Tag Archive for: National

Map of potential carbon capture technology

Letter to Equinor USA

A letter written to Equinor USA Operations Manager Chris Golden in September 2022 requesting that Equinor USA cease plans to invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS), and hydrogen development in the United States.

Take Action in Support of No New Leases

The federal government is accepting comments on a 5-Year Offshore Oil and Gas Lease Program. We need your voice to join in solidarity with communities in the Gulf and the Arctic and call for no new leases.

ExxonMobil LaBarge CCUS Facility

Carbon Capture and Storage: Fact or Fiction?

Extractive industry uses propaganda to protect private profits at the expense of the public interest. According to the evidence, there is reason to believe that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one such scheme.

Aerial image of Oil Refinery in Ohio

Does Hydrogen Have a Role in our Energy Future?

There has been increasing focus on using hydrogen gas as a fuel, but most hydrogen is currently formed from methane, which could lead to more fracking.

Updated National Energy and Petrochemical Map

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.

2021 Pipeline Incidents Update: Safety Record Not Improving

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.

Mapping intersectionality: Empowering youth addressing plastics

VIEW MAP & DATA

Overview

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

Algalita.org

Data Sources:

ATEX Pipeline: EIA

Railroad: Selection from ArcGIS online

Process information: Houston Chronicle

Falcon Pipeline: Shell/AECOM and FracTracker Alliance

Mariner East 2 Pipeline: PA DEP

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

Petrochemicals & Plastics


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Incinerators: Dinosaurs in the world of energy generation

 

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.

Why say NO to incinerators?

  • They are bad for the environment, producing toxic chlorinated byproducts like dioxins. Incineration often converts toxic municipal waste into other forms, some of which are even more toxic than their precursors.
  • They often consume more energy than they produce and are not profitable to run.
  • They add CO2 to the atmosphere.
  • They promote the false narrative that we can “get something” from our trash
  • They detract from the conversation about actual renewable energy sources like wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy that will stop the acceleration of climate chaos.

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 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

Click here to view this map full-screen

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.

2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin

2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzofuran

3,3′,4,4′,5,5′-Hexachlorobiphenyl

Figures 6-11: Dioxin chemical structures via US EPA. Source: https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin
 

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.

B. Pennsylvania

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
    • Recycling
    • Door-to-door collection
    • Composting
    • 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.

Recommended resources

Figure 17: Illustration of common waste streams from “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/)

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator


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A New, Extensive Platform for Fracking Imagery

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.”

Frac sand mine impoundment pond in Wedron, IL, 2018. Photo by Ted Auch.

Frac sand mine impoundment pond in Wedron, IL, 2018. Photo by Ted Auch, with aerial assistance from Lighthawk.

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.

 

Steel plants in Detroit, MI. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from Lighthawk.

 

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.

 

Detroit residents stand in front of a Marathon Oil refinery in southwest Detroit, MI, 2020. Photo by Ted Auch.

Detroit residents Doug Wood and Theresa Landrum stand in front of a Marathon Oil refinery in southwest Detroit, MI, 2020. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

 

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.

 

Additional Readings:

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.

 

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Foreign Trade Zone Sign Feature

Industry Targets Peaceful Protest via “Critical Infrastructure” Legislation

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator and Shannon Smith, Manager of Communications & Development

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.[1]

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)

 

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 87 in Lake Charles, Louisiana

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 87 in Lake Charles, Louisiana

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zones 115-117 in and around Port Arthur, Texas

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zones 115-117 in and around Port Arthur, Texas

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 122 in Corpus Christi, Texas

Foreign-Trade Zone (FTZ) Board of Actions in Zone 122 in Corpus Christi, Texas

 

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:

STATE BILL TITLE DATE PASSED
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:

STATE PENDING TITLE DATE PROPOSED
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.[2] 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.”

RISE St. James

Figure 3. A rally held by the Louisiana-based nonprofit RISE St. James.

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:

STATE BILL TITLE DATE PASSED
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:

STATE PENDING TITLE DATE PROPOSED
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.”

 

 

Dangerous Work

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.”

Foreign-Trade Zone Sign

Figure 4. Photo of US Treasury Department signage outlining the warning associated with BP’s Whiting, IN, oil refinery designated a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ). Photo by Ted Auch July 15th, 2015

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,[3] 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.

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator and Shannon Smith, Manager of Communications & Development

[1] See Naomi Klein’s concept of the Shock Doctrine for similar trends.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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A Guide to Petrochemicals, the Fossil Fuel Blindspot

A Guide to Petrochemicals, the Fossil Fuel Blindspot



A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States

Explore by Topic







Key Facts About Petrochemicals


  • The petrochemical industry is expanding in the Gulf South and the Ohio River Valley. While many of the industry’s plans have not come to fruition, petrochemicals are becoming the largest driver of oil demand and present a major threat to the climate.
  • The fracking industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels for the petrochemical industry to turn into plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.
  • Petrochemical plants are major sources of pollution, both permitted and illegal. The experience of fenceline communities shows that public agencies have failed to protect public health from the harms caused by the industry.
  • The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions, and its environmental racism has led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s.


What are petrochemicals?


Petrochemicals are chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas.

The major petrochemicals are ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, xylene, toluene, and methanol.

Never heard of them? Petrochemicals are intermediate materials – you generally don’t buy them off the shelves but they make up things you buy off shelves, like plastic as well as many industrial products. They’re also a major blindspot in the fossil fuel debate, despite the fact that they are, according to the International Energy Agency, “becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.”

Here are a few of the common uses of petrochemicals:

  • Ethylene & propylene → Plastic
  • Butadiene → fake rubber, tires
  • Benzene → other chemicals → Styrofoam, resins, rubbers, lubricants, dyes, synthetic fibers
  • Xylene → products in the printing, rubber, resins, and leather industries, and as a paint thinner
  • Toluene → paints, lacquers, adhesives, explosives (like TNT)
  • Methanol → formaldehyde → adhesives, coatings, building materials, and yes, embalming bodies

By volume, the most common petrochemical produced in the US is ethylene, followed by propylene. Ethylene and propylene are made from the natural gas liquids ethane and propane. They can also be made from naphtha, a component of crude oil.

The biggest use globally for both ethylene and propylene is for plastic. Single-use packaging accounts for an estimated 40% of total plastic usage. Plastic is also the product currently driving a global petrochemical production “boom,” so this guide will largely focus on plastic’s impact on health, environment, and communities.



Pie chart of world consumption of petrochemicals

World consumption of petrochemicals, 2018. Source: IHS Markit, Petrochemical Industry Overview


How Petrochemicals are Made

Oil and gas extraction is the foundation of the petrochemical industry. In the United States, there are over 900,000 producing oil and gas wells. The majority of new oil and gas wells drilled in the United States utilize hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling. Learn more about this process and its impacts.

After oil and gas is extracted, it’s transported by a network of natural gas and crude oil pipelines to another facility for processing.


United States Map of Pipelines and Processing Stations

Oil and gas transportation and processing facilities in the United States (and a little bit of Canada). Mapped by FracTracker using datasets from the EIA, which were updated in January 2020, except for the petroleum refineries data layer which was updated in July 2020.

Natural gas is sent to processing stations or fractionators, which separate out natural gas liquids, like ethane and propane, from methane gas.


Diagram of gas stream components

Crude oil is set to refineries and heated in a distilling column to separate out its different components like diesel, kerosene, naphtha, and gasoline.


Diagram of Crude Oil Components

The refined products are transported by natural gas liquid and petroleum product pipelines to refineries, chemical plants, crackers, and other industrial facilities that process them into petrochemicals. These petrochemicals may undergo several more steps before being transformed into a range of consumer and industrial products.



Natural gas liquid and petroleum product transport and processing facilities. Mapped by FracTracker using datasets from the EIA (petroleum refinery data updated July 10, 2020, pipelines data updated April 28, 2020, ethylene cracker data updated in January 13, 2020). Petrochemical plants includes a select number of facilities from EPA 2019 FLIGHT dataset.

Ethane Crackers: How do they work?


Ethane crackers transform ethane, a component of the fracked gas stream, into ethylene. Ethane crackers can be a part of a larger petrochemical complex, and include facilities that transform ethylene into polyethylene plastic. Ethylene can be used to produce other chemical products, such as antifreeze.

Ethylene crackers are similar, and include facilities that produce ethylene using crude oil.

What do they produce?

Different types of plastic are produced at an ethane cracker, including:

  • low density polyethylene (LDPE)
  • linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
  • high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
  • ethylene glycol – a chemical that goes into PET plastic and antifreeze




How do they work?

