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Shell’s Falcon Pipeline Under Investigation for Serious Public Safety Threats

 

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Breaking News

The Falcon Ethane Pipeline System is at the center of major investigations into possible noncompliance with construction and public safety requirements and failing to report drilling mud spills, according to documents obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) by FracTracker Alliance. These investigations, which are yet to be released, also uncovered instances of alleged data falsification in construction reports and Shell Pipeline Company firing employees in retaliation for speaking up about these issues.

3/17/21 Press release: https://www.fractracker.org/falcon-investigation-press-release-fractraccker-alliance/

Key Takeaways

  • Shell’s Falcon Pipeline, which is designed to carry ethane to the Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, PA for plastic production, has been under investigation by federal and state agencies, since 2019. The construction of the pipeline is nearing completion.
  • Allegations in these investigations include issues with the pipeline’s coating, falsified reports, and retaliation against workers who spoke about issues.
  • Organizations are calling on public agencies to take action to protect public welfare and the environment along the entire pipeline route through Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
  • These investigations reveal yet another example of the life-threatening risks brought on by the onslaught of pipeline construction in the Ohio River Valley in the wake in the fracking boom. They also reveal the failure of public agencies to protect us, as documents reveal the federal agency that oversees pipeline safety did not adequately respond to serious accusations brought to its attention by a whistleblower.
  • These new concerns are coming to light as people across the country are demanding bold action on plastic pollution and the climate crisis through campaigns such as Build Back Fossil Free, Plastic Free President, and Future Beyond Shell. On a local level, residents in the Ohio River Valley continue to shoulder the health burdens of the fracking industry, despite a recent ban on fracking in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, which a growing body of scientific evidence verifies. The Falcon Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas for plastic production, is directly at odds with these demands.

Shell’s attempts to cut corners while constructing this 98-mile pipeline, likely motivated by the increasingly bleak economic prospects of this project, present serious public safety concerns for the thousands of residents along its route in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.

These allegations are serious enough to warrant immediate action. We’re calling on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to thoroughly examine these allegations and suspend construction if not yet completed, or, in the case that construction is complete, operation of the Falcon Pipeline. Furthermore, we call on state environmental regulators to fully investigate construction incidents throughout the entire pipeline route, require Shell Pipeline to complete any necessary remediation, including funding independent drinking water testing, and take enforcement action to hold Shell accountable. Read our letters to these agencies here.

These investigations were featured in a March 17th article by Anya Litvak in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

3/18/21 update:

Additional coverage of this story was published in a Times Online article by Daveen Ray Kurutz, a StateImpact Pennsylvania article by Reid Frazier, and an Observer-Reporter article by Rick Shrum.

Pipeline workers speak out

According to documents obtained through a public records request, a whistleblower contacted PHMSA in 2019 with serious concerns about the Falcon, including that the pipeline may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating. PHMSA is a federal agency that regulates pipeline operation. The whistleblower also shared environmental threats occurring within the DEP’s jurisdiction, prompting the PA DEP and Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to get involved.

Many of the issues with the Falcon relate to a construction method used to install pipelines beneath sensitive areas like roads and rivers called horizontal directional drilling (HDD). Shell Pipeline contracted Ellingson Trenchless LLC to complete over 20 HDDs along the Falcon, including crossings beneath drinking water sources such as the Ohio River and its tributaries. FracTracker and DeSmog Blog previously reported on major drilling mud spills Shell caused while constructing HDDs and how public agencies have failed to regulate these incidents.

Falcon Pipeline Horizontal Directional Drilling locations and fluid losses

This map shows the Falcon Pipeline’s HDD crossings and spills of drilling fluid spills that occurred through 3/5/2020. To see the data sources, click on the information icon found in the upper right corner of the map header as well as under the map address bar.

View Map Full Sized | Updated 6/16/20

 

PHMSA’s incomplete investigation

Correspondence between the PA DEP and PHMSA from February 26, 2020 reveal the gravity of the situation. While PHMSA conducted an inquiry into the whistleblower’s complaints in 2019 and concluded there were no deficiencies, PA DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote that his agency felt it was incomplete and urged PHMSA to conduct a more thorough investigation. Secretary McDonnell noted the PA DEP “has received what appears to be credible information that sections of Shell’s Falcon Pipeline project in western PA, developed for the transportation of ethane liquid, may have been constructed with defective corrosion coating protection,” and that “corroded pipes pose a possible threat of product release, landslide, or even explosions.”

