reliability of the submitted data. This article explores the data submitted and its implications in further detail.

Why Emissions Are Reported

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that U.S. natural gas production will increase from 23 trillion cubic feet in 2011 to over 33 trillion cubic feet in 2040. Pennsylvania, in particular, is one of the states with the highest amount of drilling activity at present. This statistic can be attributed to resource-rich geologic formations such as the Marcellus Shale, which extends throughout much of Appalachia. While New York has banned drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Pennsylvania continues to expand its operations with 9,775 active unconventional wells as of June 10, 2016.

Between 2000-2016, drillers in Pennsylvania incurred 5,773 violations and $47.2 million in fines. The PA DEP, which oversees drilling permits and citations, has undergone criticism for their lack of action with complaints related to oil and gas drilling, as well as poor communication to the public*. In order to increase transparency and to monitor air emissions from wells, the DEP now requires unconventional natural gas operators to submit air emission data each year. The data submitted by operators are intended to be publicly accessible and downloadable by county, emission, or well operator.

* Interestingly, PA scored the highest when we rated states on a variety of data transparency metrics in a study published in 2015.

Importance of Data Collected

PA’s continual growth in oil and gas drilling activity is concerning for the environment and public health. Pollutants such as methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxides (NOx) are all major contributors to climate change, and these are among the more common emissions found near oil and gas activities. Long-term exposure to benzene, also commonly associated with drilling sites, can result in harmful effects on the bone marrow and the decrease in red blood cells. Vomiting, convulsions, dizziness, and even death can occur within minutes to several hours with high levels of benzene.

With such risks, it is crucial for residents to understand how many wells are within their vicinity, and the levels of these pollutants emitted.

Air Monitoring Data Findings & Gaps

Although the DEP collects emission data on other important pollutants such as sulfur oxides (SOx), particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), and toluene, this article focuses only on a few select pollutants that have shown the highest emission levels from natural gas activity. The following graphs illustrate emissions of methane, carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), benzene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for the top 10 counties with the highest amounts of natural gas activity. PA wells drilled data (often called SPUD data) will also be referenced throughout the article. Data source: PA SPUD Data.

CMC

PA DEP’s Calculation Methods Codes for Emissions

Well operators self-report an estimate of total emissions in tons per year through either an online or paper reporting system. They must also indicate the method they used to generate this estimate with the Calculation Methods Codes for Emissions (table shown right).

For more information on how the data is prepared and what are the reporting requirements, refer to PA DEP’s Instruction for Completing the Annual Emissions Statement Reporting Forms

Total Amount of Unconventional Wells 2000-2016

AmountofWells

Figure 1

Overall, Washington, Susquehanna, Bradford, Greene, and Lycoming counties were the main emitters of all selected pollutants (methane, CO2, CO, NOx, VOCs, and benzene) throughout Pennsylvania based on tons per year (Fig 1). This trend may be correlated to the amount of natural gas activity that exists within each state as shown in the graph above. The top three Pennsylvania counties with the highest amount of oil and gas activity since 2000 are Washington, Susquehanna, and Bradford with 1,347; 1,187; and 1,091 unconventional active wells, respectively.

Methane Emissions

PA_Methane

Figure 2

In 2012, Susquehanna, Bradford, and Lycoming counties reported the highest amount of methane released with levels at 36,607, 23,350, and 14,648 tons, respectively (Fig 2). In 2013, Bradford, Lycoming, and Greene counties reported the highest amount of methane released with levels at 17,805, 17,265, and 15,296 tons, respectively.

Although the overall trend of methane emission declines from 2012 to 2013, there is an unusual drop in Susquehanna County’s methane emissions from 2012 to 2013. Susquehanna’s levels went from 36,607 tons to 12,269 tons in that timeframe. However, the DEP SPUD data recorded an increase of 190 active wells to 214 active wells from 2012 to 2013 in that same county. Though the well operators did not provide details for this shift, possible reasons may be because of improved methods of preventing methane leaks over the year, well equipment may be less robust as it once was, operators may have had less of a reason to monitor for leaky wells, or operators themselves could have changed.

Lackawanna and Luzerne counties reported zero tons of methane released during the year of 2012 (not shown on graph). There are two possible reasons for this: both counties did not have any unconventional wells recorded in the 2012 SPUD data, which may explain why the two counties reported zero tons for methane emissions, or the levels submitted are a significant underestimation of the actual methane level in the counties. (While there were no new wells, there are existing wells in production in those counties.)

Considering that methane is the primary component of natural gas activity, the non-existent level of methane reported seem highly implausible even with inactive wells on site. Typically, an old or inactive gas well can either be abandoned, orphaned, or plugged. By definition, abandoned wells have been inactive for more than a year, and orphaned wells were abandoned prior to 1985. (Because of this distinction, however, no unconventional wells can be considered “orphaned.”) To plug a well, cement plugs are used to cover up wellbores in order to cease all flow of gas. The act of physically plugging up the wells paints an illusion that it is no longer functioning and has ceased all emissions.

Because of this flawed impression, systematic monitoring of air emissions is often not conducted and the wells are often ignored. Several studies have shown even abandoned and plugged wells are still spewing out small and at times large quantities of methane and CO2. One study published in 2014 in particular measured 19 abandoned wells throughout Pennsylvania, and concluded that abandoned wells were significant contributors to methane emissions – contributing 4-7% of total anthropogenic (man-made) methane emissions in PA.

View methane emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

PA_CO2

Figure 3

In 2012, Bradford County reported 682,302 tons of CO2 emitted; Washington County reported 680,979 tons; and Susquehanna reported 560,881 tons (Fig. 3). In 2013, Washington continued to lead with 730,674 tons, Bradford at 721,274 tons, and Lycoming with 537,585 tons of COemitted.

What’s intriguing is according to SPUD data, Armstrong, Westmoreland, and Fayette also had considerable natural gas activity between the two years as shown on the map. Yet, their levels of CO2 emission are significantly lower compared to Lycoming or Susquehanna Counties. Greene County, in particular, had lower levels of CO2 reported. Yet, they had 106 active wells in 2012 and 117 in 2013. What is even more unusual is that Bradford County had 9 more wells than Greene County in 2013, yet, Greene County still had significantly higher CO2 levels reported.