After gas has been extracted (read more about that process) it’s transported via pipeline to different facilities that separate ethane from other components of the gas stream. Ethane is transported to ethane crackers via pipeline.



Source: Ethane Storage and Distribution Hub in the United States, Department of Energy


Step 1) Cracking After ethane arrives at the facility, furnaces use extreme heat (1500°F), to “crack” the molecular bonds in ethane, and rearrange its atoms into ethylene.

Step 2) Cooling The ethylene is moved to a quench tower, which cools the gas by spraying it with water.

Quench towers are HUGE – the tower alone weighs upwards of 2,000 tons.

Step 3) Compression Next the cooled gas moves to a compressor, which pressurizes the ethylene gas, beginning its conversion into a liquid.

Step 4) Refrigeration A heat exchanger further cools the ethylene. By the end of this step, the majority of the ethylene has been condensed into a liquid.

Step 5) Separation The ethylene is then purified in fractionation towers. In these towers, the temperature is kept higher at the bottom and lower at the top. The different boiling points of molecules force them to separate out, and pure ethylene can be extracted.

Step 6) Polymerization An ethane cracker complex can contain multiple polyethylene units on site, where ethylene is linked up in chains to form polyethylene. This process can be engineered to produce different types of polyethylene with varying degrees of strength and elasticity. Ethylene may also be transported to other facilities for polymerization or other processing.

Step 7) Shipping The output from an ethane cracker is often small plastic pellets called nurdles. One ethane cracker may produce well over a million tons of nurdles per year. This product is shipped out by rail, barge, or truck to factories that shape it into different plastic products.

This process is very energy-intensive. Ethane crackers have power plants on site to generate steam and electricity.

Where are they?

The majority of ethane crackers in the United States are in Texas and Louisiana. There is also one in Illinois, Iowa, and Kentucky, and a new plant being built in Pennsylvania.

Expansion of the Petrochemical Industry


The petrochemical industry in the United States largely grew from demand for fuels and supplies during WWI and WW2, but it took off in the 1950s when petroleum-based plastic became popular.

In the United States, petrochemical facilities are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana –  states that sit above abundant oil and gas resources, attracting corporations that have heavily manipulated the states’ political and regulatory environment. Petrochemical facilities in the Gulf South often abut schools and residential areas, and take a heavy toll of communities’ health. According to the Energy Information Administration, 95% of the country’s ethylene capacity and roughly half of the country’s petroleum refining and natural gas processing capacity is along the Gulf Coast.



Oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Mapped by FracTracker using 2019 and 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and EPA FLIGHT.


The expansion of fracking technology in the 21st century has propelled another petrochemical expansion, once again focused on plastic production.

The industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels and petrochemical products like plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.

The oil and gas industry understands that it is increasingly being replaced by cheaper, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and battery power. A recent report found that demand for oil may have peaked in 2019. Petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industry’s desperate attempt to remain relevant in a post-carbon world.

According to the American Chemistry Council, the petrochemical industry proposed $200 billion worth of new and expanding projects between 2010 and 2018. These projects are largely planned for the Gulf Coast, but the industry is also planning a second “petrochemical hub” in Appalachia.

Other countries are also expanding their petrochemical capacity. While many are extracting oil and gas within their borders, others have been influenced by the fracking boom in the United States and are importing petrochemical feedstock from the shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states.

Research suggests that the industry’s bet on plastic won’t be nearly as profitable as originally expected. Meanwhile, fenceline communities are left shouldering the health impacts.



Gulf Coast Buildout


There are over 100 planned or recently completed petrochemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana alone, in addition to many more existing sites.

The Gulf Coast petrochemical expansion also includes a number of proposed and expanded plastic manufacturing facilities. Major projects include Formosa Plastic’s proposed ethane cracker complex in Saint James Parish, Louisiana which would produce polyethylene, polypropylene (types of plastic) and ethylene glycol (to make polyester and antifreeze). Another isa recently constructed ethane cracker plant (the world’s largest) in San Patricio County, Texas, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and SABIC. The project, called Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, will manufacture monoethylene glycol (for polyester and plastic products) and polyethylene plastic. These projects have faced resistance and delays from frontline communities, who are already facing negative health impacts from existing petrochemical infrastructure.

Equistar Chemicals, Dow Chemical Company, Formosa Plastics, and Ineos USA are also expanding their ethylene production capacity at existing facilities. And other types of petrochemical facilities, including methanol plants from South Louisiana Methanol and Big Lake Fuels, have also attempted to expand along the Gulf Coast.



Ohio River Valley Buildout


Fracking has opened the oil and gas floodgates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Along the Ohio River, the Marcellus Shale is rich in petrochemical feedstock (natural gas liquids, or “wet gas”) and the oil and gas industry is eager to turn this region into a second major petrochemical hub.



The Marcellus and Utica shale plays, which are thousands of feet below Earth. Lines show estimates of parts of shale plays rich in wet gas (ethane, propane, butane) versus dry gas (methane) based on figures from Penn State Marcellus Center and the Energy Information Administration.


West Virginia has a long history of chemical industries. Major chemical companies like Union Carbide, DuPont, and Dow have all exploited the region’s vast coal, oil, gas, and salt reserves. The Kanawha River Valley has one of the highest concentrations of chemical facilities in the country, earning it the nickname Chemical Valley. These facilities produce explosives, antifreeze, solvents, pesticides, PFAS “forever” chemicals, chlorine, and other chemical products.

Industry officials have called the fracking boom a “renaissance” for the state’s chemical companies, but so far the petrochemical promises have largely been smoke and mirrors. Plus, this industry has left a long legacy of pollution and a rebirth of the undrinkable water and toxic air that residents have endured for decades leaves much to be desired.

Industry leaders have paraded the potential for five ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley Region to convert fracked ethane gas into polyethylene plastic. The Shell ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, is the first ethane cracker to be built outside the Gulf Coast in 20 years. A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio, although its owner, PTT Global Chemical, has not made a final investment decision, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. The setbacks of this project could impact another major petrochemical project in the region, the Mountaineer Storage Hub, which would store fracked gas liquids in underground salt caverns along the Ohio River.

There are many other signs that point towards the petrochemical industry’s predictions for the Ohio River Valley being overly ambitious. An ethane cracker proposed by Braskem and Odebrecht fell through after Odebrecht filed for bankruptcy and its CEO was sentenced to prison for corruption. While public officials have been courting ExxonMobil to build an ethane cracker in southwest Pennsylvania, in late 2020, an Exxon spokesperson has stated that there are no active plans for an ethane cracker in the state.

In 2017, China Energy Investment Corp. signed an agreement to invest $83.7 billion in oil, gas, and petrochemical development in West Virginia. West Virginia’s public officials touted the likelihood of new projects breaking ground within a year, but as of early 2022, there’s been no news on what happened to that $83.7 billion. The details of the agreement have not been made public, but it’s not legally binding.

The Appalachian Development Group sought a $1.9 billion loan from the Department of Energy, and an additional $1.4 billion from private investment to develop a petrochemical storage and trading hub. However, the loan in question was designed for clean energy projects, and a recent amendment solidified that this loan could only go towards projects that “avoid, reduce, or sequester” greenhouse gasses.



Ineos, Europe’s largest plastic producer, is investing billions in importing fracked gas from the US to make plastics in Europe. Source: Plastic Atlas. 2019.

Health & Safety


Petrochemicals can be toxic —you’d never want to inhale benzene or take a gulp of toluene. For one, they’re often highly flammable so there’s an explosion risk when it comes to transporting and processing them. For another, they contain toxic chemical characteristics that pose short and long term risks.

The process of turning toxic chemicals into consumer products presents health threats. And when these products break down back into those original components, either during use or disposal, there’s the potential for a health threat to emerge once again.



Air Pollution & Health


Petrochemical facilities are major sources of air pollution.

Like most industries, petrochemical plants are large sources of many of the criteria pollutants regulated under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide).

Another class of pollutants emitted by petrochemical facilities are volatile organic compounds (VOC), a class of compounds that vaporize into a gas at normal temperature and pressure.

When you walk into a freshly painted room, you’re breathing in VOCs; you’ll probably feel ok for a little bit, but if you stay in the room for a while, you’ll likely develop a headache. While some VOCs are harmless or safe at low doses, VOC exposure from petrochemical plants like ethane crackers pose a real health risk to frontline communities. Health outcomes include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea, as well as chronic impacts at high doses like kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage.