FracTracker submitted a Freedom of Information Act request with PHMSA asking for documents pertaining to this inquiry, and was directed to the agency’s publicly available enforcement action webpage. The page shows that PHMSA opened a case into the Falcon on July 16, 2020, five months after Secretary McDonnell sent the letter. PHMSA sent Shell Pipeline Company a Notice of Amendment citing several inadequacies with the Falcon’s construction, including:

  • inadequate written standards for visual inspection of pipelines;
  • inadequate written standards that address pipeline location as it pertains to proximity to buildings and private dwellings;
  • compliance with written standards addressing what actions should be taken if coating damage is observed during horizontal directional drill pullback; and
  • inadequate welding procedures

Shell responded with its amended procedures on July 27, 2020, and PHMSA closed the case on August 13, 2020.

Of note, PHMSA states it is basing this Notice on an inspection conducted between April 9th and 11th, 2019, when construction on the Falcon had only recently started. PHMSA has con­firmed its in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the Falcon is on­go­ing, however we question the accuracy of self reported data given to PHMSA inspectors should be questioned

The PA DEP also brought the matter to the attention of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Timeline of events in the Falcon investigation

Public knowledge of these investigations is limited. Here’s what we know right now. Click on the icons or the event descriptions for links to source documents.

Ohio and West Virginia

The Falcon pipeline also crosses through Ohio and briefly, West Virginia. While we do not know how these states are involved in these investigations, our past analyses raise concerns about the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s (OEPA) ability to regulate the pipeline’s HDD crossings.

One of the focuses of the Pennsylvania DEP’s investigation is the failure to report drilling fluid spills that occur while constructing a HDD crossing. The PA DEP shut down all HDD operations in November, 2019 and forced Shell to use monitors to calculate spills, as was stated in permit applications.

 

A horizontal directional drilling (HDD) construction site for the Falcon Pipeline in Southview, Washington County, Pennsylvania. You can see where the drilling mud has returned to the surface in the top left of the photo. Photo by Cyberhawk obtained by FracTracker Alliance through a right-to-know request with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

 

 

The Falcon Pipeline’s HDD locations are often close to neighborhoods, like the HOU-02 crossing in Southview, Washington County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Cyberhawk obtained by FracTracker Alliance through a right-to-know request with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

 

To our knowledge, the OEPA did not enforce this procedure, instead relying on workers to manually calculate and report spills. Shell’s failure to accurately self-report raises concerns about the safety of the Falcon’s HDD crossings in Ohio, including the crossing beneath the Ohio River, just upstream of drinking water intakes for Toronto and Steubenville, Ohio.

Public water system wells, intakes, and Drinking Water Source Protection Areas nears the Falcon Pipeline Route

Public water system wells, intakes, and Drinking Water Source Protection Areas nears the Falcon Pipeline Route. Note, the pipeline route may have slightly changed since this map was produced. Source: Ohio EPA

 

The Shell ethane cracker

The Falcon is connected to one of Shell’s most high-profile projects: a $6 billion to $10 billion plastic manufacturing plant, commonly referred to as the Shell ethane cracker, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. These massive projects represent the oil and gas industry’s far-fetched dream of a new age of manufacturing in the region that would revolve around converting fracked gas into plastic, much of which would be exported overseas.

Many in the Ohio River Valley have raised serious concerns over the public health implications of a petrochemical buildout. The United States’ current petrochemical hub is in the Gulf Coast, including a stretch of Louisiana known colloquially as “Cancer Alley” because of the high risk of cancer from industrial pollution.

Construction of the ethane cracker and the Falcon pipeline have forged forward during the COVID-19 pandemic. In another example of the culture of fear at the worksite, several workers expressed concern that speaking publicly about unsafe working conditions that made social distancing impossible would cost them their jobs. Yet the state has allowed work to continue on at the plant, going so far as to grant Shell the approval to continue work without the waiver most businesses had to obtain. As of December 2020, over 274 Shell workers had contracted the coronavirus.

Weak outlook for Shell’s investment

While the oil and gas industry had initially planned several ethane crackers for the region, all companies except for Shell have pulled out or put their plans on hold, likely due to the industry’s weak financial outlook.

