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Petrochemical development in the Houston, Texas area

COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry

COVID-19 and the oil and gas industry are at odds. Air pollution created by oil and gas activities make people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19. Simultaneously, the economic impact of the pandemic is posing major challenges to oil and gas companies that were already struggling to meet their bottom line. In responding to these challenges, will our elected leaders agree on a stimulus package that prioritizes people over profits?

Health Impacts of COVID-19 and Oil & Gas 

People living in areas with poor air quality may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, a disease that affects the lungs. Poor air quality is linked to higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), even without a pandemic.

Air pollution from oil and gas development can come from compressor stations, condensate tanks, construction activity, dehydrators, engines, fugitive emissions, pits, vehicles, and venting and flaring. The impact is so severe that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost due to increased exposure to pollution. 

Yes, air quality has improved in certain areas of China and elsewhere due to decreased traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite our eagerness for good news, sightings of dolphins in Italian waterways does not mean that mother earth has forgiven us or “hit the reset button.”

Significant environmental health concerns persist, despite some improvements in air quality. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was caused by another coronavirus, patients from areas with the high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to those who lived in places with little pollution.

On March 8th, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke looked at the impacts of air quality improvements under COVID-19, and offered this important caveat: 

“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. Again I emphasize that the effects calculated above are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of social and economic disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms could exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution.  But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e. the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”

This is an environmental justice issue. Higher levels of air pollution tend to be in communities with more poverty, people of color, and immigrants. Other health impacts related to oil and gas activities, from cancer to negative birth outcomes, compromise people’s health, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Plus, marginalized communities experience disproportionate barriers to healthcare as well as a heavier economic toll during city-wide lockdowns.

Financial Instability of the Oil & Gas Industry in the Face of COVID-19 

The COVID-19 health crisis is setting off major changes in the oil and gas industry. The situation may thwart plans for additional petrochemical expansion and cause investors to turn away from fracking for good.

Persistent Negative Returns 

Oil, gas, and petrochemical producers were facing financial uncertainties even before COVID-19 began to spread internationally. Now, the economics have never been worse

In 2019, shale-focused oil and gas producers ended the year with net losses of $6.7 billion. This capped off the decade of the “shale revolution,” during which oil and gas companies spent $189 billion more on drilling and other capital expenses than they brought in through sales. This negative cash flow is a huge red flag for investors.  

“North America’s shale industry has never succeeded in producing positive free cash flows for any full year since the practice of fracking became widespread.” IEEFA

 

Plummeting Prices

Shale companies in the United States produce more natural gas than they can sell, to the extent that they frequently resort to burning gas straight into the atmosphere. This oversupply drives down prices, a phenomenon that industry refers to as a “price glut.”

The oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has been taking a toll on oil and gas prices as well. Saudi Arabia plans to increase oil production by 2 – 3 million barrels per day in April, bringing the global total to 102 million barrels produced per day. But with the global COVID-19 lockdown, transportation has decreased considerably, and the world may only need 90 million barrels per day

If you’ve taken Econ 101, you know that when production increases as demand decreases, prices plummet. Some analysts estimate that the price of oil will soon fall to as low as $5 per barrel, (compared to the OPEC+ intended price of $60 per barrel). 

Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety

Oil and gas industry lobbyists have asked Congress for financial support in response to COVID-19. Two stimulus bills in both the House and Senate are currently competing for aid.

Speaker McConnell’s bill seeks to provide corporate welfare with a $415 billion fund. This would largely benefit industries like oil and gas, airlines, and cruise ships. Friends of the Earth gauged the potential bailout to the fracking industry at $26.287 billion. In another approach, the GOP Senate is seeking to raise oil prices by directly purchasing for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s emergency oil supply.

Speaker Pelosi’s proposed stimulus bill includes $250 billion in emergency funding with stricter conditions on corporate use, but doesn’t contain strong enough language to prevent a massive bailout to oil and gas companies.

Hopefully with public pressure, Democrats will take a firmer stance and push for economic stimulus to be directed to healthcare, paid sick leave, stronger unemployment insurance, free COVID-19 testing, and food security. 

Grasping at straws

Fracking companies were struggling to stay afloat before COVID-19 even with generous government subsidies. It’s becoming very clear that the fracking boom is finally busting. In an attempt to make use of the oversupply of gas and win back investors, the petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly. There are currently plans for $164 billion of new infrastructure in the United States that would turn fracked natural gas into plastic. 

Belmont Cracker Plant - Potential Petrochemical Infrastructure in the Ohio River Valley

The location of the proposed PTTGC Ethane Cracker in Belmont, Ohio. Go to this map.

There are several fundamental flaws with this plan. One is that the price of plastic is falling. A new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) states that the price of plastic today is 40% lower than industry projections in 2010-2013. This is around the time that plans started for a $5.7 billion petrochemical complex in Belmont County, Ohio. This would be the second major infrastructural addition to the planned petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley, the first being the multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Secondly, there is more national and global competition than anticipated, both in supply and production. Natural gas and petrochemical companies have invested in infrastructure in an attempt to take advantage of cheap natural gas, creating an oversupply of plastic, again decreasing prices and revenue. Plus, governments around the world are banning single-use plastics, and McKinsey & Company estimates that up to 60% of plastic production could be based on reuse and recycling by 2050. 