It’s important to note that many of these pollutants are invisible – making it critical that fenceline air monitors are in place and that residents have access to this information in a way that is easy to understand. Additionally, biomonitoring in conjunction with air monitoring can better assess health risks the public is exposed to (for example, testing for toxins in residents’/workers’ urine or blood).

For more on this topic, check out:



Water Pollution & Health


Petrochemical facilities are built near bodies of water because they require a lot of water for their operations and because they need to ship products and equipment by barge.



Ethylene crackers in the United States, data from the EIA, and modified using various sources, including Environmental Integrity Project to reflect the status of projects (Environmental Integrity Project (2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


For example, at an ethane cracker site, a giant structure called a quench tower uses large volumes of water to cool ethylene. The water becomes contaminated with hydrocarbons, benzene, styrene, and other VOCs in the process. While water must be treated before being discharged into waterways, all ethane crackers are still permitted to discharge dozens of contaminants. For example, Shell’s ethane cracker in Pennsylvania is permitted to release various amounts of toxics into the Ohio River each day: an average of 0.39 pounds of benzene per day,  0.22 pounds of chloroform, and 3.41 pounds of trichloroethylene. These small amounts add up, and combined with neighboring polluters, can lead to dangerous levels of chemicals entering downstream water intakes.

Another pathway for pollutants to enter waterways is through the (sometimes highly concerning) ways the industry disposes of waste, and the leachate or runoff created at landfills that could contaminate ground or surface waters.

Wastewater discharges and water runoff are regulated in an effort to protect public health and ecosystems. However the experience of frontline communities calls into question the adequacy of regulations and enforcement of water pollution measures:

  • From 1997 to 2001, a Dow Chemical Plant contaminated the water for residents of a Louisiana community with vinyl chloride, eventually forcing people to leave the area. This chemical is used to make PVC and has been linked to liver cancer, nerve damage, circulatory problems, reproductive problems, and skin lesions. The Louisiana Department of Health detected the problem but failed to tell residents. In 2011, Dow entered an agreement with the EPA and state environmental agency to keep vinyl chloride out of the city’s water. Yet the problem persisted. In 2013, a state judge found Dow partially responsible for the vinyl chloride found in the water supply, and a report filed in 2019 found again high levels of vinyl chloride in their water wells.
  • For years, Formosa Plastics released small bits of plastic, called nurdles, from its ethane cracker into Lavaca Bay in Texas in violation of the Clean Water Act. Marine life and birds often mistake nurdles for food and eat them, which can harm or kill the animals, and introduces potential toxins into the food chain. Luckily, dedicated environmental activists led by Diane Wilson painstakingly collected evidence of this illegal dumping for years, and in 2019, they won a $50 million settlement. The money is going towards environmental restoration projects.
  • There’s also the risk of accidents and spills, such as the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia. A ruptured storage tank caused 5,000 gallons of an industrial chemical to spill into the river, leaving over 300,000 residents without usable water. This event was a clear example that the systems in place to protect water are broken.

The rivers most threatened by recent petrochemical expansion, the Ohio and the Mississippi, are already the country’s most polluted rivers. Yet discharge permits generally fail to assess the cumulative impacts of the industry on these rivers.

For more on this topic, check out:



Do public agencies protect us?


Air and water pollution from petrochemical plants are permitted by public agencies, with the goal of keeping emissions at healthy thresholds. However, public agencies have repeatedly demonstrated a failure to protect public health:

Lack of Guidelines – For example, plants may emit pollutants that aren’t fully understood or lack regulatory guidelines. In Louisiana, a DuPont petrochemical facility was emitting chloroprene (a chemical used to manufacture neoprene) for decades before the EPA categorized it as a “likely carcinogen” in 2010. It took another 6 years before regulators established an air monitoring plan for chloroprene and began updating the plant’s chloroprene permit.

Self Policing – There’s also the fact that the regulatory framework in place largely relies on industries to self-police. That same petrochemical facility, now owned by Denka, regularly exceeds its emission standards. Meanwhile, residents living near the facility face the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the country.

Exceeding emissions isn’t a unique occurrence for petrochemical plants. A recent investigation found 10 oil refineries releasing benzene at levels above the federal action limit and at levels that could cause as many as four additional cancers per 10,000 people exposed to them. For some plant operators, violating permits and paying a fine if caught may simply be written off as the cost of doing business.

Leaks & Fugitive Emissions – “Fugitive emissions” through leaks are an additional concern. According to the EPA, leaking equipment is “the largest source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and volatile hazardous air pollutants (VHAPs) from petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities.” The EPA reports “approximately 70,367 tons per year of VOCs and 9,357 tons per year of HAPs have been emitted from equipment leaks.”

Weak Existing Regulations – Finally, there is the question of whether existing regulations are stringent enough to protect our health. A 2020 study found that “strengthening U.S. air quality standards for fine particulate pollution to be in compliance with current World Health Association (WHO) guidelines could save more than 140,000 lives over the course of a decade.”

In some cases, facilities aren’t even required to meet modern standards. The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is using a water permit that was grandfathered in from the previous industrial facility at the site, which is not up to current standards. The state limit for total dissolved solids (TDS) in wastewater discharged into a waterway was updated in 2010 to be 2,000 mg/L. Shell’s permit estimates that the TDS concentrations for the wastewater it is discharging into the Ohio River will be 4,690 mg/L to 7,375 mg/L.

By allowing the Shell ethane cracker to skirt these regulations, the DEP is not adhering to their own guidelines, accommodating Shell instead.



Emergency Incidents & Safety


As large industrial facilities that handle flammable materials, petrochemical facilities are at risk of explosion. The possibility for emergency incidents and “plant upsets” (forced shutdowns caused by mechanical problems, power outages or some other unplanned event) can release sizable amounts of toxic pollutants, seriously threatening public health and safety.

For residents of the Houston, Texas area petrochemical accidents are more a question of when and not if. In 2019, a number of industrial incidents hit the region. In March, there was a chemical fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery and a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company, a chemical storage facility, which reignited days later. Then there was an explosion at the KMCO chemical manufacturing plant that killed a worker and injured two others. In July, a fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery sent over 30 people to the hospital with injuries. In November, an explosion at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant forced residents within a half mile to evacuate, and many more to shelter in place.

Many industrial accidents can be attributed to inadequate enforcement of environmental and safety regulations. An analysis of hazardous liquid pipeline incidents by FracTracker Alliance found that 60% of incidents over the past 10 years were caused by equipment failure or incorrect operation (hazardous liquids include natural gas liquids, refined petroleum products, and crude oil).

Another factor impeding safety is the industry’s lack of transparency. Oftentimes, emergency management personnel are not informed about what type of chemicals are stored on industrial sites. They’re also often not consulted in the permit approval process – leaving out the expertise of those who best understand a community’s safety needs.

Climate change exacerbates the risks of emergency incidents. As mentioned earlier, Hurricane Ida resulted in some of the worst chemical releases ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.

To learn more about emergencies at ethane crackers, view our article Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure.



Downstream Health Impacts: Use and Disposal


Even if you don’t live near a petrochemical plant, you’re still in contact with petrochemical products like plastic every day (even you, cryptopygus antarcticus!). Using certain plastic products exposes us to toxins that have been associated with adverse carcinogenic, developmental, and endocrine-disrupting impacts. In addition to plastic, the petrochemicals that make up products in things like pesticides, paints, perfumes, and carpeting have health impacts too. Synthetic fertilizer (which is made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), can run off into surface water during rain events, leading to oxygen depletion in waterways and fish kills.

Finally, there’s the issue of disposal. Since only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, dealing with the incredible volume of waste from plastic and other petrochemical products is a major occupational and public health concern. There is no country with the resources or system in place to properly deal with all of the trash that comes from single-use plastic. While countries like the United States can ship plastic trash to other countries to keep the problem “out of sight, out of mind,” it has to end up somewhere, and often that is in rivers, oceans, city streets, and incinerators.

The Center for International Environmental Law, with input from FracTracker,  produced a report on the health impacts of plastic across its lifecycle – from fracking to microplastic pollution to incineration. Key health impacts from each stage are in the graphic below.



It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about the toxics in our environment. We need regulatory agencies to invoke the precautionary principle to protect our health and to stop permitting new plastic facilities. Getting involved in local efforts to support zero waste systems in your community is a great way to take action to prevent these harmful impacts.

For more on this topic, check out:

Economics



Global Perspective


Roughly a decade ago, around 2009-2013, global markets were looking favorable for petrochemical manufacturing. Advancements in fracking technology had led to an oversupply of  oil and gas, keeping prices low, and global demand for plastic was increasing.