A June 2020 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), stated that:

Royal Dutch Shell owes a more complete explanation to shareholders and the people of Pennsylvania of how it is managing risk. Shell remains optimistic regarding the prospects for its Pennsylvania Petrochemical Complex in Beaver County, Penn. The complex, which is expected to open in 2021 or 2022, is part of a larger planned buildout of plastics capacity in the Ohio River Valley and the U.S. IEEFA concludes that the current risk profile indicates the complex will open to market conditions that are more challenging than when the project was planned. The complex is likely to be less profitable than expected and face an extended period of financial distress.

Many of Pennsylvania’s elected officials have gone to great lengths to support this project. The Corbett administration enticed Shell to build this plastic factory in Pennsylvania by offering Shell a tax break for each barrel of fracked gas it buys from companies in the state and converts to plastic (valued at $66 million each year). The state declared the construction site a Keystone Opportunity Zone, giving Shell a 15-year exemption from state and local taxes. In exchange, Shell had to provide at least 2,500 temporary construction jobs and invest $1 billion in the state, giving the company an incredible amount of power to decide where resources are allocated in Pennsylvania.

Would the state have asked Shell for more than 2,500 construction jobs if it knew these jobs could be taken away when workers spoke out against life-threatening conditions? Will the politicians who have hailed oil and gas as the only job creator in the region care when workers are forced to hide their identity when communicating with public agencies?

States fail to regulate the oil and gas industry

The PA DEP appears to have played a key role in calling for this investigation, yet the agency itself was recently at the center of a different investigation led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. The resulting Investigating Grand Jury Report revealed systematic failure by the PA DEP and the state’s Department of Health to regulate the unconventional oil and gas industry. One of the failures was that the Department seldom referred environmental crimes to the Attorney General’s Office, which must occur before the Office has the authority to prosecute.

The Office of Attorney General is involved in this investigation, which the PA DEP is referring to as noncriminal.

The Grand Jury Report also cited concerns about “the revolving door” that shuffled PA DEP employees into higher-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry. The report cited examples of PA DEP employees skirting regulations to perform special favors for companies they wished to be hired by. The watchdog research organization Little Sis listed 47 fracking regulators in Pennsylvania that have moved back and forth between the energy industry, including Shell’s Government Relations Advisor, John Hines.

National attention on pipelines and climate

The Falcon Pipeline sits empty as people across the nation are amping up pressure on President Biden to pursue bold action in pursuit of environmental justice and a just transition to clean energy. Following Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, Indigenous leaders are calling for him to shut down other projects including Enbridge Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Over a hundred groups representing millions of people have signed on to the Build Back Fossil Free campaign, imploring Biden to create new jobs through climate mobilization. Americans are also pushing Biden to be a Plastic Free President and take immediate action to address plastic pollution by suspending and denying permits for new projects like the Shell ethane cracker that convert fracked gas into plastic.

If brought online, the Falcon pipeline and Shell ethane cracker will lock in decades of more fracking, greenhouse gasses, dangerous pollution, and single-use plastic production.

Just as concerning, Shell will need to tighten its parasitic grip on the state’s economic and legislative landscape to keep this plant running. Current economic and political conditions are not favorable for the Shell ethane cracker: financial analysts report that its profits will be significantly less than originally presented. If the plant is brought online, Shell’s lobbyists and public relations firms will be using every tactic to create conditions that support Shell’s bottom line, not the well-being of residents in the Ohio River Valley. Politicians will be encouraged to pass more preemptive laws to block bans on plastic bags and straws to keep up demand for the ethane cracker’s product. Lobbyists will continue pushing for legislation that imposes harsh fines and felony charges on people who protest oil and gas infrastructure, while oil and gas companies continue to fund police foundations. Shell will ensure that Pennsylvania keeps extracting fossil fuels to feed its ethane cracker.

The Falcon pipeline is at odds with global demands to address plastic and climate crises. As these new documents reveal, it also poses immediate threats to residents along its route. While we’re eager for more information from state and federal agencies to understand the details of this investigation, it’s clear that there is no safe way forward with the Falcon Pipeline.

Royal Dutch Shell has been exerting control over people through the extraction of their natural resources ever since it began drilling for oil in Dutch and British colonies in the 19th Century. What will it take to end its reign?

