We first released this map in February of 2020. In the year since, the world’s energy systems have experienced record changes. Explore the interactive map, updated by FracTracker Alliance in April, 2021.
The map below shows 6,950 total incidents since 2010, translating to 1.7 incidents per day. Pipelines are dangerous, in part because regulation around them is ineffective.
A new collaboration between FracTracker Alliance and Algalita is aiming to help middle school and high school students understand the connection between plastics and fracking — and the wide ranging implications for climate change, environmental injustice, and human health.
Most young people today understand that plastics are problematic. But, there is still often a disconnect between the symptom of plastics in our oceans, and the root causes of the problem. Algalita’s mission is to empower a new generation of critical thinkers to shift the broken and unjust systems that are causing the plastic pollution crisis. Algalita’s strategy is creating educational experiences directly with the movement’s diverse leaders, and this new project with FracTracker is a perfect example.
Specifically, Algalita and FracTracker have been working together to add new lessons to Algalita’s brand-new online, gamified, action platform: Wayfinder Society. Through this program, students can guide their own exploration of the complexities of the plastics issue, and can take action at their own pace and scale, by completing lessons and action-items (called Waymarks) based on difficulty, topic, and type of impact.
The first of two FracTracker Waymarks outlines the connection between fracking and plastic production. Students explore a map showing the full plastics production process from fracking pads, to pipelines, to ethane crackers, and packaging factories.
In a second Waymark that builds off of the first, students explore the massive petrochemical buildout on the Gulf Coast and in the Ohio River Valley. The map allows students to analyze the greenhouse gas emissions predicted for this buildout using the data point pop-up boxes. They can also examine the effects of climate change on communities amongst the buildout by viewing the coastal flood zone areas in Texas and Louisiana. Beyond that, students can investigate how facilities are impacting their peers in schools close to massive ethane cracker facilities. Finally, students are introduced to the movement’s #PlasticFreePresident Campaign, giving them a direct action to apply their new knowledge.
Mapping Fracking’s Link to Plastic Production
This StoryMap was created by FracTracker for Wayfinder Society, a program by Algalita. Learn more at Algalita.org. Place your cursor over the image and scroll down to advance the StoryMap and explore a series of maps charting the fracking-for-plastic system. Click on the icon in the bottom left to view the legend. Scroll to the end of the StoryMap to learn more and access the data sources.
View Full Sized Map | Updated 11/20
Algalita is excited about this partnership for so many reasons. For one, GIS is a critical skill for young people to learn. These two Waymarks pose an accessible and non-intimidating introduction to ArcGIS by using simple maps and StoryMaps like the one above. The maps let students get comfortable with GIS concepts and capabilities like layers, data attribute tables, measuring tools, and filters. Allowing students to explore how plastics are produced through a geographical lens provides a unique visual and interactive experience for them. The goal is for students to be able to connect petrochem buildout, with the plastics, climate and justice issues that they are focusing on — often separately. Our aim is that by putting this part of the story in context of real physical space they will more easily make those connections. We hope these lessons spark some students’ interest in mapping, geography, and GIS, providing a new generation of changemakers with GIS in their toolbox.
On top of that, we are stoked to be building this partnership with FracTracker because the success of our collective movement depends on strong, clear communication and synergies between the nodes of the movement’s network. The FracTracker Waymarks give our Wayfinders direct access to real-time data, visualizations, and expert insights that they can then use to level-up their actions and stories around their activism. And, they connect the dots not just for students, but also for educators and movement partners like us at Algalita — we are all for this powerful lever for change!
Check out Wayfinder Society here. Access the FracTracker Waymarks here and here — but you’ll need to be logged in. If you’re a student, get started by creating a profile, and then start earning Cairns (points)! If you’re an educator, parent or mentor, and interested in exploring the site, email us here for the guest login.
By Anika Ballent, Education Director, Algalita
Algalita empowers a new generation of critical thinkers who will shift the broken and unjust systems that are causing the plastic pollution crisis. We do this by offering educational experiences created directly with the movement’s diverse leaders.
Anika has been working in the movement against plastic pollution for ten years, studying microplastics in benthic and freshwater environments. She brings together her science background and creativity to educate young changemakers through hands-on experiences in schools, Algalita’s International Youth Summit, and online programs.
References & Where to Learn More
Falcon Pipeline: Shell/AECOM and FracTracker Alliance
Greenhouse gas emission increases: Environmental Integrity Project. (2020, November 30). Emission Increase Database. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.
All other data points were mapped by FracTracker Alliance referencing various online sources. While this map is based on actual infrastructure, it is intended as a model of the fracking-for-plastic lifecycle and certain steps may vary in real life.
Topics in This Article
In this article, we’ll take a look at the current trend in “re-branding” incineration as a viable option to deal with the mountains of garbage generated by our society. Incineration can produce energy for electricity, but can the costs—both economically, and ecologically—justify the benefits? What are the alternatives?
Changes in our waste stream
In today’s world of consumerism and production, waste disposal is a chronic problem facing most communities worldwide. Lack of attention to recycling and composting, as well as ubiquitous dependence on plastics, synthetics, and poorly-constructed or single-use goods has created a waste crisis in the United States. So much of the waste that we create could be recycled or composted, however, taking extraordinary levels of pressure off our landfills. According to estimates in 2017 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 30 percent of municipal solid waste is made up of organic matter like food waste, wood, and yard trimmings, almost all of which could be composted. Paper, glass, and metals – also recyclable – make up nearly 40 percent of the residential waste stream. Recycling plastic, a material which comprises 13% of the waste stream, has largely been a failed endeavor thus far.
Figure 1: A breakdown of the 267.78 million tons of municipal waste that were generated in the US in 2017. Source: figure developed by FracTracker Alliance, based on 2017 EPA data. Source: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials
Nevertheless, of the approximately 400 million tons of plastic produced annually around the world, only about 10% of it is recycled. The rest winds up in the waste stream or as microfragments (or microplastics) in our oceans, freshwater lakes, and streams.