Reasons for this difference may be that Greene County lacked the staff or resources to accurately monitor for CO2, the county may have forgotten to record emissions from compressor stations or other fugitive emission sources, or the method of monitoring may have differed between counties. Whatever the reason is, it is evident that the levels reported by Greene County may not actually be an accurate depiction of the true level of COemitted.

View CO2 emissions map full screen: 2012-2013

Carbon Monoxide Emissions

Spudded wells in PA with reported CO emissions by county 2011-13

Spudded wells in PA with reported CO emissions by county 2011-13

PA_CO

Figure 4

According to the PA SPUD data, the number of new wells drilled in Bradford County dropped from 389 in 2011 to 163 in 2012 to 108 to 2013. The diminishing number of newly drilled wells in this particular county may explain the noticeable outlier in CO emission as seen on the graph (Fig 4).

View CO emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

NOx and VOCs

Compressor stations are also known to emit VOC, NOx, and various greenhouse gases; they run 24/7 and serve multiple wells. Compressor stations are necessary to move the natural gas along the pipelines, and thus, may still be required to function even after some wells have ceased operation. Furthermore, there can be multiple compressor stations in a region because they are installed at intervals of about 40 to 100 miles. This suggests that in addition to drilled wells, compressor stations provide additional avenues for NOx or VOC to leak into the air.

View NOx and VOC emissions maps full screen: VOC 2011-2013 | NOx 2011-2013

Benzene Emissions

Spudded wells in PA with reported benzene emissions by county 2011-13

Spudded wells in PA with reported benzene emissions by county 2011-13

Chart of PA benzene emissions data county to county

Figure 7

The levels of benzene emitted varied the most when compared to the other pollutants presented previously. Generally, the high levels of methane, CO2, and NOx emitted correlate with the high amount of natural gas activity recorded for each county’s number of drilled unconventional wells. However, it is interesting that both Westmoreland and Fayette counties had fewer active wells than Bradford County, yet, still reported higher levels of benzene (Fig 1, Fig 7).

An explanation for this may be the different monitoring techniques, the equipment used on each site which may vary by contractor or well access, or that there are other external sources of benzene captured in the monitoring process.

View benzene emissions map full screen: 2011-2013

Questions Remain

Although the collection and monitoring of air emission from wells is a step in the right direction, the data itself reveals several gaps that render the information questionable.

  • The DEP did not require operators to report methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide in 2011. Considering that all three components are potent greenhouse gases and that methane is the primary component in natural gas production, the data could have been more reliable and robust if the amount of the highest pollutants were provided from the start.
  • Systematic air monitoring around abandoned, orphaned, and plugged wells should still be conducted and data reported because of their significant impact to air quality. The DEP estimates there are approximately 200,000 wells that have been abandoned and unaccounted for. This figure includes older, abandoned wells that had outdated methods of plugging, such as wood plugs, wood well casings, or no plug at all. Without a consistent monitoring system for fugitive air emissions, the public’s true risk of the exposure to air pollutants will remain ambiguous.
  • All emissions submitted to the DEP are self-reported data from the operators. The DEP lacks a proper verification process to confirm whether the submitted data from operators are accurate.
  • The finalized data for 2014 has yet to be released despite the DEP’s April 2016 deadline. The DEP inadvertently posted the reports in March 2016, but quickly removed them without any notification or explanation as to why this information was removed. When we inquired about the release date, a DEP representative stated the data should be uploaded within the next couple of weeks. We will provide updates to this post when that data is posted but the DEP.

Overall, PA DEP’s valiant attempt to collect air data from operators and to increase transparency is constrained by the inconsistency and inaccuracy of the dataset. The gaps in the data strongly suggest that the department’s collection process and/or the industry’s reporting protocol still require major improvements in order to better monitor and communicate this information to the public.

Richmond, CA crude by rail protest

CA Refineries: Sources of Oil and Crude-by-Rail Terminals

CA Crude by Rail, from the Bakken Shale and Canada’s Tar Sands to California Refineries
By
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator &
Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement

Refineries in California plan to increase capacity and refine more Bakken Shale crude oil and Canadian tar sands bitumen. However, CA’s refinery communities that already bear a disparate amount of the burden (the refinery corridor along the north shore of the East Bay) will be more impacted than they were previously. New crude-by-rail terminals will put additional Californians at risk of accidents such as spills, derailments, and explosions. Additionally, air quality in refinery communities will be further degraded as refineries change to lower quality sources of crude oil. Below we discuss where the raw crude oil originates, why people are concerned about crude-by-rail projects, and what CA communities are doing to protect themselves. We also discuss our GIS analysis, showing the number of Californians living within the half-mile blast zones of the rail lines that currently are or will be supported by the new and existing crude by rail terminal projects.

Sources of Raw Crude Oil

Sources of Refinery HAPs

Figure 1. Sources of crude oil feedstock refined in California over time (CA Energy Commission, 2015)

California’s once plentiful oil reserves of locally extracted crude are dwindling and nearing depletion. Since 1985, crude extraction in CA has dropped by half. Production from Alaska has dropped even more, from 2 million B/D (barrels per day) to around 500,000 B/D. The 1.9 million B/D refining capacity in CA is looking for new sources of fuels. Refineries continue to supplement crude feedstock with oil from other sources, and the majority has been coming from overseas, specifically Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This trend is shown in figure 1.

Predictions project that sources of raw crude oil are shifting to the energy intensive Bakken formation and Canadian Tar Sands. The Borealis Centre estimates an 800% increase of tar sands oil in CA refineries over the next 25 years (NRDC, 2015). The increase in raw material from these isolated locations means new routes are necessary to transport the crude to refineries. New pipelines and crude-by-rail facilities would be necessary, specifically in locations where there are not marine terminals such as the Central Valley and Central Coast of CA. The cheapest way for operators in the Canadian Tar Sands and North Dakota’s Bakken Shale to get their raw crude to CA’s refinery markets is by railroad (30% less than shipping by marine routes from ports in Oregon and Washington), but this process also presents several issues.