Sharp declines in feedstock prices do not lead to rising demand for petrochemical end products.

Third, oil and gas companies were overly optimistic in their projections of national economic growth. The IMF recently projected that GDP growth will slow down in China and the United States in the coming years. And this was before the historic drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The risks are becoming insurmountable. The price of plastics is sinking and the market is already oversupplied due to industry overbuilding and increased competition,” said Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of finance and author of the report.

 

 

The Show’s Over for Oil & Gas 

Oil, gas, and petrochemical companies are facing perilous prospects from demand and supply sides. Increasing supply does not match up with decreasing demand, and as a result the price of oil and plastics are dropping quickly. Tens of thousands of oil and gas workers are being fired, and more than 200 oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy in North America in the past five years. Investors are no longer interested in propping up failing companies.

Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants. At this point, the economy is bound to move towards cleaner and more economically sustainable energy solutions. 

It’s not always necessary or appropriate to find a “silver lining” in crises, and it’s wrong to celebrate reduced pollution or renewable energy achievements that come as the direct result of illness and death. Everyone’s first priority must be their health and the health of their community. Yet the pandemic has exposed fundamental flaws in our energy system, and given elected leaders a moment to pause and consider how we should move forward.

It is a pivotal moment in terms of global energy production. With determination, the United States can exercise the political willpower to prioritize people over profits– in this case, public health over fossil fuel companies.

Top photo of petrochemical activity in the Houston, Texas area. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk. 

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Freiburg Recycling

The Circular Economy: What it means for Fracking and Plastic

How State Regulations Hold Us back and What Other Countries are doing about Fracking

By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern 

Feature photo of oil and gas drilling in North Dakota, and is by by Nick Lund, NPCA, 2014

 

Although there are some federal regulations in place to protect the environment indirectly from fracking in the United States, the regulations that try to keep fracking in check are largely implemented at the state governing level. This has led to a patchwork of regulations that differ in strictness from state to state. This leads to the concern that there will be a race to the bottom where states lower the strictness of their regulations in order to draw in more fracking. While it might be tempting to welcome an industry that often creates a temporary economic spike, the costs of mitigating the environmental damage from fracking far out-weighs the profit gained. Germany, Scotland, and France are examples of countries that have taken more appropriate regulatory measures to protect their populations from the risks involved in unconventional oil and gas development.

The Shortfalls of State by State Regulations

For a detailed overview of how fracking regulation differs between states, check out the Resources for the Future report, The State of State Shale Gas Regulation, which analyzes 25 regulatory elements and how they differ between states. Two of their maps that attest to this vast difference in regulation are the “Fracturing Fluid Disclosure Requirements” map as well as the “Venting Regulations” map.

The “Fracturing Fluid Disclosure Requirements” map shows regulatory differences between states regarding whether or not the chemical mixture used to break up rock formations must be made known to the public. “Disclosure” means that the chemical mixture is made known to the public and “No Regulation” means that there is nothing that obligates companies to share this information, which usually implies this information is not available.

Fig 1. Map of fracking fluid disclosure requirements by state, from Resources for the Future’s report, “The State of State Shale Gas Regulation.” Original data from US Energy Information Administration.

 

Note from the editor: There are several exemptions that allow states to limit the scope of reporting chemicals used in underground fluid injection for fracking. For example, all states that require chemical disclosure are entitled to exemptions for chemicals that are considered trade secrets.  

Concealing the identity of chemicals increases the risk of harm from chemical exposure for people and the environment. Emergency first responders are especially at risk, as they may have to act quickly to put out a fracking-induced fire without knowing the safety measures necessary to avoid exposure to dangerous chemicals. The population at large is at risk of exposure though several pathways such as leaks, spills, and air emissions. Partnership for Policy Integrity, along with data analysis by FracTracker, investigated the implications of keeping the identity of certain fracking chemicals secret in two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These reports point to evidence that exposure to concealed fracking chemicals could have serious health effects including blood toxicity, developmental toxicity, liver toxicity and neurotoxicity.

 

The second map, “Venting Regulations,” shows which states have regulations that limit or ban venting and which do not. Venting is the direct release of methane from the well site into the atmosphere. Methane has 30 times the green-house gas effect as carbon dioxide. Given methane’s severe impact on the environment, no venting whatsoever should be allowed at well sites.

Fig 2. Map of fracking venting regulations by state, from Resources for the Future’s report, “The State of State Shale Gas Regulation.” Original data from US Energy Information Administration.

Having overarching federal regulatory infrastructure to regulate fracking would help to avoid risks such as toxic chemical exposure and accelerated climate change. Although leaving regulation development to states allows for more specialized laws, there are certain aspects of environmental protection that apply to every area in the United States and are necessary as standard protection against the effects of fracking.

How do other countries regulate fracking?

Stronger federal regulation of fracking has worked well in the past and can be seen in several other countries.

Germany

In 2017, Germany passed new legislation that largely banned unconventional hydraulic fracking. The ban on unconventional fracking excludes four experimental wells per state that will be commissioned by the German government to an independent expert commission to identify knowledge gaps and risks with regards to fracking. Conventional fracking also received tighter regulations including a ban on fracking near drinking water sources. In 2021, the ban will be reevaluated, taking into account research results, public perception, long term damage to residents and the environment, and technological advances. This is a perfect example of how a country can use overarching federal regulation to make informed decisions about industry action.