Figure 2: Increase in global plastics production, 1950-2015, Source: Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700782. Available at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782 Referenced in https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
According to an EPA fact sheet, by 2017, municipal solid waste generation increased three-fold compared with 1960. In 1960, that number was 88.1 million tons. By 2017, this number had risen to nearly 267.8 million tons. Over that same period, per-capita waste generation rose from 2.68 pounds per person per day, to 4.38 pounds per person per day, as our culture became more wed to disposable items.
The EPA provides a robust “facts and figures” breakdown of waste generation and disposal here. In 2017, 42.53 million tons of US waste was shipped to landfills, which are under increasing pressure to expand and receive larger and larger loads from surrounding area, and, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.
How are Americans doing in reducing waste?
On average, in 2017, Americans recycled and composted 35.2% of our individual waste generation rate of 4.51 pounds per person per day. While this is a notable jump from decades earlier, much of the gain appears to be in the development of municipal yard waste composting programs. Although the benefits of recycling are abundantly clear, in today’s culture, according to a PEW Research Center report published in 2016, just under 30% of Americans live in communities where recycling is strongly encouraged. An EPA estimate for 2014 noted that the recycling rate that year was only 34.6%, nationwide, with the highest compliance rate at 89.5% for corrugated boxes.
Figure 3. Percent of Americans who report recycling and re-use behaviors in their communities, via Pew Research center
Historically, incineration – or burning solid waste – has been one method for disposing of waste. And in 2017, this was the fate of 34 million tons—or nearly 13%– of all municipal waste generated in the United States. Nearly a quarter of this waste consisted of containers and packaging—much of that made from plastic. The quantity of packaging materials in the combusted waste stream has jumped from only 150,000 tons in 1970 to 7.86 million tons in 2017. Plastic, in its many forms, made up 16.4% of all incinerated materials, according to the EPA’s estimates in 2017.
Figure 4: A breakdown of the 34.03 tons of municipal waste incinerated for energy in the US in 2017
What is driving the abundance of throw-away plastics in our waste stream?
Sadly, the answer is this: The oil and gas industry produces copious amounts of ethane, which is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Plastics are an “added value” component of the cycle of fossil fuel extraction. FracTracker has reported extensively on the controversial development of ethane “cracker” plants, which chemically change this extraction waste product into feedstock for the production of polypropylene plastic nuggets. These nuggets, or “nurdles,” are the building blocks for everything from fleece sportswear, to lumber, to packaging materials. The harmful impacts from plastics manufacturing on air and water quality, as well as on human and environmental health, are nothing short of stunning.
FracTracker has reported extensively on this issue. For further background reading, explore:
- A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker (2/8/2017)
- Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure (5/3/2017)
- Piecing Together an Ethane Cracker: How fragmented approvals and infrastructure favor petrochemical development (5/31/2017)
- PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project: Risks of Bringing Plastic Manufacturing to Ohio (11/30/2018)
- Mapping the Petrochemical Build-Out Along the Ohio River (7/10/2019)
A report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity in 2019 found that plastic production and incineration in 2019 contributed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 189 new 500-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2050, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 615 coal-fired power plants.
Figure 5: Projected carbon dioxide equivalencies in plastics emissions, 2019-2050. Source: Plastic and Climate https://www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate/
Just another way of putting fossil fuels into our atmosphere
Incineration is now strongly critiqued as a dangerous solution to waste disposal as more synthetic and heavily processed materials derived from fossils fuels have entered the waste stream. Filters and other scrubbers that are designed to remove toxins and particulates from incineration smoke are anything but fail-safe. Furthermore, the fly-ash and bottom ash that are produced by incineration only concentrate hazardous compounds even further, posing additional conundrums for disposal.
Incineration as a means of waste disposal, in some states is considered a “renewable energy” source when electricity is generated as a by-product. Opponents of incineration and the so-called “waste-to-energy” process see it as a dangerous route for toxins to get into our lungs, and into the food stream. In fact, Energy Justice Network sees incineration as:
… the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste – far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy – far more polluting than coal burning.
Municipal waste incineration: bad environmentally, economically, ethically
Waste incineration has been one solution for disposing of trash for millennia. And now, aided by technology, and fueled by a crisis to dispose of ever-increasing trash our society generates, waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration facilities are a component in how we produce electricity.
But what is a common characteristic of the communities in which WTEs are sited? According to a 2019 report by the Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School, 79% of all municipal solid waste incinerators are located in communities of color and low-income communities. Incinerators are not only highly problematic environmentally and economically. They present direct and dire environmental justice threats.
Waste-to-Energy facilities in the US, existing and proposed
Activate the Layers List button to turn on Environmental Justice data on air pollutants and cancer occurrences across the United States. We have also included real-time air monitoring data in the interactive map because one of the health impacts of incineration includes respiratory illnesses. These air monitoring stations measure ambient particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the atmosphere, which can be a helpful metric.
What are the true costs of incineration?
These trash incinerators capture energy released from the process of burning materials, and turn it into electricity. But what are the costs? Proponents of incineration say it is a sensible way to reclaim or recovery energy that would otherwise be lost to landfill disposal. The US EIA also points out that burning waste reduces the volume of waste products by up to 87%.
The down-side of incineration of municipal waste, however, is proportionally much greater, with a panoply of health effects documented by the National Institutes for Health, and others.
Dioxins (shown in Figures 6-11) are some of the most dangerous byproducts of trash incineration. They make up a group of highly persistent organic pollutants that take a long time to degrade in the environment and are prone to bioaccumulation up the food chain.
Dioxins are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine and immune systems, and lead to reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous compounds produced from incineration. Compared with the air pollution from coal-burning power plants, dioxin concentrations produced from incineration may be up to 28 times as high.
Federal EPA regulations between 2000 and 2005 resulted in the closure of nearly 200 high dioxin emitting plants. Currently, there are fewer than 100 waste-to-energy incinerators operating in the United States, all of which are required to operate with high-tech equipment that reduces dioxins to 1% of what used to be emitted. Nevertheless, even with these add-ons, incinerators still produce 28 times the amount of dioxin per BTU when compared with power plants that burn coal.