 

References & Where to Learn More

Topics in this Article

Health & Safety | Legislation & Politics | Petrochemicals & Plastics | Pipelines

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Mapping intersectionality: Empowering youth addressing plastics

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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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Fracking and the 2020 Presidential Election

Fracking has been raised as an issue that could determine the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election. Republican candidates have cited erroneous figures of how many fracking jobs exist in Pennsylvania, and have falsely claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris seek to ban fracking. And while the Democratic candidates have made suggestive comments in the past, they have made their position clear. As Senator Harris stated in the vice presidential debate: “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.”

The debate around this issue is not on whether or not fracking should be banned– something neither party advocates– but rather around the facts. Republican candidates have inflated the extent of fracking jobs by up to 3500 percent. But the natural gas industry and the fracking boom have failed to deliver the job growth and prosperity that was predicted by proponents a decade ago. In reality, the total number of jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania never reached more than 30,000 over the last five years and is now less with the industry’s economic decline.

The total number of jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania never reached more than 30,000 over the last five years and is now less with the industry’s economic decline.

The debate should not be around the facts- those are already firmly established. The debate should be around how to best support fossil fuel workers in the inevitable transition to cleaner energy. What does a just transition that supports workers and the climate look like?

 

Pipeline construction in the Loyalsock Watershed, PA. Photo by Barb Jarmoska.

Pipeline construction in the Loyalsock Watershed, PA. Photo by Barb Jarmoska.

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Learn more about fracking and the 2020 presidential election

FracTracker Alliance and The Breathe Project have compiled a fact sheet to help us answer this question based on where Pennsylvania currently stands.

As unconventional oil and natural gas extraction operations have expanded throughout the United States over the past decade, the harmful health and environmental effects of fracking have become increasingly apparent and are supported by a steadily growing number of scientific studies and reports. Although some uncertainties remain around the exact exposure pathways, it is clear that issues associated with fracking negatively impact public health and the surrounding environment.

The Pennsylvania Shale Viewer

This map contains numerous data layers that help understand unconventional drilling activity in PA. View the map details below to learn more, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data.

Last updated 8/28/2020


 View the map full screen

 

 

Breathe Project
Energy Innovation Center – Suite 140
1435 Bedford Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

breathe@breatheproject.org

 

Straight Talk on the Future of Jobs in Pennsylvania (September 2020)

 

The Breathe Project and FracTracker Alliance have crafted the following messaging for refuting the conflated job numbers being touted by pro-fossil fuel organizations and political candidates regarding fracking and jobs in Pennsylvania that, in some cases, has inflated natural gas jobs in the state by 3500 percent.

The natural gas industry and the fracking boom have failed to deliver the job growth and prosperity that was predicted by proponents a decade ago. The total number of jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania never reached more than 30,000 over the last five years and is now less with the industry’s economic decline.

 

FACTThe Pa. Dept. of Labor and Industry (DLI) reported that direct employment in natural gas development totaled 19,623 in 2016. This was down from 28,926 total natural gas development jobs in 2015. This includes jobs in drilling, extraction, support operations and pipeline construction and transportation. (StateImpact, 2016)

Pa. DLI  calculated the employment figures using data from six data classifications at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — specifically, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes for cured petroleum and natural gas extraction, natural gas liquid extraction, drilling oil and gas wells, support activities for oil and gas operations, oil and gas pipeline and related structures and pipeline transportation of natural gas. (Natural Gas Intel, 2016)

Inflated estimates of fracking-related jobs in Pennsylvania under previous Gov. Tom Corbett included regulators overseeing the industry as gas jobs, truck drivers, and those working in highway construction, steel mills, coal-fired power plants, sewage treatment plants, and others. Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration revised the way gas industry jobs were calculated to reflect a more accurate depiction of jobs in the sector.

 

FACT: Food & Water Watch calculated that there were 7,633 jobs pre-boom (2001 – 2006), which rose to 25,960 oil and gas industry jobs post-boom (2016 – 2018). (FWW, March 2020)

 Food & Water Watch created a more accurate model using a definition that encompasses only jobs directly involved with domestic oil and gas production, specifically: oil and gas extraction; support activities for oil and gas operations; drilling oil and gas wells; oil and gas pipeline construction; and pipeline transportation.

