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Gas-Fired Power Plant Buildout in PA

Wanted: More Places to Burn Natural Gas

By Alison Grass, Senior Researcher at Food & Water Watch

Over the past decade, the natural gas industry has experienced a renaissance that has been a boon to energy company profits. But it has altered the quality of life for the rural communities where most new gas wells have been drilled. Now, fracking is fueling a gas-fired power plant boom in Pennsylvania, with 47 new facilities. Most have already been approved, with a handful in commercial operation (see map below).

New research by Pennsylvanians Against Fracking shows, in vivid detail, the scale of this buildout, and the impacts it will have on Pennsylvania communities.

Current & Potential PA Gas-Fired Power Plants & their Emissions

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Approximately half of the new gas power plants are located in northeastern region of Pennsylvania, a part of the state already overburdened by the lingering environmental maladies of coal mining and the more recent dangers associated with fracking. These rural communities may see increased drilling, fracking and pipeline construction to support the power plants — and the siting could be strategic. In a StateImpact Pennsylvania article about the first Marcellus shale gas power plant, for example, a company representative admitted that the location was chosen specifically due to its convenient access to shale gas. “This plant was sited precisely where it is because of its access to the abundant, high-quality natural gas that’s found a mile to two miles beneath our feet.”

Drilling Trends

The first modern Marcellus well was drilled in Pennsylvania by Range Resources in 2003, and commercial production began in 2005. Although fracking expanded rapidly in several areas across the country, Pennsylvania has been ground zero of the fracking boom, with just over 10,000 shale gas wells drilled between 2005 and 2016. Since then, however, there has been a rapid downturn in new wells drilled. After the early and dramatic increase in drilling – from 9 shale wells in 2005 to 1,957 shale wells in 2011 – the number dropped to 504 in 2016.

According to Natural Gas Intelligence, natural gas from the Appalachian Basin “…hit a roadblock in 2016, as pipeline projects struggled to move forward and a storage glut slowed the region’s previously rapid production growth.” Thus, it appears that in order to maintain fracking’s profitability, the gas industry is relying on new gas-fired power plants to alleviate the storage glut, while potentially increasing demand for shale gas (which could propagate more drilling and fracking).

Gas-Fired Power Plant Siting

The siting of these power plants also enables companies to use Pennsylvanian fracked gas to generate power for larger regional markets. This is because northeastern Pennsylvania is close to dense populations, including New York City. In Luzerne County, for instance, the new Caithness Moxie Freedom Generating Station gas-fired power plant will supply electricity to not just Pennsylvania residents, but also to New Jersey and New York State. And in the more central region of the state in Snyder County, the Panda Hummel Station will send “much of its power to the New York City market.”

Siting gas-fired power plants in the northeast may also increase drilling and fracking in the region, where gas is predominantly “dry”  and less profitable than the “wet” gas found in southwest PA. This trend is largely due to a resurgence in North American petrochemical markets and increased ethane exports that rely on wet gas. (Dry natural gas contains primarily methane and smaller amounts of other hydrocarbons, while wet natural gas has higher concentrations of natural gas liquids. Natural gas liquids — predominantly ethane but also propane, butane, isobutane and pentanes — are the raw materials for manufacturing petrochemicals.)

Well Integrity and Other Risks

However, increased drilling and fracking mean more pollution for the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania, where shale gas wells have proven to be more prone to well construction “impairments” and well integrity problems, compared to conventional wells. This risk is especially true in the northeastern part of the state, where over nine percent of shale gas wells have indications of compromised well integrity.

Overall, fracking causes many public health and environmental problems. Methane, fracking fluids, and wastewater can pollute water supplies and imperil the livelihoods of farmers, who rely on clean water. Increased truck traffic and drilling emissions reduce air quality, and methane leaks contribute to global warming. Meanwhile, the proliferation of natural gas derricks and associated infrastructure destroys pristine landscapes (and related tourism and recreation industries).

The last thing that Pennsylvanians need is another way for the oil and gas industry to capitalize on shale at the expense of residents’ health and well-being.

Photo by David Nix 2015

Documenting Oil and Gas Industry Damage in North Dakota

North Dakota is now in its third oil boom due to the drilling technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that have made once-inaccessible oil accessible. The Bakken formation covers western North Dakota, eastern Montana, and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. At the height of the boom in 2014, just under 12,000 wells were active across the west, extracting 1.1 million barrels (bbl) of oil per day and flaring at 32%. The boom has bumped North Dakota to the second largest oil and gas producing state, second only to Texas.

Dakota Resource Council (DRC) is a member-led, grassroots organization that has been working in extraction-impacted communities in North Dakota since 1978. DRC’s members work on oil and gas campaigns that aim to eliminate impacts to land, air, water, and livelihoods of the citizens of North Dakota. Campaign issues on oil and gas industry damage include: flaring, pipelines, radioactive/oilfield waste, state accountability, and oil-by-rail.

The following photos from DRC show impacts of current and legacy oil and gas extraction in western North Dakota – an area in the heart of the Bakken that is historically a rich agricultural and ranching region. The vast contrast between the two industries are not complementary.

Bear Den Bay Incident

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is the epicenter of fracking in the Bakken. On July 8, 2014 a wastewater pipeline rupture was accidentally discovered in rural Mandaree on the reservation. The pipeline is owned by Crestwood Midstream, LLC – a Texas-based company.

An estimated 1 million gallons of toxic saltwater ran down a ravine, ending up in the tributary of Bear Den Bay, which is located ¼ mile from the city of Mandaree’s water intake. The spill was contained, but the state doesn’t know exactly how much waste went into the bay. Tribal administration released a statement that beaver dams prevented the fluids from reaching the lake.

Weeks after the incident Crestwood released a statement saying:

… while assessment of the effect is ongoing, examination and testing to date show that an area of grass, brush and trees about 200 yards long sustained damage. Some produced water ran down a ravine into natural pools in a small stream at the bottom, but it appears that the produced water stopped there… The impact on fish and wildlife appears to have been minimal, in fact beavers, turtles, frogs, deer and pelicans have been seen returning to and re-inhabiting the impacted area.

To date, there has been no penalty for the damage that has been done to the land and reclamation is ongoing. Below are photos documenting the incident’s effects:

The Legacy of North Dakota Oil Booms

Western North Dakota has weathered through two previous oil booms in the early 1950’s and 1980’s. Previous booms left behind infrastructure that sits abandoned today. Due to hydraulic fracking technology, once-inaccessible oil is now accessible. These pre-existing wells are called legacy wells, that produce roughly 5% of North Dakota’s 1.2 million barrels per day.

Much of these wells contain infrastructure that has been in place for over 60 years. Pipelines have not been mapped or regulated in North Dakota until recently. Farmers are finding underground tanks and pipelines filled with toxic sludge. Just like previous oil booms, North Dakota was not prepared for the cost of extraction. Scroll through the following gallery showing a variety of legacy sites in ND.


By Nicole Donaghy, Dakota Resource Council

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