Even with pollution controls required of trash incinerators since 2005, compared with coal-burning energy generation, incineration still releases 6.4 times as much of the notoriously toxic pollutant mercury to produce the equivalent amount of energy.
Energy Justice Network, furthermore, notes that incineration is the most expensive means of managing waste… as well as making energy. This price tag includes high costs to build incinerators, as well as staff and maintain them — exceeding operation and maintenance costs of coal by a factor of 11, and nuclear by a factor of 4.2.
Figure 12. Costs of incineration per ton are nearly twice that of landfilling. Source: National Solid Waste Management Association 2005 Tip Fee Survey, p. 3.
Energy Justice Network and others have pointed out that the amount of energy recovered and/or saved from recycling or composting is up to five times that which would be provided through incineration.
Figure 13. Estimated power plant capital and operating costs. Source: Energy Justice Network
The myth that incineration is a form of “renewable energy”
Waste is a “renewable” resource only to the extent that humans will continue to generate waste. In general, the definition of “renewable” refers to non-fossil fuel based energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, and biomass. Synthetic materials like plastics, derived from oil and gas, however, are not. Although not created from fossil fuels, biologically-derived products are not technically “renewable” either.
ZeroWasteEurope argues that:
Biogenic materials you find in the residual waste stream, such as food, paper, card and natural textiles, are derived from intensive agriculture – monoculture forests, cotton fields and other “green deserts”. The ecosystems from which these materials are derived could not survive in the absence of human intervention, and of energy inputs from fossil sources. It is, therefore, more than debatable whether such materials should be referred to as renewable.
Although incineration may reduce waste volumes by up to 90%, the resulting waste-products are problematic. “Fly-ash,” which is composed of the light-weight byproducts, may be reused in concrete and wallboard. “Bottom ash” however, the more coarse fraction of incineration—about 10% overall—concentrates toxins like heavy metals. Bottom-ash is disposed of in landfills or sometimes incorporated into structural fill and aggregate road-base material.
How common is the practice of using trash to fuel power plants?
Trash incineration accounts for a fraction of the power produced in the United States. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, just under 13% of electricity generated in the US comes from burning of municipal solid waste, in fewer than 65 waste-to-energy plants nation-wide. Nevertheless, operational waste-to-incineration plants are found throughout the United States, with a concentration east of the Mississippi.
According to EnergyJustice.net’s count of waste incinerators in the US and Canada, currently, there are:
- 88 operating
- 41 proposed
- 0 expanding
- 207 closed or defeated
Figure 14. Locations of waste incinerators that are already shut down. Source: EnergyJustice.net)
Precise numbers of these incinerators are difficult to ascertain, however. Recent estimates from the federal government put the number of current waste-to-energy facilities at slightly fewer: EPA currently says there are 75 of these incinerators in the United States. And in their database, updated July 2020, the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), lists 63 power plants that are fueled by municipal solid waste. Of these 63 plants, 40—or 66%—are in the northeast United States.
Regardless, advocates of clean energy, waste reduction, and sustainability argue that trash incinerators, despite improvements in pollution reduction over earlier times and the potential for at least some electric generation, are the least effective option for waste disposal that exists. The trend towards plant closure across the United States would support that assertion.
Let’s take a look at the dirty details on WTE facilities in three states in the Northeastern US.
Review of WTE plants in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey
A. New York State
In NYS, there are currently 11 waste-to-energy facilities that are operational, and two that are proposed. Here’s a look at some of them:
The largest waste-to-energy facility in New York State, Covanta Hempstead Company (Nassau County), was built in 1989. It is a 72 MW generating plant, and considered by Covanta to be the “cornerstone of the town’s integrated waste service plan.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO database, this plant has no violations listed. Oddly enough, even after drawing public attention in 2009 about the risks associated with particulate fall-out from the plant, the facility has not been inspected in the past 5 years.
Other WTE facilities in New York State include the Wheelabrator plant located in Peekskill (51 MW), Covanta Energy of Niagara in Niagara Falls (32 MW), Convanta Onondaga in Jamesville (39 MW), Huntington Resource Recovery in Suffolk County (24.3 MW), and the Babylon Resource Recovery Facility also in Suffolk County (16.8 MW). Five additional plants scattered throughout the state in Oswego, Dutchess, Suffolk, Tioga, and Washington Counties, are smaller than 15 MW each. Of those, two closed and one proposal was defeated.
In Pennsylvania, six WTE facilities are currently operating. Two have been closed, and six defeated.
C. New Jersey
And in New Jersey, there are currently four operating WTE facilities. Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, is New Jersey’s largest WTE facility. It opened in 1990, houses three burners, and produces 93 MW total.
Union County Resource Recovery Facility, which opened in 1994, operates three burners, producing 73 MW total. Covanta Camden Energy Recovery Center opened in 1991. It has 13 burners, producing a total of 46 MW. Wheelabrator Gloucester LP (Westville, NJ) opened in 1990. The two burners there produce 21 MW of power. Covanta Warren Energy is the oldest and smallest WTE facility in New Jersey. It produced 14 MW of energy and opened in 1988. Operations are currently shut down, but this closure may not be permanent.
Throw-aways, burn-aways, take-aways
Looming large above the arguments about appropriate siting, environmental justice, financial gain, and energy prices, is a bigger question:
How can we continue to live on this planet at our current rates of consumption, and the resultant waste generation?
The issue here is not so much about the sources of our heat and electricity in the future, but rather “How MUST we change our habits now to ensure a future on a livable planet?”
Professor Paul Connett (emeritus, St. Lawrence University), is a specialist in the build-up of dioxins in food chains, and the problems, dangers, and alternatives to incineration. He is a vocal advocate for a “Zero Waste” approach to consumption, and suggests that every community embrace these principles as ways to guide a reduction of our waste footprint on the planet. The fewer resources that are used, the less waste is produced, mitigating the extensive costs brought on by our consumptive lifestyles. Waste-to-energy incineration facilities are just a symptom of our excessively consumptive society.