The oil and gas industry has lost billions of dollars from the fracking industry, and is facing increased competition from renewables. Companies began looking towards investment in petrochemicals as a way to profit from the surplus of oil and gas. Multinational corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, Formosa Plastics, and ExxonMobil drew up plans to build over a dozen new ethane crackers in the United States to turn oil and gas into polyethylene plastic.



Recently added and new ethylene production capacity. IEEFA March 2020 report, “Proposed PTTGC Petrochemical Complex in Ohio Faces Significant Risks Source”


But the expansion wasn’t limited to the United States. Petrochemical companies planned to build new ethane crackers in China, Iran, India, Russia, Indonesia, and South Korea as well.

The expansion led to an oversupply of ethylene in the global market. The ambitious plans made by the petrochemical industry were based on the price of plastic being $1/pound, yet soon after, prices began to drop.

Meanwhile, cities, states, and countries have been working to ban single-use plastic, reducing demand for ethylene. While recycling plastic has in many ways been a failed endeavor, recycled plastics do take an additional hit at demand for virgin plastics.

Complicating factors is the coronavirus pandemic. Near the beginning of the pandemic, many oil, gas, and petrochemical companies announced setbacks. PTTG, a petrochemical company looking to build an ethane cracker in Ohio delayed their decision until 2021, and then delayed it indefinitely, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. Sasol Chemicals stated its Lake Charles Chemical Project will be a $50-100 million loss on the company’s balance sheet instead of the $50-100 million gain that was predicted. Royal Dutch Shell announced it would reduce its spending by $5 billion over that year.

At the same time, corporations have used the pandemic as an excuse to promote single-use plastic and halt plastic bans, despite the fact that health experts have stated reusables are safe and important for preventing other public health risks. The price of plastic has increased since the onset of the pandemic, however as IEEFA reports, with a small number of companies controlling the majority of the market there is a lack of transparency and regulation over prices.

In sum, the economic opportunities created by the petrochemical industry’s expansion are not on track to be nearly as profitable as once predicted.



Local Perspective


How does the petrochemical industry impact a local economy?

Let’s start with the foundation of petrochemicals—oil and gas. While the oil and gas industry can lead to large GDP growth, a relatively small percentage of that money makes its way to the community and even the state where drilling occurs, compared to other industries. This is for several reasons:

  • The new technology that has enabled the fracking boom is highly automated, and requires far fewer workers than conventional oil and gas development. Even in Pennsylvania, the country’s second largest producer of natural gas, there are actually more jobs in renewables, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, and grid modernization than the fossil fuel industry.
  • Many oil and gas operators aren’t headquartered in the state (or country) they’re drilling in, and therefore the wealth they amass goes elsewhere. Many of the workers travel from out of state. Housing and feeding out-of-state workers may provide a temporary economic boost, but one that’s unsustainable if workers decide to leave. Furthermore, companies often source equipment from other states and countries, precluding opportunities for local businesses.
  • The oil and gas industry has a lower “employment multiplier” than it claims. Research suggests that for every oil and gas job created, only 1.3 other jobs are created (learn more about the faulty model  employed to overinflate job estimates).
  • Oil and gas companies pay low state and local taxes and receive subsidies in the form of tax credits and exemptions. A 2019 study found that “conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil.”

The petrochemical industry builds off these factors. Despite the large GDP generated, a small percentage stays in the community where development is taking place, and the number of local jobs is also relatively small given the size of the investment. For example, the $1.65 billion tax break that Pennsylvania gave to Shell to build an ethane cracker will only employ 600 workers (that means that the state is spending $2.75 million for each permanent job created). Food and Water Watch found a similar investment in wind or solar industries would create 16,500 jobs.



Subsidies and Financial Agreements


In addition to receiving the largest tax break in Pennsylvania’s history, the Shell ethane cracker also received a 15-year exemption from state and local taxes – which brings up another important factor—the large tax-payer subsidies given to petrochemical companies.

In Louisiana, a statewide program (ITEP) exempts nearly all manufacturing companies from paying property taxes that would support local budgets, leading to decades of disinvestment from schools, local services, and social safety nets. Between 2006 and 2016, an estimated $13 billion was diverted from local governments because manufacturing companies weren’t paying property taxes. The program was changed in 2016 to allow local officials to reject a company’s request for tax breaks, however, in 2020, Governor Edwards backed a process that allows companies to appeal a local government’s decision to the state board.

Despite the generosity of many state governments, there is limited evidence to support that these large tax credit programs are effective.

In addition to tax breaks, ethane crackers often receive funding from public grants and economic development organizations in the public or non-profit sector. For example, Jobs Ohio gave PTT of Thailand and Daelim Industrial of South Korea $30 million for the PTT ethane cracker, and Texas Enterprise Fund granted $1.35 million to SABIC and $5 million to Exxon for the Exxon-SABIC ethane cracker.

Local investments to support the industry

To make up for these large tax breaks, companies may pledge money to make large investments in a state, repair local infrastructure, support colleges, or fund other community projects. Yet this takes power away from local government and into the hands of international corporations whose bottom line is profit, not the public’s well being.

  • For example, Shell must invest $1 billion in Pennsylvania as part of its tax credit agreement to build an ethane cracker. Shell has donated $1 million to the process technology program at the Community College of Beaver County near the ethane cracker site. The money will be used to create the “Shell Center for Process Technology Education.” According to the local newspaper, this program is heavily influenced by Shell, and will educate local students to work in the petrochemical industry.

The agreements corporations make with the state are designed to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the public, yet they play a major role in influencing the opportunities available for future generations.

Many of the ways oil, gas, and petrochemical companies invest in our communities —such as an oil rig display in the New Orleans aquarium, or pro-oil K-12 curriculum—are designed to influence the public’s perception and acceptance of them.

Boom and bust

These types of industry investments also make local governments dependent on multinational corporations and throw communities onto a boom-and-bust roller coaster. Communities throughout Appalachia based around coal and steel can attest to the devastating impacts that come when a local economy is based around one company or natural resource, and what happens when that company goes bankrupt or the natural resource is no longer profitable.

Influencing elected officials

But why do those in power choose petrochemicals, when state leaders could choose companies that manufacture renewable energy, reclaim brownfields, or build out our public transportation system?

States like Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas sit above the natural resources that companies like Shell and Exxon require, and as some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, they will engage in all of the lobbying and campaign funding necessary to get what they want.

For example, an investigation by Global Witness found that Pennsylvania representatives who voted for a bill that would provide millions in tax breaks to petrochemical companies (HB 1100) received over six times more campaign funds from the oil and gas industry than those who voted no (learn more about updates on this bill).



Externalized Costs


There are also costs that don’t show up on a budget. As mentioned in previous sections, ethane crackers put a tremendous burden on their environment and therefore a community’s health. Corporations don’t have to pay the healthcare costs for increases in asthma, heart disease, or cancer associated with petrochemical facilities. A 2019 study found that the air pollution in the Appalachian Basin has been responsible for 1,200 to 4,600 deaths and comes at a cost of $12 billion to 94 billion in climate impacts.

Petrochemical plants also prevent the land from providing ecosystem services —services that we depend on to breathe, eat, drink, and play.

Picture a healthy, forested acre of land along a river. The plants are sequestering carbon, providing shade, filtering the air, soaking up rain to prevent floods, and regulating the climate; the soil is cycling nutrients and filtering rainwater that drips into aquifers; the land provides habitat for animals and opportunities for people to grow food and medicine and to recreate. The more industrialized the land becomes, the more these services are lost.

You can’t put a price on clean air, water and soil.

Environmental Justice



Percentage of the population that are people of color, and points showing oil, gas, and petrochemical plants.  Data from the EPA EJ Screen (2020 Version), and 2020 datasets from EIAHIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions. These racist practices have led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana—an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s. Residents now call it Death Alley.

The petrochemical industry here is built on a legacy of racism: in a literal sense, as the petrochemical plants literally sit atop former plantations where enslaved people worked and were buried, and symbolically, as the industry benefits from the systemic oppression of Black people that has continued since.



Oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure along the Mississippi River. Mapped by FracTracker, using 2020 datasets from EIAHIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


Beyond race and income, age plays into environmental injustices. West Virginia, home to major chemical companies like Dow and Union Carbide, has one of the highest percentages of its population over 65 in the country. Older people are also more likely to develop chronic or serious health outcomes from exposure to pollution.