Scotland

In 2015, Scotland placed a moratorium into effect that halted all fracking in the country. Since 2017, the government has held that the moratorium will stand indefinitely as an effective ban on fracking in the country, but the country is still working on the legislature that will officially ban fracking. Meanwhile, the Scottish government conducted one of the most far-reaching investigations into unconventional oil and gas development, which included a four-month public consultation period. This public consultation garnered 65,000 responses, 65% of which were from former coal mining communities targeted by the fracking industry. Of those responses, 99% of responses opposed fracking.

The Scottish people should be applauded for holding their federal government accountable in fulfilling its responsibility to protect its people and its environment against the effects of fracking.

France

In December 2017, France passed a law that bans exploration and production of all oil and natural gas by the year 2040. This applies to mainland France as well as all French territories. Although France has limited natural gas resources, it is hoped that the ban will be contagious and spread to other countries. This is a prime example of a country making a decision to protect their environment through regulation.

Although France’s banning of fracking was largely symbolic and may not result in a considerable reduction of greenhouse gases related to natural gas exploration, the country is sending a message to the world that we need to facilitate the end of the fossil fuel era and a move toward renewables.

Back to the US, the world’s leading producer of natural gas

Federal regulation on fracking should be holding the oil and gas industry in check by requiring states to meet basic measures to protect people and the environment. States could then develop more stringent regulations as they see fit. It is important that we come to a national consensus on the environmental and health hazards of fracking, and consequently, to adopt appropriate federal regulations.


By Isabelle Weber, FracTracker Alliance Spring 2019 Intern

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Photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Governor Brown’s Climate Summit Heats up Political Climate

Overview

California has become a battleground for real climate action. The state Governor, Jerry Brown prides himself in his own climate leadership, and California has pushed EU nations and countries worldwide to take climate change seriously. As a final tribute to his own tenure as a term-limited governor, Brown has organized and hosted a Global Climate Action Summit, September 12-14th. The summit convenes an international invitation list of “climate leaders” to, in their words:

“Take Ambition to the Next Level.” It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action. It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, frontline communities, community organizers, and grassroots organizations contest the perspective that real change has been made. While investors and green capitalists celebrate, frontline communities fight daily for clean air and water. In solidarity with and led by frontline communities, activists have protested the summit, in an attempt to hold policy makers accountable to those most affected by the fossil fuel industry.

Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice

One quarter of a million people worldwide, and well over 30,000 in San Francisco hit the streets during the Rise for Climate last Saturday, September 8th. With over 900 actions taking place simultaneously people worldwide demanded real climate action from their local leaders. FracTracker Alliance staff helped coordinate and participated in events nationwide.

In San Francisco, the march was led by members of the Indigenous community, making up the Indigenous Bloc, on the frontlines of the action. The day officially started with prayers from Indigenous leaders and a moment of silence for Indigenous Peoples that have been most harmed by the effects of climate change. Dozens of various other movements followed the Indigenous Bloc in a parade of support. FracTracker took the opportunity to document this monumental event, and photos from the march are shown below.

March Photos

For California and international “climate leaders” in attendance, Rise kicked off a long week of climate action culminating with the Global Action Climate Summit. The week is full of activities geared towards movement building, including the Solidarity to Solutions Summit (#sol2sol) by It Takes Roots; Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice, hosted by Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network; and mass actions including a march and occupation of the Global Climate Action Summit!

SB100

To mark such a momentous movement, the Brown administration signed a new bill into law, SB100. The new law, authored by Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), pledges that all of California’s electricity will come from clean power sources by 2045. Brown said, “California is committed to doing whatever is necessary to meet the existential threat of climate change.” This is the most ambitious state climate policy in the U.S. The legislation barely passed the state Legislature after nearly two years of debate, with opponents arguing that it would lead to higher electric bills for all Californians.

Opposition from Eco-Activists

In opposition to the feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the-back feelings from delegates at the summit, frontline communities and activists respond that the SB100 legislation does nothing to stop harms to frontline communities caused by extraction and the supply side of the fossil fuel economy. The Against Climate Capitalism campaign is a coalition of Diablo Rising Tide teamed up with Idle No More SF Bay, the Ruckus Society, It Takes Roots, Indigenous Environmental Network and the Brown’s Last Chance. Members of the coalition have been outspoken proponents organizing in support of real climate leadership. The coalition is pushing for Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature to end the extraction of new fossil fuels in California. The green groups making up these larger coalition networks encompass a broad range research and advocacy groups, from international groups like Greenpeace to local grassroots movements from Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley. FracTracker Alliance is also a campaign member.

The goal of the campaign is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and supports a just transition from a fossil fuel economy to clean energy sources. A petition to pressure California Governor Jerry Brown to end fossil fuel extraction can be found on their website. The California legislature and the Brown administration has consistently failed to address the impacts of extraction in its own backyard. While frontline communities are suffering, the Brown administration continues to take the easy way out with future legislation such as SB100, which does nothing to address the environmental justice spector of actual oil drilling and production. In response to SB100, the campaign has issued response:

  • Governor Brown has consistently failed to address the supply side of oil and the drilling in California, which is an indispensable step to avoid the worst effects of climate destruction.
  • Some 5.4 million Californians live within a mile of at least one oil or gas well, and this includes hundreds of thousands of children. Many suffer illnesses from toxic exposure and cannot wait for action.
  • Brown’s failure to act on this issue is a massive moral failure from which no bill signing can distract. Despite his signing of an important and historical bill he did nothing to draft or support, Governor Brown can expect to be greeted with energetic and committed protest at the Global Climate Action summit this week.