Dr. Connett suggests these simple but powerful methods to drastically reduce the amount of materials that we dispose — whether by incineration, landfill, or out the car window on a back-road, anywhere in the world:
- Source separation
- Door-to-door collection
- Building Reuse, Repair and Community centers
- Implementing waste reduction Initiatives
- Building Residual Separation and Research centers
- Better industrial design
- Economic incentives
- Interim landfill for non-recyclables and biological stabilization of other organic materials
Connett’s Zero Waste charge to industry is this: “If we can’t reuse, recycle, or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it.” Reducing our waste reduces our energy footprint on the planet.
In a similar vein, FracTracker has written about the potential for managing waste through a circular economics model, which has been successfully implemented by the city of Freiburg, Germany. A circular economic model incorporates recycling, reuse, and repair to loop “waste” back into the system. A circular model focuses on designing products that last and can be repaired or re-introduced back into a natural ecosystem.
This is an important vision to embrace. Every day. Everywhere.
- “U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators: An Industry in Decline,” Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School. May, 2019. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5d14dab43967cc000179f3d2/t/5d5c4bea0d59ad00012d220e/1566329840732/CR_GaiaReportFinal_05.21.pdf
- For more in-depth and informative background on plastic in the environment, please watch “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/). The producers of the film encourage holding group discussions after the film so that audiences can actively think through action plans to reduce plastic use.
Figure 17: Illustration of common waste streams from “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/)
by Ted Auch, FracTracker Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and Rebecca Johnson, Communications & Administrative Specialist
FracTracker is pleased to release our improved multimedia platform of fracking imagery for your convenient use. You can easily view, download, and share photos and videos of oil, gas, and petrochemical impacts. We’ve made it easy for you to find what you need within over 1,600 photos, GIFs, and videos of the various aspects of fossil fuel industries and activities. All media are free to download and use for all visitors, and the collection will only expand as our work continues!
“The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
Ted Auch, FracTracker Great Lakes Program Coordinator:
It was nearly five years ago on a beautiful Wednesday morning that I met Paul Feezel, a concerned citizen of Carroll County, Ohio, and Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s David Beach at the Carroll County-Tolson Airport (40.5616667, -81.0780833). The occasion was a flight with pilot Mike Stich to see what the Fracking Boom had done to Carroll and neighboring counties.
The aspect of the industry that I came away from that flight most worried about was the hundreds of miles of pipelines we saw connecting well pad to well pad and meandering on downstream to processing facilities. These pipelines took such circuitous routes between pads that everyone in the plane was scratching their heads, wondering how such routes made any financial sense for the operators to get their raw product to market.
Ever since that flight, I have spent a significant chunk of my time at FracTracker mapping the extent of these so-called gas “gathering pipelines” across Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. I remain as flummoxed as I was on that day how such a hastily laid and poorly regulated network of pipelines makes sense. More recently, I have been wondering what the cumulative impact of these non-FERC-regulated pipelines has been on forests, wetlands, and the remaining agriculture in the region.
We have flown over this area several more times since that initial flight, with pilots volunteering their time to navigate planes provided by our excellent partners at LightHawk. As I wrote a little over two years ago:
“… you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This vantage point allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive. I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots, like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia … Tim Jacobson, Esq., out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol, out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.”
I wrote the “Bird’s-Eye-View” piece in August 2018, and since then we’ve made additional flights with our LightHawk partners, including a harrowing flight over Pine Creek State Park in Pennsylvania last May, part of our “Wilderness Lost” digital atlas series that now includes a similar project for the adjoining Loyalsock Creek.
The May 2019 flight was exhilarating to say the least – and thanks to the skills of our pilot Steve Kent, we executed the flight and extracted some powerful imagery that was three months later appended during better flying conditions with pilot Bob Keller. This flight was notable because the cloud ceiling was around 2,400 feet, and some peaks we were flying over and around were in excess of 1,200 feet, which gave us very little room to maneuver, at times forcing us to fly down into valleys to avoid the clouds. This flight also was a great opportunity for me and Steve to practice our communication, given that we were flying so low and slow, which meant that Steve would basically give me a ten-second slot to open my window, lean out, and shoot, while he was banking around the site of interest. Unlike other flights – including the subsequent flight in the Pine Creek – we did not have any opportunities to fly around infrastructure more than once, given how volatile the cloud ceiling was, and that if there was an opening that would allow us to move laterally, we had to take it.
Between our Pine Creek flights and that initial Carroll County aerial tour, we’ve compiled literally thousands of high-quality and illustrative images of the Hydraulic Fracturing Industrial Complex. When we say “hydraulic fracturing” – or “fracking” – we are not simply referring to drill rigs and frack pads, like the industry would limit us to in our analysis, but rather all manner of activities and infrastructure, to include drill rigs and pads – but also pipelines, waste disposal sites, processing plants, and frac sand mining activities, from the aforementioned forests of northeastern Pennsylvania, to Texas’ Gulf Coast. To this point, several authors have used our imagery, such as Paul Bogard and Tom Pearson, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Yale Environment 360, Oil Change International, the Anthropology Magazine SAPIENS, etc.
Since COVID-19 brought everything to a halt, my colleague Rebecca Johnson and I have been working to organize these images, migrating our older and more cumbersome inventory to the image and video hosting website Flickr, where we could more appropriately catalog, group, and map these images.
Please make use of this resource and keep fighting for a more just energy future.
Rebecca Johnson, Communications & Administrative Specialist
I began working with FracTracker in May 2019, coming in with a new and relatively limited perspective on the energy landscape, compared to Ted’s, my partner in this undertaking, who has spent years – from the ground and from above – capturing this expansion, its degradation, and the challenges it presents. After seeing the collection of Ted’s and others’ pictures on our website, I knew we needed to amplify our efforts in graphic documentation, in order for more people to see and feel what we are collectively up against.