The second aspect of environmental justice—the meaningful participation in decisions that impact one’s environment—is also violated by the petrochemical industry. The decision to permit a petrochemical plant ultimately comes down to a small group of elected officials and doesn’t guarantee the meaningful participation of all residents.

There are many factors impeding meaningful participation. Permit documents for petrochemical facilities are long and complicated, and nearly impossible to interpret without advice from experts. Permits for some proposed facilities are pushed forward without public hearings and/or with a short window of opportunity to provide a comment. Even when the public does voice strong opposition to a facility, it can be greenlighted anyway.

These barriers are exacerbated for non-English speakers, as hearings and notices are often not offered in other languages, even in regions where many of the residents don’t speak English.



Percentage of the population that are linguistically isolated, and points showing oil, gas, and petrochemical plants.   Mapped by FracTracker, using 2020 datasets from EIAHIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


Despite the power of the petrochemical industry, frontline communities have achieved major victories. They have forced the nation to wake up to environmental racism perpetuated by the petrochemical industry, particularly in the Gulf Coast, changing policy at the federal level. Volunteer and grassroots groups have achieved victories fighting for language justice and public participation, and taken responsibility to conduct air and water monitoring that is vital for public health. Collectively, these efforts have stopped and delayed plans for polluting infrastructure, while also fostering important conversations about how to restore environments and communities impacted by decades of extractive industries and systemic oppression.



Boomtowns


The construction of petrochemical complexes like an ethane cracker bring an influx of workers to the region. You’ve probably heard stories about “boomtowns” throughout United States history—the gold rush in California, oilfields in Texas and Oklahoma, fracking in North Dakota. They’re stories of wealth and opportunity for some, and oppression and violence for others. The gold rush in the Western United States relied on labor of enslaved people and accelerated the genocide of Indigenous people. Sadly, these patterns continue today. Indigenous women and girls have faced increased crime and sexual violence since North Dakota’s fracking boom began in 2006, a reality that is widespread throughout North America. So-called “man camps”—temporary communities established for oil and gas workers—have been associated with increased rates of sexual violence and sex trafficking.

A sudden rise in population can strain community services and infrastructure, including human and social services. This can be a bigger issue in rural areas where public services cover large expanses of land.

Protecting marginalized communities from exploitation and violence is a much larger issue than stopping a petrochemical plant. But as a first step, communities experiencing rapid population growth must take social justice concerns seriously, and leaders should work with community members to address their concerns.

Climate


The petrochemical industry is an extension of the fossil fuel industry, and as such, it is a major threat to the climate. In fact, the petrochemical industry is the fastest growing oil consumer, and the International Energy Agency predicts the sector will make up half of oil demand by 2050.

The Gulf Coast is vulnerable to hurricanes which are increasing in intensity due to climate change. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey disrupted over one-third of the country’s chemical production. When Hurricane Ida hit in 2021, it flooded Louisiana and damaged homes, but it also impacted petrochemical plants, which as a result polluted the environment even more through spills, leaks, flaring, and venting; in fact these chemical releases may be some of the worst ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.

The petrochemical industry is eager to increase its production capacity elsewhere, namely the Ohio River Valley, simultaneously fleeing and causing climate change.



Oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, alongside land area impacted by tidal flooding. Mapped by FracTracker using 2019 and 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and EPA FLIGHT and NOAA.


Not only does the petrochemical industry create a demand for operators to extract more oil and gas, but the entire petrochemical lifecycle emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

The Center for International Environmental Law produced the report  Plastic & Climate with contributions from FracTracker, analyzing emissions from the entire plastic lifecycle, from extraction to the disposal of plastic. It found that in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced over 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s equal to emissions from 189 coal power plants.

The same report found that if plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions would be 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030 and by 2050, plastic could be responsible for 10 – 13% of the entire global carbon budget.

The images below from Plastic & Climate show the permitted greenhouse gas emissions from the petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley and the greenhouse gas emissions from ethylene crackers in the Gulf Coast.



 Plastic & Climate, CIEL, May 15, 2019



Plastic & Climate, CIEL, May 15, 2019


There are also a number of hidden ways petrochemical manufacturing impacts the climate: clearing trees for pipeline right-of-ways and petrochemical infrastructure releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and keeping this land clear stops the land from capturing more carbon. When plastic pollution degrades in the environment, it releases methane and other greenhouse gases once again.

Many politicians and industries tout the ways plastic is part of a sustainable future, saying that

plastic is a lightweight material that makes cars more fuel efficient. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the expansion of the industry will be catering to just cars or reusable items. In fact, with the biggest use of plastic being packaging, the buildout will contribute to the growing crisis of single use plastic pollution.

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A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States

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Key Facts About Petrochemicals


  • The petrochemical industry is expanding in the Gulf South and the Ohio River Valley. While many of the industry’s plans have not come to fruition, petrochemicals are becoming the largest driver of oil demand and present a major threat to the climate.
  • The fracking industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels for the petrochemical industry to turn into plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.
  • Petrochemical plants are major sources of pollution, both permitted and illegal. The experience of fenceline communities shows that public agencies have failed to protect public health from the harms caused by the industry.
  • The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions, and its environmental racism has led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s.


What are petrochemicals?


Petrochemicals are chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas.

The major petrochemicals are ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, xylene, toluene, and methanol.

Never heard of them? Petrochemicals are intermediate materials – you generally don’t buy them off the shelves but they make up things you buy off shelves, like plastic as well as many industrial products. They’re also a major blindspot in the fossil fuel debate, despite the fact that they are, according to the International Energy Agency, “becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.”

Here are a few of the common uses of petrochemicals:

  • Ethylene & propylene → Plastic
  • Butadiene → fake rubber, tires
  • Benzene → other chemicals → Styrofoam, resins, rubbers, lubricants, dyes, synthetic fibers
  • Xylene → products in the printing, rubber, resins, and leather industries, and as a paint thinner
  • Toluene → paints, lacquers, adhesives, explosives (like TNT)
  • Methanol → formaldehyde → adhesives, coatings, building materials, and yes, embalming bodies

By volume, the most common petrochemical produced in the US is ethylene, followed by propylene. Ethylene and propylene are made from the natural gas liquids ethane and propane. They can also be made from naphtha, a component of crude oil.

The biggest use globally for both ethylene and propylene is for plastic. Single-use packaging accounts for an estimated 40% of total plastic usage. Plastic is also the product currently driving a global petrochemical production “boom,” so this guide will largely focus on plastic’s impact on health, environment, and communities.



Pie chart of world consumption of petrochemicals

World consumption of petrochemicals, 2018. Source: IHS Markit, Petrochemical Industry Overview


How Petrochemicals are Made

Oil and gas extraction is the foundation of the petrochemical industry. In the United States, there are over 900,000 producing oil and gas wells. The majority of new oil and gas wells drilled in the United States utilize hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling. Learn more about this process and its impacts.

After oil and gas is extracted, it’s transported by a network of natural gas and crude oil pipelines to another facility for processing.


United States Map of Pipelines and Processing Stations

Oil and gas transportation and processing facilities in the United States (and a little bit of Canada). Mapped by FracTracker using datasets from the EIA, which were updated in January 2020, except for the petroleum refineries data layer which was updated in July 2020.

Natural gas is sent to processing stations or fractionators, which separate out natural gas liquids, like ethane and propane, from methane gas.


Diagram of gas stream components

Crude oil is set to refineries and heated in a distilling column to separate out its different components like diesel, kerosene, naphtha, and gasoline.


Diagram of Crude Oil Components

The refined products are transported by natural gas liquid and petroleum product pipelines to refineries, chemical plants, crackers, and other industrial facilities that process them into petrochemicals. These petrochemicals may undergo several more steps before being transformed into a range of consumer and industrial products.



Natural gas liquid and petroleum product transport and processing facilities. Mapped by FracTracker using datasets from the EIA (petroleum refinery data updated July 10, 2020, pipelines data updated April 28, 2020, ethylene cracker data updated in January 13, 2020). Petrochemical plants includes a select number of facilities from EPA 2019 FLIGHT dataset.

Ethane Crackers: How do they work?


Ethane crackers transform ethane, a component of the fracked gas stream, into ethylene. Ethane crackers can be a part of a larger petrochemical complex, and include facilities that transform ethylene into polyethylene plastic. Ethylene can be used to produce other chemical products, such as antifreeze.

Ethylene crackers are similar, and include facilities that produce ethylene using crude oil.

What do they produce?