CA Crude by Rail

More than 1 million children — 250,000 in the East Bay — attend school within one mile of a current or proposed oil train line (CBD, 2015). Using this “oil train blast zone” map developed by ForestEthics (now called Stand) you can explore the various areas at risk in the US if there was an oil train explosion along a rail line. Unfortunately, there are environmental injustices that exist for communities living along the rail lines that would be transporting the crude according to another ForestEthics report.

To better understand this issue, last year we published an analysis of rail lines known to be used for transporting crude along with the locations of oil train incidents and accidents in California. This year we have updated the rail lines in the map below to focus on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific (UP) railroad lines, which will be the predominant lines used for crude-by-rail transport and are also the focus of the CA Emergency Management Agency’s Oil by Rail hazard map.

The specific focus of the map in Figure 2 is the five proposed and eight existing crude-by-rail terminals that allow oil rail cars to unload at the refineries. The eight existing rail terminals have a combined capacity of 496,000 barrels. Combined, the 15 terminals would increase CA’s crude imports to over 1 million B/D by rail. The currently active terminals are shown with red markers. Proposed terminals are shown with orange markers, and inactive terminals with yellow markers. Much of the data on terminals was taken from the Oil Change International Crude by Rail Map, which covers the entire U.S.

Figure 2. Map of CA Crude by Rail Terminals

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work | Download Rail Terminal Map Data

Additional Proposals

The same type of facility is currently operating in the East Bay’s refinery corridor in Richmond, CA. The Kinder Morgan Richmond terminal was repurposed from handling ethanol to crude oil, but with no public notice. The terminal began operating without conducting an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or public review of the permit. Unfortunately, this anti-transparent process was similar to a tactic used by another facility in Kern County. The relatively new (November 2014) terminal in Taft, CA operated by Plains All American Pipeline LLC also did not conduct an EIR, and the permit is being challenged on the grounds of not following the CA Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

EIRs are an important component of the permitting process for any hydrocarbon-related facility. In April 2015 in Pittsburg, for example, a proposed 50,000 B/D terminal at the WesPac Midstream LLC’s railyard was abandoned due to community resistance and criticism over the EIR from the State Attorney General, along with the larger proposal of a 192,000 B/D marine terminal.

Still, many other proposals are in the works for this region. Targa Resources, a midstream logistics company, has a proposed a 70,000 B/D facility in the Port of Stockton, CA. Alon USA has a permitted project for revitalizing an idle Bakersfield refinery because of poor economics and have a permit to construct a two-unit train/day (150,000 B/D) offloading facility on the refinery property. Valero dropped previous plans for a rail oil terminal at its Wilmington refinery in the Los Angeles/Long Beach port area, and Questar Pipeline has preliminary plans for a  rail oil terminal in the desert east of the Palm Springs area for a unit-train/day.

Air Quality Impacts of Refining Tar Sands Oil

Crude-by-rail terminals bring with them not only the threat of derailments and the risk of other such accidents, but the terminals are also a source of air emissions. Terminals – both rail and marine – are major sources of PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). The Sacramento Valley Railroad (SAV) Patriot rail oil terminal at a business park on the former McClellan Air Force Base property actually had its operating permit withdrawn by Sacramento air quality regulators due to this issue (read more). The terminal was unloading and reloading oil tanker cars.

FracTracker’s recent report, Emissions in the Refinery Corridor, shows that the refineries in this region are the major point source for emissions of both cancer and non-cancer risk drivers in the region. These air pollution sources get worse, however. According to the report by NRDC, changing the source of crude feedstock to increased amounts of Canadian Tar Sands oil and Bakken Shale oil would:

… increase the levels of highly toxic fugitive emissions; heavy emissions of particulate, metals, and benzene; result in a higher risk of refinery accidents; and the accumulation of petroleum coke* (a coal-like, dusty byproduct of heavy oil refining linked to severe respiratory impacts). This possibility would exacerbate the harmful health effects faced by the thousands of low-income families that currently live around the edges of California’s refineries. These effects are likely to include harmful impacts to eyes, skin, and the nervous and respiratory systems. Read NRDC Report

Petroleum coke (petcoke) is a waste product of refining tar sands bitumen (oil), and will burden the communities near the refineries that process tar sands oil. Petcoke has recently been identified as a major source of exposures to carcinogenic PAH’s in Alberta Canada (Zhang et al., 2016). For more information about the contributions of petcoke to poor air quality and climate change, read this report by Oil Change International.

The contribution to climate change from accessing the tar sands also needs to be considered. Extracting tar sands is estimated to release on average 17% average more green-house gas (GHG) emissions than conventional oil extraction operations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of State. (Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change on a global scale.) The refining process, too, has a larger environmental / public health footprint; refining the tar sands to produce gasoline or diesel generates an average of 81% more GHGs (U.S. Dept of State. Appendix W. 2015). In total this results in a much larger climate impact (NRDC, NextGen Climate, Forest Ethics. 2015).

Local Fights

People opposed to CA crude by rail have been fighting the railway terminal proposals on several fronts. In Benicia, Valero’s proposal for a rail terminal was denied by the city’s Planning Commission, and the project’s environmental impact report was denied, as well. The city of Benicia, however, hired lawyers to ensure that the railway projects are built. The legality of railway development is protected regardless of the impacts of what the rails may be used to ship. This legal principle is referred to as “preemption,” which means the federal permitting prevents state or local actions from trying to limit or block development. In this case, community and environmental advocacy groups such as Communities for a Better Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Stanford-Mills Law Project all agree the “preemption” doctrine doesn’t apply here. They believe preemption does not disallow the city or other local governments from blocking land use permits for the refinery expansion and crude terminals that unload the train cars at the refinery.  The Planning Commission’s decision is being appealed by Valero, and another meeting is scheduled for September, 2016.