This task was not taken lightly. FracTracker’s imagery backlog was daunting, to say the least. I scrolled through countless pictures and videos of different aspects of fossil fuel infrastructure and activity until my eyes glazed over. I had no idea the extent of the industry landscape and its effects – and so I had no idea where to even begin. The collection was immense, but the need to get more eyes on these revealing depictions was even bigger.
How was best to expose and illuminate the extensive buildout of and degradation from these resource-intensive, extractive industries?
Cataloguing began with the frac sand industry, and I slowly pieced together the breadth and depth of resource extraction. The aerial snapshots and panoramic captures of enormous mines, immense sand piles, and vast, sandy, slurry ponds connected by looming conveyors and miles of train tracks created a twisting path through my mind, traversing the various stages of extraction to production, through landscapes wrought with reckless human consumption. But frac sand is only one starting point in the onslaught, is only an upstream activity that sets the stage for further ruin downstream, with oil and gas extraction, petrochemical and plastic production, and various types of pollution and erroneous waste disposal from all these activities – not to mention the waste and pollution following human consumption, when we think we are “done” with a material.
As I sifted through images, the dots started connecting, and what started as a simple list of subjects quickly became an outline of what our country’s communities and environment were up against. Navigating through the picture hoard, Ted and I regularly discussed the people he had met while capturing these shots.
He spoke of friends he has made along the way – people in communities that had endured this buildout, seeing their lands chipped away, their natural corridors disconnected, and their waterways depleted or entirely consumed to make room for more industrial sites. It had compelled some of them to leave their homes, and some were even forced to abandon their sacred lands, left only with the lasting, heartbreaking memory of seeing it sullied beyond recognition and repair.
This realization lead to our stepwise sorting of imagery by these industries and activities to include the impacts and hazards to communities, culture, and livelihoods, already endured, happening currently, and looming ominously in the future. It’s easy to see the negative alterations from a bird’s-eye view, with the tainted landscape laid out below, punctured by ugly facilities and marred by indiscriminate ruin. It is another, more emotional thing to connect these scenes to those living in them, to the livelihoods dissolved and the generational homes displaced. Farmers have seen their lands infringed upon, their soils tainted and their waters poisoned. Communities have witnessed their air quality deteriorate, their children and friends fall sick, and their neighborhoods empty, at the expense of these industries. An often-overlooked aspect of extraction is those who bear its initial ramifications in their own communities.
At this point, we’ve winnowed our vast trove of imagery down to over 1,600 images across 46 albums. After weeding through this extensive catalog to identify our most powerful snapshots, we thought it would be appropriate to present the first iteration of this over five-month project to our audience and collaborators, with the hopes of better informing/illustrating your work.
With our migration to Flickr, I hope more eyes find this imagery, explore our collections, and follow the connections from album to album, to better understand the effects of fossil fuel activities. Whether it is the withered landscapes, the depleted environments, or the fragmented lives that speak to the viewer most, it is important to remember what has been endured to procure these resources, and what it will take to move to a cleaner, more just energy landscape.
In the event some of you were not aware of certain aspects of the industry, please take this opportunity to tour these albums and familiarize yourself with the myriad infrastructure and impacts of fracking.
Navigate to the Collections page to see FracTracker’s imagery convey a story through the albums grouped there – such as exploring the buildout through the Infrastructure & Transportation Collection, or the Plastics & Petrochemicals Collection. Visit the Albums page to see snapshots sorted by specific types of facilities, like Frac Sand Mining and Pipelines, or by specific projects, like Endless Effects: the Loyalsock Creek Watershed Project. Once you click on a photo, you can view its location on a map.
A primary source of inspiration for this aerial photography endeavor is the late Bill Hughes out of Wetzel County, West Virginia, who left us in March 2019. Bill was a force of nature in West Virginia’s documentation, with his camera and local know-how, the fracking industry’s negligence, and the fact that they seemed to run roughshod over his beloved state’s beautiful landscape. As our Executive Director Brook Lenker wrote following Bill’s death:
“Just taking pictures was not enough. Context was needed. Bill interpreted each picture – explaining the location, thing or activity, and significance of every image. Did it represent a threat to our water, air, or land? When did it happen? What happened before and after? Did it show a short- or long-term problem? Should state regulatory agencies see it to become better informed? Dissemination followed in many forms: tours of the gas fields; power point presentations to groups in five states; op-ed pieces written for news media; countless responses to questions and inquiries; even blogs and photo essays for various websites. Ceaseless Bill never stopped caring. Maybe Bill Hughes should be an official emblem for Earth Day – a humble, faithful man of modest proportions, spreading the stewardship imperative from a little electric car. Hitch a ride, follow his lead, and, like Bill, always tell it like it is.”
We hope that our work in the air and on the ground photographing industry impacts would make Bill proud. We will continuously update these Flickr albums, and offer as much background and locational data as possible to facilitate an unsurpassed level of depth and breadth for all users.
Lenker, B. “An Earth Day Tribute to Bill Hughes”, April 22nd, 2019, https://www.fractracker.org/2019/04/earth-day-tribute-bill-hughes/
Auch, T. “Documenting Fracking Impacts: A Yearlong Tour from a Bird’s-Eye-View”, August 8th, 2018, https://www.fractracker.org/2018/08/birds-eye-view-fracking/
FracTracker and Earthworks “Endless Effects: A Digital Atlas Exploring the Environmental Impacts of a Decade of Unconventional Natural Gas Extraction in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed”, August, 2020, https://www.fractracker.org/projects/the-loyalsock-watershed-project/
FracTracker and Earthworks “Wildness Lost: A Digital Atlas Examining Over a Decade of Unconventional Natural Gas Development in Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Watershed”, August, 2019, https://www.fractracker.org/projects/wildness-lost-pine-creek/
Auch, T. “Fracking Threatens Ohio’s Captina Creek Watershed”, December, 2109, https://www.fractracker.org/2019/12/fracking-in-captina-creek-watershed-story-map/
Feature photo of a Toledo Refining Company refinery in Toledo, OH, July, 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.