Different types of plastic are produced at an ethane cracker, including:

  • low density polyethylene (LDPE)
  • linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
  • high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
  • ethylene glycol – a chemical that goes into PET plastic and antifreeze




How do they work?

After gas has been extracted (read more about that process) it’s transported via pipeline to different facilities that separate ethane from other components of the gas stream. Ethane is transported to ethane crackers via pipeline.



Source: Ethane Storage and Distribution Hub in the United States, Department of Energy


Step 1) Cracking After ethane arrives at the facility, furnaces use extreme heat (1500°F), to “crack” the molecular bonds in ethane, and rearrange its atoms into ethylene.

Step 2) Cooling The ethylene is moved to a quench tower, which cools the gas by spraying it with water.

Quench towers are HUGE – the tower alone weighs upwards of 2,000 tons.

Step 3) Compression Next the cooled gas moves to a compressor, which pressurizes the ethylene gas, beginning its conversion into a liquid.

Step 4) Refrigeration A heat exchanger further cools the ethylene. By the end of this step, the majority of the ethylene has been condensed into a liquid.

Step 5) Separation The ethylene is then purified in fractionation towers. In these towers, the temperature is kept higher at the bottom and lower at the top. The different boiling points of molecules force them to separate out, and pure ethylene can be extracted.

Step 6) Polymerization An ethane cracker complex can contain multiple polyethylene units on site, where ethylene is linked up in chains to form polyethylene. This process can be engineered to produce different types of polyethylene with varying degrees of strength and elasticity. Ethylene may also be transported to other facilities for polymerization or other processing.

Step 7) Shipping The output from an ethane cracker is often small plastic pellets called nurdles. One ethane cracker may produce well over a million tons of nurdles per year. This product is shipped out by rail, barge, or truck to factories that shape it into different plastic products.

This process is very energy-intensive. Ethane crackers have power plants on site to generate steam and electricity.

Where are they?

The majority of ethane crackers in the United States are in Texas and Louisiana. There is also one in Illinois, Iowa, and Kentucky, and a new plant being built in Pennsylvania.

Expansion of the Petrochemical Industry


The petrochemical industry in the United States largely grew from demand for fuels and supplies during WWI and WW2, but it took off in the 1950s when petroleum-based plastic became popular.

In the United States, petrochemical facilities are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana –  states that sit above abundant oil and gas resources, attracting corporations that have heavily manipulated the states’ political and regulatory environment. Petrochemical facilities in the Gulf South often abut schools and residential areas, and take a heavy toll of communities’ health. According to the Energy Information Administration, 95% of the country’s ethylene capacity and roughly half of the country’s petroleum refining and natural gas processing capacity is along the Gulf Coast.



Oil, gas, and petrochemical facilities along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Mapped by FracTracker using 2019 and 2020 datasets from EIA, HIFLD, and EPA FLIGHT.


The expansion of fracking technology in the 21st century has propelled another petrochemical expansion, once again focused on plastic production.

The industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels and petrochemical products like plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.

The oil and gas industry understands that it is increasingly being replaced by cheaper, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and battery power. A recent report found that demand for oil may have peaked in 2019. Petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industry’s desperate attempt to remain relevant in a post-carbon world.

According to the American Chemistry Council, the petrochemical industry proposed $200 billion worth of new and expanding projects between 2010 and 2018. These projects are largely planned for the Gulf Coast, but the industry is also planning a second “petrochemical hub” in Appalachia.

Other countries are also expanding their petrochemical capacity. While many are extracting oil and gas within their borders, others have been influenced by the fracking boom in the United States and are importing petrochemical feedstock from the shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states.

Research suggests that the industry’s bet on plastic won’t be nearly as profitable as originally expected. Meanwhile, fenceline communities are left shouldering the health impacts.



Gulf Coast Buildout


There are over 100 planned or recently completed petrochemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana alone, in addition to many more existing sites.

The Gulf Coast petrochemical expansion also includes a number of proposed and expanded plastic manufacturing facilities. Major projects include Formosa Plastic’s proposed ethane cracker complex in Saint James Parish, Louisiana which would produce polyethylene, polypropylene (types of plastic) and ethylene glycol (to make polyester and antifreeze). Another isa recently constructed ethane cracker plant (the world’s largest) in San Patricio County, Texas, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and SABIC. The project, called Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, will manufacture monoethylene glycol (for polyester and plastic products) and polyethylene plastic. These projects have faced resistance and delays from frontline communities, who are already facing negative health impacts from existing petrochemical infrastructure.

Equistar Chemicals, Dow Chemical Company, Formosa Plastics, and Ineos USA are also expanding their ethylene production capacity at existing facilities. And other types of petrochemical facilities, including methanol plants from South Louisiana Methanol and Big Lake Fuels, have also attempted to expand along the Gulf Coast.



Ohio River Valley Buildout


Fracking has opened the oil and gas floodgates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Along the Ohio River, the Marcellus Shale is rich in petrochemical feedstock (natural gas liquids, or “wet gas”) and the oil and gas industry is eager to turn this region into a second major petrochemical hub.



The Marcellus and Utica shale plays, which are thousands of feet below Earth. Lines show estimates of parts of shale plays rich in wet gas (ethane, propane, butane) versus dry gas (methane) based on figures from Penn State Marcellus Center and the Energy Information Administration.


West Virginia has a long history of chemical industries. Major chemical companies like Union Carbide, DuPont, and Dow have all exploited the region’s vast coal, oil, gas, and salt reserves. The Kanawha River Valley has one of the highest concentrations of chemical facilities in the country, earning it the nickname Chemical Valley. These facilities produce explosives, antifreeze, solvents, pesticides, PFAS “forever” chemicals, chlorine, and other chemical products.

Industry officials have called the fracking boom a “renaissance” for the state’s chemical companies, but so far the petrochemical promises have largely been smoke and mirrors. Plus, this industry has left a long legacy of pollution and a rebirth of the undrinkable water and toxic air that residents have endured for decades leaves much to be desired.

Industry leaders have paraded the potential for five ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley Region to convert fracked ethane gas into polyethylene plastic. The Shell ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, is the first ethane cracker to be built outside the Gulf Coast in 20 years. A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio, although its owner, PTT Global Chemical, has not made a final investment decision, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. The setbacks of this project could impact another major petrochemical project in the region, the Mountaineer Storage Hub, which would store fracked gas liquids in underground salt caverns along the Ohio River.

There are many other signs that point towards the petrochemical industry’s predictions for the Ohio River Valley being overly ambitious. An ethane cracker proposed by Braskem and Odebrecht fell through after Odebrecht filed for bankruptcy and its CEO was sentenced to prison for corruption. While public officials have been courting ExxonMobil to build an ethane cracker in southwest Pennsylvania, in late 2020, an Exxon spokesperson has stated that there are no active plans for an ethane cracker in the state.

In 2017, China Energy Investment Corp. signed an agreement to invest $83.7 billion in oil, gas, and petrochemical development in West Virginia. West Virginia’s public officials touted the likelihood of new projects breaking ground within a year, but as of early 2022, there’s been no news on what happened to that $83.7 billion. The details of the agreement have not been made public, but it’s not legally binding.

The Appalachian Development Group sought a $1.9 billion loan from the Department of Energy, and an additional $1.4 billion from private investment to develop a petrochemical storage and trading hub. However, the loan in question was designed for clean energy projects, and a recent amendment solidified that this loan could only go towards projects that “avoid, reduce, or sequester” greenhouse gasses.



Ineos, Europe’s largest plastic producer, is investing billions in importing fracked gas from the US to make plastics in Europe. Source: Plastic Atlas. 2019.

Health & Safety


Petrochemicals can be toxic —you’d never want to inhale benzene or take a gulp of toluene. For one, they’re often highly flammable so there’s an explosion risk when it comes to transporting and processing them. For another, they contain toxic chemical characteristics that pose short and long term risks.

The process of turning toxic chemicals into consumer products presents health threats. And when these products break down back into those original components, either during use or disposal, there’s the potential for a health threat to emerge once again.



Air Pollution & Health


Petrochemical facilities are major sources of air pollution.

Like most industries, petrochemical plants are large sources of many of the criteria pollutants regulated under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide).

Another class of pollutants emitted by petrochemical facilities are volatile organic compounds (VOC), a class of compounds that vaporize into a gas at normal temperature and pressure.

When you walk into a freshly painted room, you’re breathing in VOCs; you’ll probably feel ok for a little bit, but if you stay in the room for a while, you’ll likely develop a headache. While some VOCs are harmless or safe at low doses, VOC exposure from petrochemical plants like ethane crackers pose a real health risk to frontline communities. Health outcomes include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea, as well as chronic impacts at high doses like kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage.