With these poignant criticisms, it begs the question; how can Governor Jerry Brown continue to ignore the actual cause of climate change? Brown has passed legislation ensuring that everyday Californians will bear the costs for clean energy utilities, but has done nothing to hold accountable the actual culprits responsible for climate change, the oil and gas corporations extracting the 5.7 million barrels of oil per year from California soil.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

Cover photo: Brown’s Las Change Billboard. Photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Tracking the Movement Against Fossil Fuels

Energy use — whether for heating, cooking, transportation, or manufacturing — is a fact of life for humans on our planet. From the most subsistence-level village life, to the largest metropolises in the world, energy is consumed. But fossil fuels are not a sustainable source of energy. Fossil fuels, by their very nature, are finite in quantity, and increasingly more expensive to extract as the most accessible stores are tapped.

Fossil fuel consumption by-products are driving CO2 and methane to accumulate in the atmosphere, leading towards what most scientists think will be a tipping point to irreversible climate chaos (see image below).

Alternatives to fossil fuels not only exist, but in many cases, are becoming more affordable (see additional information on solar afforability here) than the environmentally-destructive oil, gas, and coal-burning options. Technological advances are changing the way people around the world can live, with cleaner, greener, and more equitable energy sources, as well as more conservation-focused consumption patterns.

Recognizing the benefits to transitioning away from fossil fuels, communities across the US and world-wide, are saying NO to fossil fuel extraction and YES to renewable energy: solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro power, as well as electric vehicles when the electricity that supplies them is renewably generated. Below, and in the following map, we are tracking this movement to a clean energy future.

The Resistance – Movements Against Fossil FuelsThe Resistance - Movements against fossil fuelsView Live Map |  How FracTracker maps work

Municipal law-making

At least 35 communities in California and Washington State have passed resolutions against off-shore drilling. On the East Coast, from Florida to New York State, 44 municipalities have passed resolutions opposing seismic blasting, a form of exploration for oil and gas that has disastrous impacts on marine life, including threatened and endangered marine mammals. What’s further, 105 communities have come out against a combination of offshore drilling and seismic blasting, and at least 26 have taken a stand against offshore drilling.

In Florida, where several bills that would prohibit fracking statewide have been in play for the past few years, individual municipalities have registered their opposition. 43 have signed resolutions opposing fracking, and 7 communities, including Zephyr Hills, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Coconut Creek, Dade City, Estero, and St. Petersburg, have passed full ordinances against fracking within their boundaries. In addition to resolutions against drilling in 25 Florida counties, 13 counties in Florida have passed legislation fully banning fracking. These counties are Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Citrus, Indian River, Madison, Osceola, Pinellas, Seminole, St. Lucie, Volusia, Wakulla, and Walton.

In Connecticut, where the geology is not suitable for oil and gas extraction, communities are still proactively protecting themselves against one byproduct of extreme oil and gas extraction: fracking waste disposal. While historically, there are no known instances of fracking waste being exported to Connecticut for disposal, as of March 2018, 46 municipalities are considering rules to ban future disposal of oil and gas wastes within their boundaries, while another 45 have already outlawed the practice, as of late May 2018.

New York State has had a state-wide ban against high-volume hydraulic fracturing since December of 2014. New York led the way in home-rule backed municipal bans and moratoria (temporary prohibitions). Since 2011, 92 NYS municipalities have instituted bans against fracking, and 96 towns, cities, and village have passed moratoria — most of which have now expired. At least another 88 municipalities have also considered banning the practice, prior to the more comprehensive state-wide ban.

The state of Vermont has also banned fracking, and Maryland has instituted a long-term moratorium. Outside of New York State, another 51 municipalities — from Australia to Italy, and New Jersey to California — have passed local ordinances banning fracking. Five countries — Bulgaria, France, Ireland, Germany, and Scotland — have banned the practice altogether. The countries of Wales, The Netherlands, and Uruguay have active moratoria. Moratoria are also currently in place in Cantabria, Spain; Victoria, Australia; Newfoundland, Canada; Paraná, Brazil; Entre Rios, Argentina; and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as well as the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Crossing Boundaries

Coordinated efforts are happening — across state lines, linking urban and rural communities — to fight new fossil fuel infrastructure on local and regional levels. On both sides of the New York / Connecticut border, communities are uniting against the Cricket Valley Energy Center, an 1,100 MW fracked gas-powered plant that opponents say presents environmental and human health risks and diverts NYS’s renewable energy focus back to fossil fuels.

More than 30 communities in Pennsylvania along the route of the proposed PennEast pipeline have passed resolutions opposing that pipeline. Nearly 80 communities in New York and New Jersey have come out against the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline, designed to carry light crude from the Port of Albany to the Atlantic Coast refineries. And a plan by Crestwood/ Stagecoach Energy to store hydrocarbons in abandoned salt caverns along the shores of Seneca Lake in the scenic Finger Lakes Region of central New York met unprecedented sharp opposition. As of early 2018, over 32 towns and counties, and close to 400 local businesses had signed resolutions opposing the gas storage plans. Pressure from business and government interests likely contributed to scaling down of the storage plans from butane, ethane, and natural gas, to only LNG.