The oil and gas industry continues to use rhetoric focusing on national security and energy independence in order to advocate for legislation to criminalize climate activists. Backlash against protestors and environmental stewards has only increased since the onset of COVID-19, suggesting that industry proponents are exploiting this public health crisis to further their own dangerous and controversial policies.
Industry actors contributing to the wave of anti-protest bills include American Petroleum Institute (API), IHS Markit, The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), and most effectively, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), by way of its primary financial backer, Koch Industries (Fang, 2014, Shelor, 2017).
ALEC is the source of the model legislation “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” of 2017, intended to make it a felony to “impede,” “inhibit,” “impair,” or “interrupt” critical infrastructure operation and/or construction. Close approximations – if not exact replicas – of this legislative template have been passed in 11 hydrocarbon rich and/or pathway states, and 8 more are being debated in 4 additional states.
The “critical infrastructure” designation in ALEC’s “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” is extremely broad, including over 70 pieces of infrastructure, from wastewater treatment and well pads, to ports and pipelines. However, along with the 259 Foreign Trade Zones (FTZ) (Figures 1 and 4) supervised by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), security is of such importance because over 50% of this infrastructure is related to oil and gas. According to our analysis, there are more than 8,000 unique pieces of infrastructure that fall under this designation, with over 10% in the Marcellus/Utica states of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. See Figure 1 for the number of FTZ per state.
Regarding FTZ, the US Department of Homeland Security doesn’t attempt to hide their genuine nature, boldly proclaiming them “… the United States’ version of what are known internationally as free-trade zones … to serve adequately ‘the public interest’.” If there remains any confusion as to who these zones are geared toward, the US Department of Commerce’s International Administration (ITA) makes the link between FTZ and the fossil fuel industry explicit in its FTZ FAQ page, stating “The largest industry currently using zone procedures is the petroleum refining industry.” (Figure 2)
Figure 1. Number of Foreign-Trade Zones (FTZ) by state as of June 2020.
Figure 2. Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zones 87 in Lake Charles, LA, 115-117 in and around Port Arthur, TX, and 122 in Corpus Christi, TX. (click on the images to enlarge)
Much of the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries’ efforts stem from the mass resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Native American tribes and environmental groups spent months protesting the environmentally risky $3.78 billion dollar project, which began production in June 2017, after Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite construction during his first week in office. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe also sued the US government in a campaign effort to protect their tribal lands. The world watched as Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company building the pipeline, destroyed Native artifacts and sacred sites, and as police deployed tear gas and sprayed protesters with water in temperatures below freezing.
ETP’s bottom line and reputation were damaged during the fight against DAPL. Besides increasingly militarized law enforcement, the oil and gas industry has retaliated by criminalizing similar types of protests against fossil fuel infrastructure. However, the tireless work of Native Americans and environmental advocates has resulted in a recent victory in March 2020, when a federal judge ordered a halt to the pipeline’s production and an extensive new environmental review of DAPL.
Just days ago, on July 6, 2020, a federal judge ruled that DAPL must shut down until further environmental review can assess potential hazards to the landscape and water quality of the Tribe’s water source. This is certainly a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other environmental defenders, but the decision is subject to appeal.
Since the DAPL conflict began, the industry has been hastily coordinating state-level legislation in anticipation of resistance to other notable national gas transmission pipelines, more locally concerning projects like Class II Oil and Gas Waste Injection Wells, and miles of gas gathering pipelines that transport increasing streams of waste – as well as oil and gas – to coastal processing sites.
The following “critical infrastructure” bills have already been enacted:
|West Virginia||HB 4615||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||3/25/20|
|South Dakota||SB 151||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR PIPELINES AND OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE||3/18/20|
|Kentucky||HB 44||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR PIPELINES AND OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE||3/16/20|
|Wisconsin||AB 426||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||11/21/19|
|Missouri||HB 355||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||7/11/19|
|Texas||HB 3557||NEW CRIMINAL AND CIVIL PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS AROUND CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||6/14/19|
|Tennessee||SB 264||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||5/10/19|
|Indiana||SB 471||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||5/6/19|
|North Dakota||HB 2044||HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||4/10/19|
|Louisiana||HB 727||HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR PROTESTING NEAR A PIPELINE||5/30/18|
|Oklahoma||HB 1123||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||5/3/17|
There are an additional eight bills proposed and under consideration in these six states:
|Louisiana||HB 197||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||2/24/20|
|Minnesota||HF 3668||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||2/24/20|
|Mississippi||HB 1243||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||2/19/20|
|Alabama||SB 45||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||2/4/20|
|Minnesota||HF 2966||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR OIL AND GAS PIPELINES||1/31/20|
|Minnesota||SF 2011||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||3/4/19|
|Ohio||SB 33||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||2/12/19|
|Illinois||HB 1633||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||1/31/19|
Desperate Backlash Against Peaceful Protest
Activists and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are framing their opposition to such legislation as an attempt to stave off the worst Orwellian instincts of our elected officials, whether they are in Columbus or Mar-a-Lago. On the other hand, industry and prosecutors are framing these protests as terroristic acts that threaten national security, which is why sentencing comes with a felony conviction and up to ten years in prison. The view of the FBI’s deputy assistant director and top official in charge of domestic terrorism John Lewis is that, “In recent years, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front have become the most active, criminal extremist elements in the United States … the FBI’s investigation of animal rights extremists and ecoterrorism matters is our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.”
It shocked many when last week, two protesters in the petrochemical-laden “Cancer Alley” region of Louisiana were arrested and charged under the state’s felony “terrorist” law. Their crime? Placing boxes of nurdles – plastic pellets that are the building blocks of many single-use plastic products – on the doorsteps of fossil fuel lobbyists’ homes. To make matters more ridiculous, the nurdles were illegally dumped by the petrochemical company Formosa Plastics. This is outrageous indeed, but is the sort of legally-sanctioned oppression that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been successfully advocating for years.