It’s important to note that many of these pollutants are invisible – making it critical that fenceline air monitors are in place and that residents have access to this information in a way that is easy to understand. Additionally, biomonitoring in conjunction with air monitoring can better assess health risks the public is exposed to (for example, testing for toxins in residents’/workers’ urine or blood).

For more on this topic, check out:



Water Pollution & Health


Petrochemical facilities are built near bodies of water because they require a lot of water for their operations and because they need to ship products and equipment by barge.



Ethylene crackers in the United States, data from the EIA, and modified using various sources, including Environmental Integrity Project to reflect the status of projects (Environmental Integrity Project (2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


For example, at an ethane cracker site, a giant structure called a quench tower uses large volumes of water to cool ethylene. The water becomes contaminated with hydrocarbons, benzene, styrene, and other VOCs in the process. While water must be treated before being discharged into waterways, all ethane crackers are still permitted to discharge dozens of contaminants. For example, Shell’s ethane cracker in Pennsylvania is permitted to release various amounts of toxics into the Ohio River each day: an average of 0.39 pounds of benzene per day,  0.22 pounds of chloroform, and 3.41 pounds of trichloroethylene. These small amounts add up, and combined with neighboring polluters, can lead to dangerous levels of chemicals entering downstream water intakes.

Another pathway for pollutants to enter waterways is through the (sometimes highly concerning) ways the industry disposes of waste, and the leachate or runoff created at landfills that could contaminate ground or surface waters.

Wastewater discharges and water runoff are regulated in an effort to protect public health and ecosystems. However the experience of frontline communities calls into question the adequacy of regulations and enforcement of water pollution measures:

  • From 1997 to 2001, a Dow Chemical Plant contaminated the water for residents of a Louisiana community with vinyl chloride, eventually forcing people to leave the area. This chemical is used to make PVC and has been linked to liver cancer, nerve damage, circulatory problems, reproductive problems, and skin lesions. The Louisiana Department of Health detected the problem but failed to tell residents. In 2011, Dow entered an agreement with the EPA and state environmental agency to keep vinyl chloride out of the city’s water. Yet the problem persisted. In 2013, a state judge found Dow partially responsible for the vinyl chloride found in the water supply, and a report filed in 2019 found again high levels of vinyl chloride in their water wells.
  • For years, Formosa Plastics released small bits of plastic, called nurdles, from its ethane cracker into Lavaca Bay in Texas in violation of the Clean Water Act. Marine life and birds often mistake nurdles for food and eat them, which can harm or kill the animals, and introduces potential toxins into the food chain. Luckily, dedicated environmental activists led by Diane Wilson painstakingly collected evidence of this illegal dumping for years, and in 2019, they won a $50 million settlement. The money is going towards environmental restoration projects.
  • There’s also the risk of accidents and spills, such as the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia. A ruptured storage tank caused 5,000 gallons of an industrial chemical to spill into the river, leaving over 300,000 residents without usable water. This event was a clear example that the systems in place to protect water are broken.

The rivers most threatened by recent petrochemical expansion, the Ohio and the Mississippi, are already the country’s most polluted rivers. Yet discharge permits generally fail to assess the cumulative impacts of the industry on these rivers.

For more on this topic, check out:



Do public agencies protect us?


Air and water pollution from petrochemical plants are permitted by public agencies, with the goal of keeping emissions at healthy thresholds. However, public agencies have repeatedly demonstrated a failure to protect public health:

Lack of Guidelines – For example, plants may emit pollutants that aren’t fully understood or lack regulatory guidelines. In Louisiana, a DuPont petrochemical facility was emitting chloroprene (a chemical used to manufacture neoprene) for decades before the EPA categorized it as a “likely carcinogen” in 2010. It took another 6 years before regulators established an air monitoring plan for chloroprene and began updating the plant’s chloroprene permit.

Self Policing – There’s also the fact that the regulatory framework in place largely relies on industries to self-police. That same petrochemical facility, now owned by Denka, regularly exceeds its emission standards. Meanwhile, residents living near the facility face the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the country.

Exceeding emissions isn’t a unique occurrence for petrochemical plants. A recent investigation found 10 oil refineries releasing benzene at levels above the federal action limit and at levels that could cause as many as four additional cancers per 10,000 people exposed to them. For some plant operators, violating permits and paying a fine if caught may simply be written off as the cost of doing business.

Leaks & Fugitive Emissions – “Fugitive emissions” through leaks are an additional concern. According to the EPA, leaking equipment is “the largest source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and volatile hazardous air pollutants (VHAPs) from petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities.” The EPA reports “approximately 70,367 tons per year of VOCs and 9,357 tons per year of HAPs have been emitted from equipment leaks.”

Weak Existing Regulations – Finally, there is the question of whether existing regulations are stringent enough to protect our health. A 2020 study found that “strengthening U.S. air quality standards for fine particulate pollution to be in compliance with current World Health Association (WHO) guidelines could save more than 140,000 lives over the course of a decade.”

In some cases, facilities aren’t even required to meet modern standards. The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is using a water permit that was grandfathered in from the previous industrial facility at the site, which is not up to current standards. The state limit for total dissolved solids (TDS) in wastewater discharged into a waterway was updated in 2010 to be 2,000 mg/L. Shell’s permit estimates that the TDS concentrations for the wastewater it is discharging into the Ohio River will be 4,690 mg/L to 7,375 mg/L.

By allowing the Shell ethane cracker to skirt these regulations, the DEP is not adhering to their own guidelines, accommodating Shell instead.



Emergency Incidents & Safety


As large industrial facilities that handle flammable materials, petrochemical facilities are at risk of explosion. The possibility for emergency incidents and “plant upsets” (forced shutdowns caused by mechanical problems, power outages or some other unplanned event) can release sizable amounts of toxic pollutants, seriously threatening public health and safety.

For residents of the Houston, Texas area petrochemical accidents are more a question of when and not if. In 2019, a number of industrial incidents hit the region. In March, there was a chemical fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery and a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company, a chemical storage facility, which reignited days later. Then there was an explosion at the KMCO chemical manufacturing plant that killed a worker and injured two others. In July, a fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery sent over 30 people to the hospital with injuries. In November, an explosion at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant forced residents within a half mile to evacuate, and many more to shelter in place.

Many industrial accidents can be attributed to inadequate enforcement of environmental and safety regulations. An analysis of hazardous liquid pipeline incidents by FracTracker Alliance found that 60% of incidents over the past 10 years were caused by equipment failure or incorrect operation (hazardous liquids include natural gas liquids, refined petroleum products, and crude oil).

Another factor impeding safety is the industry’s lack of transparency. Oftentimes, emergency management personnel are not informed about what type of chemicals are stored on industrial sites. They’re also often not consulted in the permit approval process – leaving out the expertise of those who best understand a community’s safety needs.

Climate change exacerbates the risks of emergency incidents. As mentioned earlier, Hurricane Ida resulted in some of the worst chemical releases ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.

To learn more about emergencies at ethane crackers, view our article Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure.



Downstream Health Impacts: Use and Disposal


Even if you don’t live near a petrochemical plant, you’re still in contact with petrochemical products like plastic every day (even you, cryptopygus antarcticus!). Using certain plastic products exposes us to toxins that have been associated with adverse carcinogenic, developmental, and endocrine-disrupting impacts. In addition to plastic, the petrochemicals that make up products in things like pesticides, paints, perfumes, and carpeting have health impacts too. Synthetic fertilizer (which is made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), can run off into surface water during rain events, leading to oxygen depletion in waterways and fish kills.

Finally, there’s the issue of disposal. Since only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, dealing with the incredible volume of waste from plastic and other petrochemical products is a major occupational and public health concern. There is no country with the resources or system in place to properly deal with all of the trash that comes from single-use plastic. While countries like the United States can ship plastic trash to other countries to keep the problem “out of sight, out of mind,” it has to end up somewhere, and often that is in rivers, oceans, city streets, and incinerators.

The Center for International Environmental Law, with input from FracTracker,  produced a report on the health impacts of plastic across its lifecycle – from fracking to microplastic pollution to incineration. Key health impacts from each stage are in the graphic below.



It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about the toxics in our environment. We need regulatory agencies to invoke the precautionary principle to protect our health and to stop permitting new plastic facilities. Getting involved in local efforts to support zero waste systems in your community is a great way to take action to prevent these harmful impacts.