Unconventional Bans

A 2013 ban on fracking in Hawai’i was met initially with some puzzlement, since there are no oil and gas deposits within the lava-created rock that makes up the Big Island. However, this ban was not against fracking for gas; rather, it dealt with fracking to harness geothermal energy. The Puna Geothermal Venture Plant, located on Hawaii’s highly geologically active East Rift Zone, was controversial when it was built twenty-five years ago. Now, with lava already on the property and poised to potentially inundate the facility, opponents are pushing for its complete closure — if the plant survives the massive flow from Kilauea, now devastating Lower Puna, that started in early May 2018.

Transportation Concerns

Fossil fuels are transported through a variety of mechanisms. Pipelines are the most common means of conveyance; the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that 3 million miles of oil and gas transmission and delivery pipelines crisscross the US. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimated in 2014 that there were nearly 1.6 million miles of gas transmission pipelines in the US, and another 160,521 miles of oil pipelines.  Pipeline safety has been a concern for years, and as pipeline build-out continues, so does the litany of accidents due to failures.

A widely used alternative to moving light crude via pipelines is to transport it by rail, from oil fields in Canada and the Dakotas to coastal refineries. In 2014, crude oil production from North Dakota was nearly 1 million barrels per day. The same year, Texas was producing 2.9 million barrels per day. Statistics from the Association of American Railroads (NY Times, 4/12/2014) indicate that in 2013, 407,642 carloads (700 barrels = 1 carload) of crude oil were shipped across the US. That’s more than 285 million barrels, or about 80% of the crude oil shipped to port, that were transported via rail.

Accidents resulting from the derailment of freight cars carrying crude oil can be disastrous to both human communities, and to the environment. The Lac-Mégantic derailment in July, 2013 resulted in a death toll of 47, and the near complete devastation of the downtown of this small Quebec town. Benzene contamination at the site was heavy, and the Chaudière River was contaminated with 26,000 gallons of the light crude, which impacted towns 50 miles downstream.

The disaster at Lac-Mégantic led to a rallying cry among policy-makers, regulators, and environmentalists, who continued to raise awareness of the risks of “crude by rail”, or, as the freight cars are often known, “bomb trains”. Within 2 years after the disaster, over 180 communities from Washington State, to California, to New York, and New Jersey, passed local resolutions demanding better safety regulations, and exhorting officials to stop shipping crude through their communities.

Earlier research by FracTracker Alliance on “bomb train” routes through major New York urban centers like Buffalo and Rochester showed dozens of K-12 public and private schools are within the ½-mile blast zones. Without adequate evacuation plans, the injury or loss of life — were a derailment to happen within the cities — could be extensive. The importance of public critique about the transportation of light crude by rail cannot be overstated.

Transitions to renewable energy

communities making it happen

The answer to a clean and renewable energy future, while rooted in the resistance to fossil fuel build out, consists of much more than protesting, and saying “NO”. A clean energy future requires goal-setting, and a vision to commit to change. It takes communities investing in a healthy future for all community members—today, tomorrow, and into the next century.

Clean, Renewable Energy MovementsThe Resistance - Clean Energy MovementsView Live Map |  How FracTracker maps work

To that end, nearly 350 communities worldwide (so far) have set tangible goals to transition off fossil fuels – see map above. These communities are our beacons for a sustainable planet. They take seriously the dangerous ecological cascades posed by climate change and have made creative and conscious commitments to future generations of Earth’s biota.

350

Communities Worldwide

As of early 2018, at least 62 cities in the US have set goals for being powered by renewable energy before the middle of the 21st century according to Sierra Club’s tally of municipalities striving for clean energy power. Five of these communities — Kodiak Island, AK; Rock Port, MO; Greensburg, KS, Burlington, VT; and Aspen, CO, have already met their goals. EcoWatch collected information on over 100 cities around the world that are now powered by at least 70% renewables, and the organization CDP noted close to 200 cities and towns with ambitious targets for renewable power within the next two decades.

Across the US, over 27,300 MW of commercial solar has been installed as of April, 2018.  And currently, wind turbines provide close to 59,000 MW of clean energy, nationwide.  As of June, 2018, there were more than 18,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country.  While many municipalities are committed to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, we have a long way to go. Change must happen exponentially in order to meet ambitious goals of even 50% renewable energy in the next decade. For example, in 2011, New York State was meeting approximately 19% of its energy needs from renewable energy—largely from hydropower. Governor Cuomo’s “50 by 30” plan—mandating a clean energy standard of 50% renewables by 2030—sets forth goals that will require aggressive advocacy, the will of decision-makers, economic funding and incentives, education, and the steadfast insistence of the citizenry if we are to have a chance at slowing climate change and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Other resources on resistance

On every continent of the planet, there are citizen-based movements to address the impacts of coal on the environment. CoalSwarm has compiled a dynamic listing on a country-by-country basis. Similarly, a sister project, FrackSwarm, is a clearinghouse for citizen’s movements around the world that are addressing the impacts of fracking. Both CoalSwarm and FrackSwarm advocate strongly for a movement to clean energy everywhere. Both sites feature detailed background information on movements around the world and are partner projects to SourceWatch and the Center for Media and Democracy.