The fight for local communities along the rail-lines is more complicated when the refinery is far way, under the jurisdiction of other municipalities. Such is the case for the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery, located on California State Highway 1 on the Nipomo Mesa. The Santa Maria refinery is requesting land use permits to extend track to the Union Pacific Railway that transits CA’s central coast. The extension is necessary to bring the rail cars to the proposed rail terminal. This project would not just increase traffic within San Luis Obispo, but for the entirety of the rail line, which passes directly through the East Bay. The project would mean an 80-car train carrying 2 million gallons of Bakken Crude would travel through the East Bay from Richmond through Berekely and Emeryville to Jack London Square and then south through Oakland and the South Bay.  This would occur 3 to 5 times per week. In San Luis Obispo county 88,377 people live within the half-mile blast zone of the railroad tracks.

In January, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department proposed to deny Phillips 66 the permits necessary for the rail spur and terminals. This decision was not easy, as Phillips 66, a corporation ranked Number 7 on the Fortune 500 list, has fought the decision. The discussion remained open with many days of meetings, but the majority of the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission spoke in favor of the proposal at a meeting Monday, May 16. There is overwhelming opposition to the rail spur project coming from 250 miles away in Berkeley, CA. In 2014, the Berkeley and Richmond city councils voted to oppose all transport of crude oil through the East Bay. Without the rail spur approval, Phillips 66 declared the Santa Maria refinery would otherwise transport oil from Kern County via 100 trucks per day. Learn more about this project.

GIS Analysis

GIS techniques were used to estimate the number of Californians living in the half mile “at risk” blast zone in the communities hosting the crude-by-rail lines. First, we estimated the total population of Californians living a half mile from the BNSF and UP rail lines that could potentially transport crude trains. Next, we limited our study area to just the East Bay refinery corridor, which included Contra Costa and the city of Benicia in Solano County. Then, we estimated the number of Californians that would be living near rail lines if the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery crude by rail project is approved and becomes operational. The results are shown below:

  1. Population living within a half mile of rail lines throughout all of California: 6,900,000
  2. Population living within a half mile of rail lines in CA’s East Bay refinery communities: 198,000
  3. Population living within a half mile of rail lines along the UP lines connecting Richmond, CA to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery: 930,000

CA Crude by Rail References

  1. NRDC. 2015. Next Frontier for Dangerous Tar Sands Cargo:California. Accessed 4/15/16.
  2. Oil Change International. 2015. Rail Map.
  3. Global Community Monitor. 2014. Community Protest Against Crude Oil by Rail Blocks Entrance to Kinder Morgan Rail Yard in Richmond
  4. CEC. 2015. Sources of Oil to California Refineries. California Energy Commission. Accessed 4/15/16.
  5. Zhang Y, Shotyk W, Zaccone C, Noernberg T, Pelletier R, Bicalho B, Froese DG, Davies L, and Martin JW. 2016. Airborne Petcoke Dust is a Major Source of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Environmental Science and Technology. 50 (4), pp 1711–1720.
  6. U.S. Dept of State. 2015. Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL Pipeline. Accessed 5/15/16.
  7. U.S. Dept of State. 2015. Appendix W Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL Pipeline Appendix W. Accessed 5/15/16.
  8. NRDC, NextGen Climate, Forest Ethics. 2015. West Coast Tar Sands Invasion. NRDC 2015. Accessed 4/15/16.

** Feature image of the protest at the Richmond Chevron Refinery courtesy of Global Community Monitor.

Air Pollution in the Bay Area’s Refinery Corridor

Emissions from Refineries and other Sources
By
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator &
Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement

Key Takeaways

  • Refineries and petrochemical industry in the Bay Area’s refinery corridor are responsible for the majority of the risk-driving point source emissions in this region.
  • The Chevron Richmond refinery has the largest refining capacity and emits the most hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).
  • The Tesoro refinery in Martinez and the Shell refinery in Martinez emit the most HAPs per barrel of oil (based on refining capacity).
  • The Valero refinery in Benicia, the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, and the Shell refinery in Martinez emit the most criteria air pollutants (CAPs).
  • If refineries increase their capacity and process more crude, the emissions of these various pollutants will invariably increase.
  • New emissions rules need to prioritize ambient air quality and hold the Air District and elected officials accountable for policies that increase risk.

Overview of the Bay Area’s Refinery Corridor

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is revising the rules for facilities that emit a variety of hazardous pollutants into the air. The current draft of the new rules could actually increase the amount polluters are allowed to emit. The communities at risk are speaking out to support policies that would reduce the amount of air pollutants rather than increase the limits. In support of these communities, the FracTracker Alliance has focused on analyzing the sources of air pollutants in the region. The East Bay Oil Refinery Corridor is located along the North Shore of the East Bay, stretching from Richmond, CA east to Antioch, CA. The region has been named a “sacrifice zone” for the heavy concentration of petrochemical industrial sites. In addition to the five refineries along the north coast, these communities host a variety of other heavy industries and waste sites. The locations of these facilities have been mapped previously by the FracTracker Alliance, here. In the report we found that people of color, specifically African Americans, are disproportionately represented in the community demographics. Novel results indicate that Hispanic students may be disproportionately impacted by the presence of the petrochemical industry. In this post, we continue the analysis of risk in the region by providing an analysis of the contributions to air pollution from these facilities.

Regulations

Refineries and other sources of air pollution are regulated by the U.S. EPA’s Clean Air Act (CAA). The CAA regulates two classes of pollutants:

  1. Criteria air pollutants (CAPs) – including sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter; and
  2. Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), which includes a list of 594 carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic chemicals that pose a risk to those exposed.

In addition, California regulates green-house-gas (GHG) emissions, and refineries are the second largest industrial source of GHGs. These regulations get applied when facilities need to obtain a permit for a new source of air pollution, or if a facility is making a structural change that could significantly affect emissions. Facilities are required to use “Maximum Available Control Technology” as it relates to industry best practices to control emissions. With these existing engineering controls, refinery emissions are released into the air from the multiple sources/processes shown below in Figure 1. Notice that a large amount of emissions are simply from “Leaks.”