American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) stated in a letter of support for ALEC’s legislative efforts:
“In recent years, there has been a growing and disturbing trend of individuals and organizations attempting to disrupt the operation of critical infrastructure in the energy, manufacturing, telecommunications, and transportation industries. Energy infrastructure is often targeted by environmental activists to raise awareness of climate change and other perceived environmental challenges. These activities, however, expose individuals, communities, and the environment to unacceptable levels of risk, and can cause millions of dollars in damage … As the private sector continues to expand and maintain the infrastructure necessary to safely and reliably deliver energy and other services to hundreds of millions of Americans, policymakers should continue to consider how they can help discourage acts of sabotage … Finally, it will also hold organizations both criminally and vicariously liable for conspiring with individuals who willfully trespass or damage critical infrastructure sites.”
Those organizations deemed ‘criminally and vicariously liable’ would in some states face fines an order of magnitude greater than the actual individual, which would cripple margin-thin environmental groups around the country, and could amount to $100,000 to $1,000,000. The AFPM’s senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs Derrick Morgan referred to these vicarious organizations as “inspiring … organizations who have ill intent, want to encourage folks to damage property and endanger lives …”
Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association (OKOGA) wrote in a fear-mongering letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin that such legislation was necessary to “protect all Oklahomans from risk of losing efficient and affordable access to critical services needed to power our daily lives.”
One of the most disturbing aspects of this legislation is that it could, according to the testimony and additional concerns of ACLU of Ohio’s Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels, equate “‘impeding’ and ‘inhibiting’ the ‘operations’ of a critical infrastructure site” with acts as innocuous as Letters to the Editor, labor strikes or protests, attending and submitting testimony at hearings, or simply voicing your concern or objections to the validity of industry claims and its proposals with emails, faxes, phone calls, or a peaceful protest outside critical infrastructure that raises the concern of site security. Mr. Daniels noted in his additional written testimony that the latter, “may prove inconvenient to the site’s staff, under SB 250 they would be an F3 [Third Degree Felony], and that is without someone even stepping foot on or near the property, as physical presence is not required to be guilty of criminal mischief, as found in/defined in Sec. 2907.07(A)(7) of the bill.”
This connection, when enshrined into law, will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and assembly, and will stop protests or thoughtful lines of questioning before they even start. As the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) put it in their request for residents to ask the governor to veto the now-enacted HB 4615, such a bill is unnecessary, duplicative, deceitful, un-American, unconstitutional, and “will further crowd our jails and prisons.”
To combat such industry-friendly legislation that erodes local government control in Ohio, lawmakers like State Senator Nikki Antonio are introducing resolutions like SR 221, which would, “abolish corporate personhood and money-as-speech doctrine” made law by the Supreme Court of the United States’ rulings in Citizens United v. FEC and Buckley v. Valeo. After all, the overarching impact of ALEC’s efforts and those described below furthers privatized, short-term profit and socialized, long-term costs, and amplifies the incredibly corrosive Citizen’s United decision a little over a decade ago.
Further Criminalization of Protest, Protections for Law Enforcement
Simultaneously, there is an effort to criminalize protest activities through “riot boosting acts,” increased civil liability and decreased police liability, trespassing penalties, and new sanctions for protestors who conceal their identities (by wearing a face mask, for example).
The following bills have already been enacted:
|South Dakota||SB 189||EXPANDED CIVIL LIABILITY FOR PROTESTERS AND PROTEST FUNDERS||3/27/19|
|West Virginia||HB 4618||ELIMINATING POLICE LIABILITY FOR DEATHS WHILE DISPERSING RIOTS AND UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLIES||3/10/18|
|North Dakota||HB 1426||HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR RIOT OFFENCES||2/23/17|
|North Dakota||HB 1293||EXPANDED SCOPE OF CRIMINAL TRESPASS||2/23/17|
|North Dakota||HB 1304||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||2/23/17|
In addition, the following bills have been proposed and are under consideration:
|Rhode Island||H 7543||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||2/12/20|
|Oregon||HB 4126||HARSH PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||1/28/20|
|Tennessee||SB 1750||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||1/21/20|
|Ohio||HB 362||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||10/8/19|
|Pennsylvania||SB 887||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR “CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE”||10/7/19|
|Massachusetts||HB 1588||PROHIBITION ON MASKED DEMONSTRATIONS||1/17/19|
All the while, the Bundy clan of Utah pillage – and at times – hold our public lands hostage, and white male Michiganders enter the state capital in Lansing armed for Armageddon, because they feel that COVID-19 is a hoax. We imagine that it isn’t these types of folks that West Virginia State Representatives John Shott and Roger Hanshaw had in mind when they wrote and eventually successfully passed HB 4618, which eliminated police liability for deaths while dispersing riots and unlawful assemblies.
Contrarily, South Dakota’s SB 189, or “Riot Boosting Act,” was blocked by the likes of US District Judge Lawrence L. Piersol, who wrote:
“Imagine that if these riot boosting statutes were applied to the protests that took place in Birmingham, Alabama, what might be the result? … Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference could have been liable under an identical riot boosting law.”
FracTracker collaborated with Crude Accountability on a report documenting increasing reprisals against environmental activists in the US and Eurasia. Read the Report.
A Wave of Anti-Protest Laws in the COVID-19 Era
Despite Judge Piersol’s ruling, South Dakota (SB 151) joined Kentucky (HB 44) and West Virginia (HB 4615) in passing some form of ALEC’s bill since the COVID-19 epidemic took hold of the US. This is classic disaster capitalism. As former Barack Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
In all fairness to Mr. Emanuel, he was referring to the Obama administration’s support for the post-2008 bipartisan Wall Street bailout. However, it is critical that we acknowledge the push for critical infrastructure legislation has been most assuredly bipartisan, with Democratic Governors in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Wisconsin signing into law their versions on March 16th of this year, in May of 2018, and in November of 2019, respectively.
According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 11 states have passed some version of ALEC’s bill, with the first uncoincidentally being a series of three bills signed in February of 2017 by North Dakota Governor Burgum, targeting “Heightened Penalties for Riot Offences” (HB 1426), “Expanded Scope of Criminal Trespass” (HB 1293), and “New Penalties for Protestors Who Conceal Their Identity” (HB 1304), with at least one member of ALEC’s stable of elected officials, Rep. Kim Koppelman, proudly displaying his affiliation in his biography on the North Dakota Legislative Branch’s website. Mr. Koppelman, along with Rep. Todd Porter out of Mandan, also cosponsored two of these bills.