Halt the Harm Network, another organization closely allied with FracTracker Alliance, has developed a robust network of groups leading the fights against the oil and gas industry. Their database is searchable by skills, geography, and interests. Many of the organizations included in their database are also included in this map of resistance advocacy and activism groups fighting for a clean energy future.

Last, but not least, in 2017, FracTracker Alliance partnered with E2 to create a resource called “Mapping Clean Energy: New York”. You can view the maps that show clean energy jobs, solar, wind, and electric vehicle resources here. FracTracker also developed clean energy interactive maps for Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri.

Next steps

FracTracker will continue to update our Clean Energy Action Maps project, and actively solicit input and feedback from the public. If your advocacy group is not listed on our maps above, please complete the form at the bottom of the project page. We’ll compile public input, and regularly add new organizations to this resource.


Of note: We will soon be retiring our Alliance Map in favor of these maps, as we believe it is extremely important to capture the depth and breadth of the movements against fossil fuels and in support of renewables. This project is our effort to make connections across the globe, whether or not we are in direct communication with the groups on the maps.

If you have any questions about this work, please email: info@fractracker.org.

Global oil refineries map by FracTracker - Ted Auch

Tracking Global Oil Refineries and their Emissions

Potential Conflict Hotspots and Global Productivity Choke Points

Today, FracTracker is releasing a complete inventory of all 536 global oil refineries, along with estimates of daily capacity, CO2 emissions per year, and various products. These data have also been visualized in the map below.

Total productivity from these refineries amounts to 79,372,612 barrels per day (BPD) of oil worldwide, according to the data we were able to compile. However, based on the International Energy Agency, global production is currently around 96 million BPD, which means that our capacity estimates are more indicative of conditions between 2002 and 2003 according to BP’s World Oil Production estimates. We estimate this disparity is a result of countries’ reluctance to share individual refinery values or rates of change due to national security concerns or related strategic reasons.

These refineries are emitting roughly 260-283 billion metric tons (BMT) of CO2[1], 1.2-1.3 BMT of methane and 46-51 million metric tons of nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere each year. The latter two compounds have climate change potentials equivalent to 28.2-30.7 BMT and 14.1-15.3 BMT CO2, respectively.

66 million

Assuming the planet’s 7.6 billion people emit 4.9-5.0 metric tons per capita of CO2 per year, emissions from these 536 refineries amounts to the CO2 emissions of 52-57 million people. If you include the facilities’ methane and N2O emissions, this figure rises to 61-66 million people equivalents every year, essentially the populations of the United Kingdom or France.

Map of global oil refineries


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | View static map | Download map data

BP’s data indicate that the amount of oil being refined globally is increasing by 923,000 BPD per year (See Figure 1). This increase is primarily due to improved productivity from existing refineries. For example, BP’s own Whiting, IN refinery noted a “$4-billion revamp… to boost its intake of Canadian crude oil from 85,000 bpd to 350,000 bpd.”

Figure 1. Global Oil Production 1965 to 2016 (barrels per day)

Figure 1. Global Oil Production, 1965 to 2016 (barrels per day) – Data courtesy of British Petroleum (BP) World Oil Production estimates.

 

Potential Hotspots and Chokepoints

Across the globe, countries and companies are beginning to make bold predictions about their ability to refine oil.

Nigeria, for example, recently claimed they would be increasing oil refining capacity by 13% from 2.4 to 2.7 million BPD. Currently, however, our data indicate Nigeria is only producing a fraction of this headline number (i.e., 445,000 BPD). The country’s estimates seem to be more indicative of conditions in Nigeria in the late 1960s when oil was first discovered in the Niger Delta. Learn more.

Is investing in – and doubling down on – oil refining capacity a smart idea for Nigeria’s people and economy, however? At this point, the country’s population is 3.5 times greater than it was in the 60’s and is growing at a remarkable rate of 2.7% per year. Yet, Nigeria’s status as one of the preeminent “Petro States” has done very little for the majority of its population – The oil industry and the Niger Delta have become synonymous with increased infant mortality and rampant oil spills.

Sadly, the probability that the situation will improve in a warming – and more politically volatile – world is not very likely. 

Such a dependency on oil price has been coupled to political instability in Nigeria, prompting some to question whether the discovery of oil was a cure or a curse given that the country depends on oil prices – and associated volatility – to balance its budget: Of all the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) countries, Nigeria is near the top of the list when it comes to the price of oil the country needs to balance its budget – Deutsche Bank and IMF estimate $123 per barrel as their breaking point. This is a valuation that oil has only exceeded or approached 4.4% of the time since 1987 (See Figure 2).

Former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Charles Soludo, once put this reliance in context:

… For too long, we have lived with borrowed robes, and I think for the next generation, for the 400 million Nigerians expected in this country by the year 2050, oil cannot be the way forward for the future.

Other regions are also at risk from the oil market’s power and volatility. In Libya, for example, the Ras Lanuf oil refinery (with a capacity of 220,000 BPD) and the country’s primary oil export terminal in Brega were the focal point of the Libyan civil war in 2011. Not coincidentally, Libya also happens to be the Petro State that needs the highest per-barrel price for oil to balance its budget (See Figure 2). Muammar Gaddafi and the opposition, National Transitional Council, jostled for control of this pivotal choke point in the Africa-to-Europe hydrocarbon supply chain.