Sources of Refinery HAPs

Figure 1. Breakdown of emissions from petroleum refineries (US EPA, 2011)

The new rules drafted by the BAAQMD to regulate emissions from the East Bay Oil Refinery Corridor would not cap emissions at any level. The current proposal outlines limits on emissions per barrel, promoting efficiency rather than focusing on emissions reductions. Air quality in the refinery corridor could be improved only if this approach was proposed in conjunction with emission limits or reductions. But as the currently proposed rules stand, emissions could actually increase. Enforcement procedures for infractions are also limited. If a refinery’s emissions violate the per barrel standards, the refinery has a whole 3 years to address the violation. Also, these new rules come at a time when refineries are moving to increase the volume of crude coming in from other regions, such as Canada’s tar sands and the Bakken Shale. These regions produce much lower “quality” crude oil, with much higher emissions. This all amounts to more air pollution rather than less.

Community and environmental activist groups such as the Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition have raised specific issues with the proposed rules as they stand. First, they allow for increase emissions when Air District data forecasts increasing refinery emissions, despite declining local and domestic fuels demand. Refining the lower quality crude is more energy intensive, which also results in increased emissions. In order to offset the increased emissions, CBE reports that refineries can just increase total refining production to decrease per barrel averages. This would in affect increase emissions to meet regulatory requirements. In addition, transporting the crude via new shipping routes would put additional communities at elevated risk of railway accidents (CBE, 2015).

Ambient Air Quality

Air quality in the Bay Area has been continuously improving over the last few decades, but these refinery communities are still at a significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease and strokes. The largest disparity is felt by the African-American populations. Data for Richmond, CA shows they are 1.5 times more likely to die from these diseases than the Contra Costa county average (Casanova, Diemoz, Lifshay, McKetney, 2010). Emissions reductions not only favor the local communities such as the refinery corridor that are most impacted, but also all of the downwind communities, specifically the Central Valley. The Air District’s 2012 report of PM provides a summary of these trends. PM is an important because it is “the air pollutant that causes by far the greatest harm to public health in the bay area. It is a useful indices because there is a linear correlation between increasing ambient concentrations and mortality. Figure 2 shows the progress the Bay Area has made, overall. This graph is based on regional monitors and not those in the refinery communities, where improvements have not been as drastic. In Figure 3 below, the graph shows major pollutant drivers of seven health risks and how health impacts have been reduced over this time period. What we see from the bar graph, is that non-diesel anthropogenic point sources of PM contribute the most to risk for the majority of health endpoints considered. Across the entire bay area, refineries account for 6% of all PM (BAAQMD, 2012).

An overview of other chemicals associated with the petrochemical industry in ambient air and their resulting health effects are outlined in tables 1-3 below. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are chemicals of primary concern, specific to petroleum refinery emissions, and are known risk drivers for the region.

Fig 2 PM

Figure 2. Measurements of PM, averaged across the entire bay area, over time – showing an overall improvement in air quality.

Fig 3 health impacts

Figure 3. Contribution of different species of air pollution to health impacts. The analysis is specific to the bay area and compares health risks estimates from the past (1980s) to estimates in 2012.

Table 1. Health impacts from criteria air pollutants

Criteria Air Pollutants
Compound Health Effect
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) Array of adverse respiratory effects, airway inflammation in healthy people, increased respiratory symptoms in people with asthma
Carbon Monoxide (CO) Harmful health effects associated with the reduction of oxygen delivery to the body’s organs (heart and brain) and tissues
Particulate Matter Increased respiratory symptoms, irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing, decreased lung function; aggravated asthma; development of chronic bronchitis; irregular heartbeat; nonfatal heart attacks; and premature death in people with heart or lung disease

Table 2. Health impacts from hazardous air pollutants known to be emitted from petroleum refineries

Hazardous Air Pollutants
Compound Acute Chronic
Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Xylenes Neurological effects, Irritation of the eye, skin and respiratory tract Blood disorders (reduced number of red blood cells and aplastic anemia), cancer.
1,3-Butadiene Irritation of the eyes, throat and respiratory tract Cardiovascular effects, leukemia, cancer
Naphthalene Hemolytic anemia, damage to the liver, neurological effects Cataracts, damage to the retina, hemolytic anemia, cancer
PAHs Skin disorders, depression of the immune system Skin disorders (dermatitis, photosensitization), depression of the immune system, damage to the respiratory tract, cataracts, cancer

Table 3. Health impacts from other pollutants emitted from petroleum refineries

Other Pollutants
Compound Mechanism Health Effect
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) Combine with NOx in sunlight to create ozone Significantly reduce lung function and induce respiratory inflammation in normal. Healthy people during periods of moderate exercise, symptoms include chest pain, coughing, nausea, and pulmonary congestion
Greenhouse Gases (GHG), including Methane (CH4), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Nitrous Oxide (N2O) Compounds with high global warming potential contribute to climate change Increase in average temperatures, higher levels of ground-level ozone, increased drought, harm to water resources, ecosystems and wildlife, health risk to sensitive populations

North Coast Emissions

With these gains in ambient air quality it is hard to fathom why regulators would consider allowing refineries to increase emissions inventories. For this analysis, the focus was to map and compare emissions inventories from numerous industrial sites, with a particular focus on the petroleum refineries.

Current refinery capacities as of 2014 are shown in Figure 4, below. The Richmond Chevron has the largest refining capacity in the region, by far. Refining capacity is the maximum amount of crude oil the refinery is allowed to refine, according to their permit. Refining capacity numbers are used in place of actual refined crude volumes for this analysis, because actual crude volumes are considered proprietary information and are not published by the California Energy Commission (CEC).

The Richmond refinery has a raw crude (atmospheric crude is the technical term) refinement capacity over twice as large as the Phillips 66 San Francisco Refinery, and almost 40% larger than the Tesoro (Golden Eagle) refinery, which is the second largest in the region. According to the newly proposed rules, this would allow the Richmond refinery to emit the most pollutants.