Related Legislation in Need of Immediate Attention
In Columbus, Ohio, there are several pieces of legislation being pushed in concert with ALEC-led efforts. These include the recently submitted HB 362, that would “create the crime of masked intimidation.” Phil Plummer and George F. Lang sponsor the bill, with the latter being the same official who introduced HB 625, a decidedly anti-local control bill that would preempt communities from banning plastic bags. Most of the general public and some of the country’s largest supermarket chains have identified plastic bag bans as a logical next step as they wrestle with their role in the now universally understood crimes plastics have foisted on our oceans and shores. As Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard wrote, “bill mills” and their willing collaborators in states like Ohio cause such geographies to march “boldly, with sigils flying in the opposite direction” of progress, and a more renewable and diversified energy future.
With respect to Plummer and Lang’s HB 362, two things must be pointed out:
1) It is eerily similar to North Dakota’s HB 1304 that created new penalties for protestors who conceal their identity, and
2) The North Dakota bill was conveniently signed into law by Governor Burgum on February 23rd, 2017, who had set the day prior as the “deadline for the remaining [DAPL] protesters to leave an encampment on federal land near the area of the pipeline company’s construction site.”
So, when elected officials as far away as Columbus copy and paste legislation passed in the aftermath of the DAPL resistance efforts, it is clear the message they are conveying, and the audience(s) they are trying to intimidate.
Plummer and Lang’s HB 362 would add a section to the state’s “Offenses Against the Public Peace,” Chapter 2917, that would in part read:
No person shall wear a mask or disguise in order to purposely do any of the following:
(A) Obstruct the execution of the law;
(B) Intimidate, hinder, or interrupt a person in the performance of the person’s legal duty; or
(C) Prevent a person from exercising the rights granted to them by the Constitution or the laws of this state.
Whoever violates this proposed section is guilty of masked intimidation. Masked intimidation is a first degree misdemeanor. It was critical for the DAPL protestors to protect their faces during tear gas and pepper spray barrages, from county sheriffs and private security contractors alike.
At the present moment, masks are one of the few things standing between COVID-19 and even more death. Given these realities, it is stunning that our elected officials have the time and/or interest in pushing bills such as HB 362 under the thin veil of law and order.
But judging by what one West Virginia resident and former oil and gas industry draftsman, wrote to us recently, elected officials do not really have much to lose, given how little most people think of them:
“Honestly, it doesn’t seem to matter what we do. The only success most of us have had is in possibly slowing the process down and adding to the cost that the companies incur. But then again, the increase in costs probably just gets passed down to the consumers. One of the biggest drawbacks in my County is that most, if not all, of the elected officials are pro drilling. Many of them have profited from it.”
The oil, gas, and petrochemical industries are revealing their weakness by scrambling to pass repressive legislation to counteract activists. But social movements around the world are determined to address interrelated social and environmental issues before climate chaos renders our planet unlivable, particularly for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. We hope that by shining a light on these bills, more people will become outraged enough to join the fight against antidemocratic legislation.
This is Part I of a two-part series on concerning legislation related to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Part II focuses on bills that would weaken environmental regulations in Ohio, Michigan, and South Dakota.
 The community-based environmental organization RISE St. James has been working tirelessly to prevent Formosa Plastics from building one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the US in their Parish. Sharon Lavigne is a leading member of RISE St. James, and is an honored recipient of the 2019 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship. Read more on Sharon’s work with RISE St. James here.
 This individual lives in Central West Virginia, and formerly monitored Oil & Gas company assets in primarily WV, PA, NY, VA, MD & OH, as well as the Gulf Coast. Towards the end of this individual’s career, they provided mapping support for the smart pigging program, call before you dig, and the pipeline integrity program.
What difficult times. The pandemic is beyond our common experience. Deadly and pervasive, it afflicts our physical wellbeing and our economy. The virus exposes and exploits the inequities in society, with harsh, disproportionate burdens on those most marginalized. The suffering sickens us to the core.
Hope is an essential nutrient manifesting in different, often unassuming, forms. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day, while dampened by our current troubles, reminds us of the tenacity and resiliency of the human spirit.
A small idea, sparked in 1970, blossomed into a global observance. People mobilized by the thousands to testify to the defilement of the planet and to demand bold action. In the story map below, take a tour through 50 years of technology, protest, economics, and policy that shaped the country’s energy landscape. Witness the power of people bringing dramatic changes to our energy system, despite forces working to preserve the status quo.
The 50th occurrence of Earth Day presents a ripe opportunity to honor the dedication and sacrifice of those who help keep our lights on and celebrate the bravery of those fighting to build an energy system that ensures environmental and economic justice for all.
Physical gathering is a bad idea but intellectually, virtually, we can elevate the dialogue and plant good seeds, literal and figurative, to accelerate restoration and cool our climate. The constraints of COVID-19 reveal the virtue of simplicity, the conservation bounty of taking the slower road, where every milepost matters.
Plug in however, wherever you can. Look for local chances to engage. Check out the Earth Day Network for digital events near and far or plan your own action.
Make a statement, take a stand, and write the future.
Wishful thinking? Maybe, but as a wise-old band once sang, “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Explore the Story Map
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
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.
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.
FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!
View Full Size Map | Updated 4/13/21 | Data Tutorial
This map has been updated since this blog post was originally published, and therefore statistics and figures below may no longer correspond with the map
The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:
This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?
The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?
In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.
In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).
This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.
The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”
The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.
This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.
In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.
How does your state generate electricity?
One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others. The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.
The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.
The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses. Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.
China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.
In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.
We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.
Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.
This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.
Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.
Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.
The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.
As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.
Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.
“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”
Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.
Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)
In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”
What will this map look like in the next 30 years?
A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”
Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?
Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.