The fact that refineries like these – and others in similarly volatile regions of the Middle East – produce an impressive 10% (7,166,900 BPD) of global demand speaks to the fragility of these Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex focal points, as well as the planet’s fragile dependence on fossil fuels going forward.

Weekly Spot Price of Brent Sweet Crude ($ Per Barrel) and estimates of the prices OPEC/Petro States need to balance their budgets.

Figure 2. Weekly Spot Price of Brent Sweet Crude ($ Per Barrel) and estimates of the prices OPEC/Petro States need to balance their budgets.

 

Dividing Neighbors

These components of the fossil fuel industry, and their associated feedstocks and pipelines, will continue to divide neighbors and countries as political disenfranchisement and inequality grow, the climate continues to change, and resource limitations put increasing stress on food security and watershed resiliency worldwide.

Not surprisingly, every one of these factors places more strain on countries and weakens their ability to govern responsibly.

Thus, many observers speculate that these factors are converging to create a kind of perfect storm that forces OPEC governments and their corporate partners to lean even more heavily on their respective militaries and for-profit private military contractors (PMCs) to prevent social unrest while insuring supply chain stability and shareholder return.[2,3] The increased reliance on PMCs to provide domestic security for energy infrastructure is growing and evolving to the point where in some countries it may be hard to determine where a state’s sovereignty ends and a PMC’s dominance begins – Erik Prince’s activities in the Middle East and Africa on China’s behalf and his recent aspirations for Afghanistan are a case in point.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, whiskey is for drinking and hydrocarbons are for fighting over. 

The international and regional unaccountability of PMCs has added a layer of complexity to this conversation about energy security and independence. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela provide examples of how fragile political stability is, and more importantly how dependent this stability is on oil refinery production and what OPEC is calling ‘New Optimism.’ To be sure, PMCs are playing an increasing role in political (in)stability and energy production and transport. Since knowledge and transparency are essential for peaceful resolutions, we will continue to map and chronicle the intersections of geopolitics, energy production and transport, social justice, and climate change.


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance; and Bryan Stinchfield, Associate Professor of Organization Studies, Department Chair of Business, Organizations & Society, Franklin & Marshall College


Relevant Data

Footnotes and References

  1. Assuming a tons of CO2 to barrels of oil per day ratio of 8.99 to 9.78 tons of CO2 per barrel of oil based on an analysis we’ve conducted of 146 refineries in the United States.
  2. B. Stinchfield.  2017.  “The Creeping Privatization of America’s Armed Forces”.  Newsweek, May 28th, 2017, New York, NY.
  3. R. Gray.  “Erik Prince’s Plan to Privatize the War in Afghanistan”.  The Atlantic, August 18th, 2017, New York, NY.
Downtown Pittsburgh, PA - Photo by Brook Lenker after Climate Reality Project in 2017

Empowered by Reality – Reflections on Climate Reality

In October, Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project invigorated Pittsburgh like an autumn breeze. Never before had 1,400 people assembled in the region for the shared purpose of solving the climate crisis. The ground almost shook from the positive energy. It was induced seismicity of a better kind.

About the Climate Reality Project

The event occupied the David Lawrence Convention Center, a LEED Platinum facility providing the ultimate venue for a training session about saving our planet. The Nobel Laureate and former Vice President, joined by notable scientists, dignitaries, and communication experts, peppered three-days with passion and insight. The participants – who had to complete a rigorous application to attend – came from Pennsylvania, other states, and other countries. Their backgrounds were as diverse as their geographic origins. Seasoned activists were joined by faith leaders, students, educators, researchers, philanthropists, public health professionals, and business persons. A deep concern about humanity’s future was the common bond.

Together, we comprised the largest Climate Leadership Corps class ever. There are now more than 13,000 well-prepared voices speaking truth to power around the world to accelerate clean energy and foster sustainability. The ranks will continue to rise.

Unequivocal facts and figures affirmed that time is running out unless we expedite our energy transition. Most people don’t question gravity, but some question climate change despite scientific certainty about both. Jumping off a cliff is deadly and so is leaping off the metaphorical cliff of denial. When it comes to these issues, we were taught to find and focus on shared values. Everyone, even the cynic, cares about a person, place, or thing that will be irrevocably affected by man-made climate chaos.

Good for the planet, people, and jobs

Everyone needs a job, and embracing renewables and building smart, efficient energy systems creates a lot of them. In the U.S., solar energy jobs are growing 17 times faster than the overall economy.[1] Today, there are over 2.6 million Americans employed in the solar, wind, and energy efficiency sectors.[2] These safe, well-paying positions will continue to grow over time, but they’ll grow faster if government at every scale accelerates the new economy with supportive policies, programs, decisions and resources. In the process, we’ll build wealth and opportunity. If we don’t do what’s needed and its fossil fuel business as usual, we’ll have polluted air, sickened landscapes, and an economy in decline.

Hope – a bridge to somewhere better

On the afternoon that training ends, the weather is unusually warm and has been for days, another reminder that normal is long gone. Hope fills the void. I walk the Rachel Carson Bridge, named for the conservation giant who warned of the dangers of putting unfettered profit before the good of people and nature. Atop her bridge, wind turbines whirl, whispering intelligent tidings to all who will listen.