For more on this topic, check out:

Economics



Global Perspective


Roughly a decade ago, around 2009-2013, global markets were looking favorable for petrochemical manufacturing. Advancements in fracking technology had led to an oversupply of  oil and gas, keeping prices low, and global demand for plastic was increasing.

The oil and gas industry has lost billions of dollars from the fracking industry, and is facing increased competition from renewables. Companies began looking towards investment in petrochemicals as a way to profit from the surplus of oil and gas. Multinational corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, Formosa Plastics, and ExxonMobil drew up plans to build over a dozen new ethane crackers in the United States to turn oil and gas into polyethylene plastic.



Recently added and new ethylene production capacity. IEEFA March 2020 report, “Proposed PTTGC Petrochemical Complex in Ohio Faces Significant Risks Source”


But the expansion wasn’t limited to the United States. Petrochemical companies planned to build new ethane crackers in China, Iran, India, Russia, Indonesia, and South Korea as well.

The expansion led to an oversupply of ethylene in the global market. The ambitious plans made by the petrochemical industry were based on the price of plastic being $1/pound, yet soon after, prices began to drop.

Meanwhile, cities, states, and countries have been working to ban single-use plastic, reducing demand for ethylene. While recycling plastic has in many ways been a failed endeavor, recycled plastics do take an additional hit at demand for virgin plastics.

Complicating factors is the coronavirus pandemic. Near the beginning of the pandemic, many oil, gas, and petrochemical companies announced setbacks. PTTG, a petrochemical company looking to build an ethane cracker in Ohio delayed their decision until 2021, and then delayed it indefinitely, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. Sasol Chemicals stated its Lake Charles Chemical Project will be a $50-100 million loss on the company’s balance sheet instead of the $50-100 million gain that was predicted. Royal Dutch Shell announced it would reduce its spending by $5 billion over that year.

At the same time, corporations have used the pandemic as an excuse to promote single-use plastic and halt plastic bans, despite the fact that health experts have stated reusables are safe and important for preventing other public health risks. The price of plastic has increased since the onset of the pandemic, however as IEEFA reports, with a small number of companies controlling the majority of the market there is a lack of transparency and regulation over prices.

In sum, the economic opportunities created by the petrochemical industry’s expansion are not on track to be nearly as profitable as once predicted.



Local Perspective


How does the petrochemical industry impact a local economy?

Let’s start with the foundation of petrochemicals—oil and gas. While the oil and gas industry can lead to large GDP growth, a relatively small percentage of that money makes its way to the community and even the state where drilling occurs, compared to other industries. This is for several reasons:

  • The new technology that has enabled the fracking boom is highly automated, and requires far fewer workers than conventional oil and gas development. Even in Pennsylvania, the country’s second largest producer of natural gas, there are actually more jobs in renewables, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, and grid modernization than the fossil fuel industry.
  • Many oil and gas operators aren’t headquartered in the state (or country) they’re drilling in, and therefore the wealth they amass goes elsewhere. Many of the workers travel from out of state. Housing and feeding out-of-state workers may provide a temporary economic boost, but one that’s unsustainable if workers decide to leave. Furthermore, companies often source equipment from other states and countries, precluding opportunities for local businesses.
  • The oil and gas industry has a lower “employment multiplier” than it claims. Research suggests that for every oil and gas job created, only 1.3 other jobs are created (learn more about the faulty model  employed to overinflate job estimates).
  • Oil and gas companies pay low state and local taxes and receive subsidies in the form of tax credits and exemptions. A 2019 study found that “conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil.”

The petrochemical industry builds off these factors. Despite the large GDP generated, a small percentage stays in the community where development is taking place, and the number of local jobs is also relatively small given the size of the investment. For example, the $1.65 billion tax break that Pennsylvania gave to Shell to build an ethane cracker will only employ 600 workers (that means that the state is spending $2.75 million for each permanent job created). Food and Water Watch found a similar investment in wind or solar industries would create 16,500 jobs.



Subsidies and Financial Agreements


In addition to receiving the largest tax break in Pennsylvania’s history, the Shell ethane cracker also received a 15-year exemption from state and local taxes – which brings up another important factor—the large tax-payer subsidies given to petrochemical companies.

In Louisiana, a statewide program (ITEP) exempts nearly all manufacturing companies from paying property taxes that would support local budgets, leading to decades of disinvestment from schools, local services, and social safety nets. Between 2006 and 2016, an estimated $13 billion was diverted from local governments because manufacturing companies weren’t paying property taxes. The program was changed in 2016 to allow local officials to reject a company’s request for tax breaks, however, in 2020, Governor Edwards backed a process that allows companies to appeal a local government’s decision to the state board.

Despite the generosity of many state governments, there is limited evidence to support that these large tax credit programs are effective.

In addition to tax breaks, ethane crackers often receive funding from public grants and economic development organizations in the public or non-profit sector. For example, Jobs Ohio gave PTT of Thailand and Daelim Industrial of South Korea $30 million for the PTT ethane cracker, and Texas Enterprise Fund granted $1.35 million to SABIC and $5 million to Exxon for the Exxon-SABIC ethane cracker.

Local investments to support the industry

To make up for these large tax breaks, companies may pledge money to make large investments in a state, repair local infrastructure, support colleges, or fund other community projects. Yet this takes power away from local government and into the hands of international corporations whose bottom line is profit, not the public’s well being.

  • For example, Shell must invest $1 billion in Pennsylvania as part of its tax credit agreement to build an ethane cracker. Shell has donated $1 million to the process technology program at the Community College of Beaver County near the ethane cracker site. The money will be used to create the “Shell Center for Process Technology Education.” According to the local newspaper, this program is heavily influenced by Shell, and will educate local students to work in the petrochemical industry.

The agreements corporations make with the state are designed to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the public, yet they play a major role in influencing the opportunities available for future generations.

Many of the ways oil, gas, and petrochemical companies invest in our communities —such as an oil rig display in the New Orleans aquarium, or pro-oil K-12 curriculum—are designed to influence the public’s perception and acceptance of them.

Boom and bust

These types of industry investments also make local governments dependent on multinational corporations and throw communities onto a boom-and-bust roller coaster. Communities throughout Appalachia based around coal and steel can attest to the devastating impacts that come when a local economy is based around one company or natural resource, and what happens when that company goes bankrupt or the natural resource is no longer profitable.

Influencing elected officials

But why do those in power choose petrochemicals, when state leaders could choose companies that manufacture renewable energy, reclaim brownfields, or build out our public transportation system?

States like Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas sit above the natural resources that companies like Shell and Exxon require, and as some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, they will engage in all of the lobbying and campaign funding necessary to get what they want.

For example, an investigation by Global Witness found that Pennsylvania representatives who voted for a bill that would provide millions in tax breaks to petrochemical companies (HB 1100) received over six times more campaign funds from the oil and gas industry than those who voted no (learn more about updates on this bill).



Externalized Costs


There are also costs that don’t show up on a budget. As mentioned in previous sections, ethane crackers put a tremendous burden on their environment and therefore a community’s health. Corporations don’t have to pay the healthcare costs for increases in asthma, heart disease, or cancer associated with petrochemical facilities. A 2019 study found that the air pollution in the Appalachian Basin has been responsible for 1,200 to 4,600 deaths and comes at a cost of $12 billion to 94 billion in climate impacts.

Petrochemical plants also prevent the land from providing ecosystem services —services that we depend on to breathe, eat, drink, and play.

Picture a healthy, forested acre of land along a river. The plants are sequestering carbon, providing shade, filtering the air, soaking up rain to prevent floods, and regulating the climate; the soil is cycling nutrients and filtering rainwater that drips into aquifers; the land provides habitat for animals and opportunities for people to grow food and medicine and to recreate. The more industrialized the land becomes, the more these services are lost.

You can’t put a price on clean air, water and soil.

Environmental Justice



Percentage of the population that are people of color, and points showing oil, gas, and petrochemical plants.  Data from the EPA EJ Screen (2020 Version), and 2020 datasets from EIAHIFLD, and the Environmental Integrity Project ((2021, May 3). Emission Increase Database and Pipelines Inventory. Retrieved from https://environmentalintegrity.org/oil-gas-infrastructure-emissions.”)


The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions. These racist practices have led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana—an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s. Residents now call it Death Alley.

The petrochemical industry here is built on a legacy of racism: in a literal sense, as the petrochemical plants literally sit atop former plantations where enslaved people worked and were buried, and symbolically, as the industry benefits from the systemic oppression of Black people that has continued since.