The raw total emissions data is shown in Figure 5. The Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo contributes the least to ambient air quality degradation. The Chevron Richmond refinery processes 40 – 100% more than the four other refineries, and emits 10 – 570% more than the other refiners. This large difference in capacity and emissions means that Chevron Richmond is more efficient than some, but much less efficient than others. To understand the efficiency differences between the refineries, the total HAPs emissions were adjusted by the refining capacity, shown below in Figure 6. With this data we can rank the refining efficiency specifically for HAPs emissions, based on facility capacity. The Tesoro refinery in Martinez and the Shell refinery in Martinez emit the most HAPs per barrel oil (based on refining capacity). From highest emitter to lowest emitter per barrel of crude, the facilities can be ranked:

  1. Tesoro Refining & Marketing Co LLC (Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez)
  2. Shell Oil Products (Martinez Refinery)
  3. Chevron Products Co Richmond Refinery
  4. Valero Refining Co – California Benicia Refinery
  5. Phillips 66 San Francisco Refinery (Rodeo Refinery)
fig 4 capacity

Figure 4. Operating capacity of refineries. The bars show the maximum amount of crude the refineries are allowed to process daily, in barrels (1 barrel = 42 gallons).

fig 5 total

Figure 5. Total amount of HAPs emissions from East Bay refineries

These refineries along with the other industrial sites in the region have been mapped below in Figure 7. The data has been displayed to show the HAPs emissions from these facilities. The amounts of emissions are shown with graduated circles. The larger the circle, the higher the emissions. The cumulative summation of HAPs is a good value for comparing between facilities with diverse emission inventories (the list of all species of emitted pollutants), but different HAP chemicals have very different effects, both in magnitude and in health impacts. Different chemicals will affect different body systems, as described above in Tables 1-3 above. We have therefore incorporated individual chemical data into the map as well (Figure 7, below). The data displayed shows the total sum of HAPs emitted (in lbs/year) from petrochemical industrial facilities in the region. Explore the map to see emission sources for a selection of important pollutants. Smaller industrial sites/sources have been left out of the map.

Figure 7. Map of the East Bay’s Refinery Corridor with emissions data

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work
If you open the map into its own page, you can toggle between individual chemical emissions from these facilities. Use the layers tab to change the chemicals displayed. For more information on the individual chemicals, continue reading below.

This unique selection of pollutants was chosen by identifying the highest health risk drivers in the region. They are known to increase both cancer and non-cancer risk for residents in the bay area. The graphs that follow show the emissions inventories reported by each refinery. The refineries are organized on the X –axis according to increasing refining capacity, as they are in Figure 4, above.

Analysis of the graphs show that the Richmond Chevron facility is a largely responsible for 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, naphthalene, hydrogen cyanide, PAH’s, vanadium, lead and nickel compounds. The Tesoro refinery is mostly responsible for almost all of the 1,3-butadiene, and most responsible for hydrogen sulfide and VOCs. Shell is mostly responsible for the ethylbenzene, much of the mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions, and the most VOCs. Valero in Benicia is responsible for much of the 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, all BTEX compounds, the most nickel compounds, and the most oxides of nitrogen. And finally, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo with the lowest operating capacity also had the lowest emissions in almost every case except lead, which was very large compared to all refineries except Chevron Richmond. The Valero refinery in Benicia, the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, and the Shell refinery in Martinez emit the most criteria air pollutants (CAPs), including PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 um), sulfur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen.

Figure 8 – 22. Emissions totals of various air pollutants from East Bay refineries

Marine Terminals

Emissions from marine terminals are also a significant source of HAPs and particulate matter. In the map in Figure 7, the marine terminals are shown with yellow markers. Their relative contributions of total hazardous pollutants are much less than the refineries and other sources, but when we look at specific risk drivers, such as 1,3-butadiene and benzene, we find that their contributions are quite sizable. Marine terminals are also a key component for the refineries looking to access more low-grade crude. Increasing the refining capacity of the refinery will also increase the emissions from the terminals.

The Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez, CA was recently approved for a 30-year lease on a new marine terminal. The new terminal will allow Tesoro to switch to processing lower-cost, lower-quality crude oil from California, Bakken crude, and Canadian tar sands. When crude is transported via ocean liner, besides the issue of air pollution there is the additional risk of an ocean spill. Tom Griffith, Martinez resident and co-founder of the Martinez Environmental Group and founding member of the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition recently summed up the threat, saying:

When you take a close look at what is going on in the marine oil terminals along the refinery corridor from Richmond to Stockton, it’s chilling to imagine what could happen if a huge oil tanker carrying tar sands crude crashed in the Bay! (Earthjustice, 2015)

Incidents

Chevron Fire 2012

Figure 23. Fires at Chevron Richmond Refinery 2012. Photo by John Sebastian Russo for the SF Chronicle

Like oil spills from tankers, there are other risks of industrial accidents for refineries that need to be considered. Accidents or incidents may occur that result in a sudden, large release of air pollution. Looking at the emissions data, the Richmond Chevron refinery with the largest production capacity may seem to be an efficient station compared to the other refineries. However, an explosion and large fire in 2012 there sent 15,000 community members to local hospitals with respiratory distress. The SF Chronicle’s coverage of the story can be found here. (Fire shown in photo right.) The incident resulted from pipes corroding and failing, and the facility failing to make the decision to shut down the process. The resulting plume of smoke is shown in the cover photo of this article. Other major explosions and fires have occurred in the recent past, as well, including a flaring incident in 2014, a fire in 2007, and two other explosion and fire events in 1999 and 1989.

Of course these events are not unique to the Chevron refinery. The Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery has a reputation of being the most dangerous refinery in the country for occupational hazards, and has one of the worst track records of violations.

Conclusions

If refineries increase their capacity and process more crude, the emissions of these various pollutants will invariably increase. Increased emissions elevate risk for surrounding communities, and in the bay area these communities already bare a disparate burden. Additionally, many of the pollutants will be transported with the prevailing wind that blows from the coast up the river delta and into the central valley. In FracTracker’s recent analysis of impacted communities in the refinery corridor, maps of air quality showed that the refinery communities are some of the most impacted in the entire bay area.

In addition, California’s Central Valley has some of the worst air quality in the U.S. Click here to view maps of state air quality of disproportionate impacts by us using CalEnviroScreen 2.0. While many of the HAPs have a greater local impact, others such as ozone have regional impacts, while others like mercury are transported globally.