If you’d like to schedule a hope-filled climate reality project presentation in your community, please contact us at info@fractracker.org


References

  1. The Solar Foundation, Solar Accounts for 1 in 50 New U.S. Jobs in 2016, February 7, 2017.
  2. Environmental Entrepreneurs, 3 Million Clean Energy Jobs in America, February 2017.
Lofoten Declaration heading

A Declaration of Independence – FracTracker signs the Lofoten Declaration

FracTracker Alliance is proud to be a signatory of the Lofoten Declaration. It is a global call – signed by over 220 organizations from 55 countries – to put an end to exploration and expansion of new fossil fuel reserves and manage the decline of oil, coal, and gas in a just transition to a safer climate future.

It is also a call to prioritize support for communities on the front lines of climate change and fossil fuel extraction, and ideally a helpful tool to rally our global movement around the worldwide grassroots efforts to stop fossil fuel projects.

Wealthy fossil fuel producers like the United States have an obligation and responsibility to lead in putting an end to fossil fuel exploitation. Support for impacted regions is imperative, and frontline communities are the leaders we must look to as we all work together for a safer future.

The recent inundation of southeastern Texas, raging fires in the west, and ravaging hurricanes in the Atlantic underscore the dangers wrought by climate change. We need more action and we need it to be rapid, comprehensive, and systemic. Countries can’t be climate leaders until they tackle fossil fuel production – not just consumption.

The Lofoten Declaration is a new affirmation of independence: a world free from the injustice of extractive energy. It is a bold, righteous pronouncement in step with the courageous and visionary traditions of our nation.

With more than 1.2 million active oil and gas wells and thousands more planned, now is the time for America to change its old, tired habits and flex its might through the virtuous power of example.

Full Declaration and Signatories: LofotenDeclaration.org

Stock photo - European Renewable Energy Tour 2018

Participate in a European Renewable Energy Tour with FracTracker & Ecologic Institute

Next spring, join FracTracker Alliance and Ecologic Institute on a unique and timely European Renewable Energy Tour. Witness the incredible – and essential – energy revolution happening in Europe in an immersive, holistic way.

Europe’s energy policies are set to reduce dependence on foreign providers of fossil fuels, and substantially reduce the region’s climate change footprint.  In addition to learning how select European cities are expanding their renewable energy portfolios, the goal of this trip is to stimulate and inspire new perspectives and connections that will accelerate a better energy future in the United States.

Save the dates: May 27, 2018 – June 2, 2018

The full price of the tour ($1990.00*) includes all site visits, meetings, admission fees, 14 meals (except alcoholic beverages), accommodations, and in-Europe travel from Copenhagen, to Hamburg, to Berlin, to Frankfurt. The fee includes a small donation to both partnering organizations. International flights to Copenhagen and from Frankfurt (back to the U.S.) are not included. Financial assistance may be available. Contact us for more information.

The deadline to buy your tickets has been extended to December 31, 2017. We hope you will join us for this unique, 7-day educational experience. 


Renewable Energy Tour Summary

  • Dates: May 27 – June 2, 2018
  • Stops: Copenhagen | Hamburg | Berlin | Frankfurt
  • Draft itinerary

Timeline

  • Deposit due December 31, 2017: $995 (Extended)
  • Balance due March 1, 2018: $995
  • Or – pay in full by December 31, 2017: $1,990
  • A $300 discount on the full price of the tour is available for people who would like to opt for double occupancy accommodations.

Price Includes

  • All lodging *
  • 14 meals
  • In-Europe train tickets **
  • Group taxi and bus fares
  • Guided services
  • Entry fees for all tours
  • Financial assistance may be available. Contact us for more information.

* Double occupancy receives a $300 discount. Select the Double Occupancy option when purchasing your tickets.

** Airfare to and from Europe is not included in the total price of the trip. Participants should book their flights to arrive in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 27th, departing for the US from Frankfurt, Germany on June 2, 2018.

Contact Information

Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance
lenker@fractracker.org or (717) 303-0403

The deadline to submit your deposit online is December 31, 2017.

2016 New FracTracker Logo

Welcome to FracTracker Alliance 2.0

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

The understanding of fracking’s harms has grown dramatically in the last decade, especially since FracTracker’s formation in 2010. Across the country and around the world, environmental and human health impacts of oil and gas development have been well documented. Every day brings new cause for concern.

During this same period, scientific and public awareness about the consequences and causation of climate change has accelerated and we watch with trepidation as profound changes grip our planet. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have eclipsed 400 ppm. Temperature records are repeatedly broken. Weather extremes have become routine.

These tragic realities aren’t acceptable. Nationally and internationally, hundreds – if not thousands – of organizations are working on these issues and speaking out for transparency, accountability, and progress. Progress means informed populations, responsible policies, and an aggressive shift to renewable energy while embracing efficiency. Great things are happening. The future demands boldness.

FracTracker has always been a data-driven resource for all – to educate, empower, and catalyze positive change. The Alliance in our name underscores that we are an ally with the multitudes in that quest, but the weight of the times requires us to revisit our mission statement (below) and sharpen our message to better convey what we do and why we do it. A new logo and tagline reinforce our pronouncement.

FracTracker Alliance studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development to protect the planet and support the renewable energy transformation.

So, welcome to the freshened words and appearance of the FracTracker Alliance. We’re the same trusted organization but striving to be bolder, to make a bigger difference for us all. The future is now.

New FracTracker Alliance 2.0 Logo without tagline


If you have questions about these organizational changes, please email us at info@fractracker.org, or call +1 202-630-6426.

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