What we find in this report is that the refineries and petrochemical industry in the refinery corridor are responsible for the majority of the risk-driving emissions in this region. When the risk and total emissions are averaged for the entire Bay Area, the risk outcomes are much less than for those living in the communities hosting the industries. New emissions rules should prioritize contributions of emissions to ambient air pollution loads. The biggest issue with using a “per barrel” emissions limit is that it prioritizes the refining capacity rather than mitigating the existing health impacts. These types of policy decisions deal directly with risk management. The Air Management District must decide what amount of cancer and disease are acceptable to keep the refineries in the communities. An upper limit on emissions makes it easier to set a risk limit, an upper bound for health impacts. The upper limit also holds the Air Management District and elected officials accountable for their policy decisions.

References

  1. U.S.EPA. 2011. Addressing Air Emissions from the Petroleum Refinery Sector U.S. EPA. Accessed 3/15/16.
  2. CBE. 2015. Playing It Safe: Supplemental comment on air district staff proposal, rules 12-15 and 12-16; Evidence of increasing bay area refinery GHG and pm2.5 emissions.. Communities for a Better Environment
  3. Casanova, D. Diemoz, L. Lifshay, J. McKetney, C. 2010. Community Heath Indicators for Contra Costa County. Community Health Assessment, Planning and Evaluation (CHAPE) Unit of Contra Costa Health Services’ Public Health division. Accessed 4/15/16.
  4. BAAQMD. 2012. Summary of PM Report. Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Accessed 4/15/16.

** Feature image of the Richmond Chevron Refinery courtesy of D.H. Parks

Ethane Cracker Discussion in Regional Air Pollution Report

Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) Air: Hazardous Air Pollutants

Although now we are an independent non-profit, FracTracker.org actually started as a project of CHEC at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. At that time, Matt, Kyle, and I worked with researchers such as Drew Michanowicz and Jim Fabisiak of Pitt, as well as Jill Kriesky now of the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project, on a data mapping and analysis project called PRETA. The Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) is intended to inform stakeholders about Southwest Pennsylvania’s major environmental health risks and provide ways to manage them. CHEC worked with key decision makers and other academics to identify, prioritize, and assess these risks. The top three risks identified were ozone, particulate matter (PM), and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Due to the extensive time that research like this takes, the final report about hazardous air pollutants was just recently released.

Relevant to our oil and gas readers, the HAPs report included a piece about the proposed ethane cracker slated to be built in Beaver County, PA. Below is an excerpt of PRETA HAPs that discusses how the air quality in our region may change as a result of the removal of the present zinc smelter on that site, in place of the new cracker facility.

 

Read Full Report (PDF)

Excerpt: The Proposed Monaca, PA Ethane Cracker

Future Trends: New Sources of HAPs in Western Pennsylvania?

All of the previous risk analyses and data discussed [earlier in the report] were drawn using historical data collected in previous years. There is considerable delay around emissions inventory collection, air monitoring data collection, atmospheric modeling, and the calculated risk estimates’ being made public. Hence, these analyses speak best toward past and present trends. They often are less useful in predicting future risks, especially when sources and technologies are constantly changing. For example, better pollution mitigation and retrofitting processes should curtail future emissions from present levels. In addition, changing the profile of various industries within a region also will alter atmospheric chemistry and subsequent risks in future scenarios.

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented expansion of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia driven in part by the recent feasibility of hydraulic fracturing, which is part of a drilling procedure that allows for the tapping of the vast methane deposits contained in the Marcellus and Utica shales beneath Pennsylvania and surrounding states. Primarily, drillers are seeking to extract methane (CH4), the primary component of natural gas. However, a portion of the natural gas present in our area is considered “wet gas,” which includes heavier hydrocarbons like ethane, propane, and butane that are typically dissolved in a liquid phase or condensate. These compounds are separated from the methane to be marketed as such products as liquid propane or used as feedstock in numerous other chemical processes. Therefore, a high demand remains for wet gas deposits regardless of fluctuating natural gas (methane) market prices. Thus, a large-scale expansion in other industries (e.g., chemical manufacturing) is anticipated to follow UNGD; new industrial facilities are needed to support the refining of wet gas condensates. For example, an ethane cracker converts or “cracks” ethane, a by-product of natural gas, into ethylene so that it can be used in the production of plastics.

Located in Monaca, Pa. (Beaver County), about 12 miles east of the West Virginia border, is an aging zinc smelter owned by the Horsehead Corporation. The present Horsehead facility is currently the largest zinc refining site in the United States, producing metallic zinc and zinc oxide from recycled material and steelmaking waste. The plant opened in the 1920s to take advantage of the by-products of steel manufacturing and has expanded and modernized over time. It employed about 600 workers until recently, when the company announced its relocation to a new state-of-the-art facility in North Carolina in the near future. The scope of this metal-refining operation was such that it was a significant source of metals and criteria air pollutants.

Recently, Shell Chemical, U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, announced plans to build an ethane cracker in the northeast to take advantage of UNGD. Lured by substantial tax benefits and other economic incentives, Shell chose the former zinc smelting site in Monaca as its proposed new location for such a facility and, in March 2012, received the approval from Pennsylvania officials to build this petrochemical complex. The cracker, according to industry representatives, will be a multibillion-dollar structure and provide thousands of jobs for Pennsylvanians 43, 44. However, many of these jobs depend on the influx of concurrent industries and technologies, which are projected to follow in the wake of sufficient petrochemical refining facilities like the ethane cracker. Thus, it is not likely to be the sole source of pollutants in the area once constructed. Though plant construction remains years away, regional air pollutant composition and chemistry are poised to change as well. Adding to the issue is the fact that the zinc smelter, ranked as one of the worst air polluters in the country in 2002 45, will be decommissioned and have its operations moved to North Carolina.

Here, we will attempt to compare the pollutant profiles of the old and new air pollution sources in order to deduce potential air pollutant changes to existing air quality in the region. Previous emission inventories are available for the Horsehead zinc smelter (EPA Toxic Release Inventory for 2008) 46. Although the proposed cracker facility’s engineering specifics are not available yet, using the records of a similar existing wet gas processing plant, we can approximate the proposed cracker’s yearly emissions. In this case, we have chosen the similarly sized Williams Olefins Cracker Facility currently operating in Geismar, La., whose emissions profiles for 2008 also were available 46. This plant, owned by Williams Partners, L.P., processes approximately 37,000 barrels of ethane and 3,000 barrels of propane per day and annually produces 1.35 billion pounds of ethylene.

Table 5 from PRETA HAPs report

In assessing the emission inventories at the two sites, we first sought to compare those pollutants that were common to both facilities. Table 5 (above) compares the annual release of criteria pollutants for which National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) exist. These include ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), lead, and carbon monoxide, for which health-based regulatory standards exist for their concentration in ambient air1. Not surprisingly, the zinc smelter released large amounts of lead into the air (five tons per year). The proposed ethane cracker, on the other hand, would release only trace amounts of lead into the air and about 0.1 percent of the sulfur dioxide, 3 percent of the carbon monoxide, and 50 percent of the nitrogen oxides of the zinc smelter. Overall, release of PM would be of a similar order of magnitude at the two sites. Thus, the representative cracker facility by itself emits less NAAQS criteria pollutants than the smelter facility.

Table 6 from PRETA HAPs report

Similarly, Table 6 (above) examines similarly reported HAPs released from both of the facilities in question. A comparison of available emissions inventories of HAPs reveals a list of common pollutants, including acrolein, benzene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Note the projected increase in release of acrolein and VOCs by the proposed ethane cracker. The latter are a rather broad class of organic chemicals that have high vapor pressure (low boiling point), allowing appreciable concentrations in the air as a gaseous phase 47, 48. Examples of VOCs include formaldehyde, d-limonene, toluene, acetone, ethanol (ethyl alcohol), 2-propanol (isopropyl alcohol), and hexanal, among others. They are common components of paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; and dry-cleaned clothing. They also possess a diverse range of health effects, including, but not limited to, eye and throat irritation, nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, and skin rashes at low doses, and kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage at high doses. Some are known or suspected carcinogens. These chemicals are more often known for their role in indoor air pollution and have been linked to allergies and asthma 49. Recall that acrolein is already the primary driver of noncancer respiratory risk in the PRETA area, and releases from the proposed cracker would theoretically add to that burden.

Table 7 from PRETA HAPs Report 2013

Table 7 shows a compiled list of HAPs that were released from the Geismar plant in 2008 but not from the zinc smelter, highlighting the potential change in the pollutant mixture. For comparison, the pollutants highlighted in yellow represent those that are several orders of magnitude greater than those emitted by the Clairton Coke Works in 2008. Note the rather large emissions of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde that were discussed above as the number one and number five existing cancer drivers in the area.

Other VOCs of note include ethylene glycol, ethylene oxide, methyl-tert-butyl ether and propionaldehyde. While all these pollutants may have toxic effects on their own, one of the primary concerns, especially in outdoor air, should be their ability to form secondary pollutants. For example, we have noted previously that both acetaldehyde and formaldehyde can be formed via photo-oxidation reactions of other hydrocarbons and VOCs. Thus, the direct emissions reported in the table are likely to be significant underestimations of the true burden of acetaldehyde and formaldehyde in the area near the cracker. It also should be mentioned that a complex nonlinear sensitivity exists among VOCs, NOX, and the production rate of ozone (O3). Most urban areas are considered NOX saturated or VOC sensitive and therefore have low VOC/NOX ratios. In these environments, ozone actually decreases with increasing NOX and increases with increasing VOCs—a potentially likely situation within the urban areas of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

In conclusion, it would appear that the replacement of the existing zinc smelter with the proposed ethane cracker has the potential to significantly transform the current pollutant mixture in the region. The elimination of lead and other heavy metal emissions would be replaced by increases in formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. In addition, it does not appear that the proposed ethane cracker alone would increase any of the NAAQS criteria air pollutants, with the possible exception of ozone. On the other hand, the rather large releases of several known cancer drivers, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, from the proposed cracker could increase cancer risk in the immediate proximity. In addition, the large influx of VOCs and fugitive emissions from these operations warrants further predictive analysis, especially with regard to current pollution-mitigating strategies that may not be anticipating a transforming pollutant mix.

Introduction of the ethane cracker & its effect on regional air quality in SW PA

Authors and Credits

University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
Center for Healthy Environments and Communities
Pittsburgh, PA | August 2013

Authors

Drew Michanowicz, MPH, CPH
Kyle Ferrar, MPH
Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH
Matt Kelso, BA
Jill Kriesky, PhD
James P. Fabisiak, PhD

Technical Support

Department of Communications Services
Marygrace Reder, BA
Alison Butler, BA

Full HAPs Report (PDF) | Ozone (PDF) | Particulate Matter (PDF)
For questions related to the full report, please contact CHEC.

References Mentioned in Excerpt

43. Detrow , S. (2012). What’s an ethane cracker? StateImpact – Pennsylvania. Accessed 12-18-12: http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/tag/ethane-cracker.

44. Kelso, M. (2012). Jobs impact of cracker facility likely exaggerated. FracTracker Alliance. Accessed 12-18-12: www.fractracker.org/2012/06/jobs-impact-of-cracker-facility-likely-exaggerated.

45. SCORECARD: The Pollution Information Site. (2002). Environmental Release Report: Zinc Corp. of America Monaca Smelter. Accessed 12-18-12: http://scorecard.goodguide.com/envreleases/facility.tcl?tri_id=15061ZNCCR300FR#major_chemical_releases.

46. U.S. EPA. (2008). Technology Transfer Network, Clearinghouse for Inventories and Emissions Factors The National Emissions Inventory. The National Emissions Inventory. Accessed 1-25-13: www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/net/2008inventory.html.

47. U.S. EPA. (2012). An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Volatile Organic Compounds. Accessed 12-18-12: www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html.

48. U.S. EPA. (2012). Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Accessed 12-18-12: www.epa.gov/iaq/voc2.html.

49. Nielsen, G.D., S.T. Larsen, O. Olsen, M. Lovik , L.K. Poulsen, C. Glue , and P. Wolkoff. (2007). Do indoor chemicals promote development of airway allergy? Indoor Air 17: pp. 236–255.

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