FACT:  The Food & Water Watch analysis also reports that misleadingly broad definitions in industry-supported job reports overstated the industries’ scope. The industry analysis included broad swaths of manufacturing industries including “fertilizer manufacturing,” convenience store workers, and gas station workers, which accounted for nearly 35 percent of all oil and gas jobs in their analysis. (FWW, PwC at 5 and Table 4 at 9, 2019)

FACT: As a point of comparison, in 2019, close to 1 million state residents were working in healthcare, 222,600 in education, and over 590,000 in local and state government. (Pennsylvania Bureau of Labor Statistics, July, 2020)

FACT: To forecast fracking-related job growth, the American Petroleum Institute used a model with exaggerated multipliers and faulty assumptions, such as the amount of purchases made from in-state suppliers, and it double counted jobs, leading to wildly optimistic estimates. (Ohio River Valley Institute, August 2020)

FACT: In addition, many of the jobs claimed in a 2017 American Chemistry Council Appalachian petrochemical economic impact study would arise in plastics manufacturing, which raises two concerns. First, both the ACC study and subsequent reports by the U.S. Department of Energy assume that 90% of the ethylene and polyethylene produced by imagined Appalachian cracker plants would be shipped out of the region to be used in manufacturing elsewhere in the country and the world. Of the 10% that would presumably stay in the region, much or most of it would serve to replace supplies that the region’s plastics manufacturers currently source from the Gulf Coast. (Ohio River Valley Institute, August 2020)

 

The fracking and petrochemical industries create unsustainable boom and bust cycles that do not holistically improve local economies.

FACT: Economic analyses show that the oil and gas industry is a risky economic proposition due to the current global oversupply of plastics, unpredictable costs to the industry, a lower demand for plastics, and increased competition. The analyses call into question industry’s plans to expand fracking and gas infrastructure in the region. (IEEFA, August 2020)

FACT: Plans to build petrochemical plants in Beaver County, Pennsylvania and Belmont, Ohio, for the sole purpose of manufacturing plastic nurdles will not be as profitable as originally portrayed. (IEEFA Report, June 2020)

 

A clean energy economy is the only way forward.

FACT: The Dept. of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report (2017) and E2 Clean Jobs Pennsylvania Report (2020) shows that clean energy jobs in Pennsylvania employ twice as many people as the fossil fuel industry prior to the pandemic.

FACT: The 4-state region of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania has formed a coalition of labor, policy experts and frontline community leaders called Reimagine Appalachia. This coalition is in the process of addressing the vast number of jobs in renewable and clean energy industries in a report that will be published this fall.

Reimagine Appalachia seeks major federal funding packages that will create jobs, rebuild infrastructure and addresses climate change that will ensure that no one is left behind going forward.

 

Sources

O’Leary, Sean. “The Not-So-Natural Gas Boom,” Westvirginiaville.com, Aug. 10, 2020.

O’Leary, Sean. “Lies, damned lies, and economic impact studies,” Ohio River Valley Institute, Aug. 31, 2020.

O’Leary, Sean. “Game Unchanged . . . But, Not Unchangeable,” Ohio River Valley Institute, Aug. 11, 2020.                                                                                                                                                 Food & Water Watch. “Phantom Jobs: Fracking Job Creation Numbers Don’t Add Up,” March 2020.

Natural Gas Intel

Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection Energy Programs. 2020 Pennsylvania Energy Employment Report,

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). “IEEFA report: Financial risks loom for Shell’s Pennsylvania petrochemicals complex,” June 4, 2020.

IEEFA. “Petrochemicals may be another bad bet for the oil industry,” Aug. 19, 2020.

E2. “Clean Jobs Pennsylvania 2020,” April 15, 2020.

Natural Gas Intel. “Direct Employment in Natural Gas Development Declines by One-Third in Pennsylvania,” Dec. 23, 2016.

PennLive. “How many jobs has Marcellus Shale Really Created?” Jan. 5, 2019.

StateImpact, “Pa. oil and gas jobs down 32 percent since last year,” Dec. 23, 2016.

 

The Breathe Project is a coalition of citizens, environmental advocates, public health professionals and academics using the best available science and technology to improve air quality, eliminate climate pollution and make our region a healthy, prosperous place to live.

FracTracker Alliance is a 501(c)3 organization that maps, analyzes, and communicates the risks of oil, gas, and petrochemical development to advance just energy alternatives that protect public health, natural resources, and the climate.

 

Feature image of construction of the Royal Dutch Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, October 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

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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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Straight Talk on the Future of Fracking Jobs in Pennsylvania

Fracking has been raised as an issue that could determine the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election. Republican candidates have cited erroneous figures of how many fracking jobs exist in Pennsylvania, and have falsely claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris seek to ban fracking. And while the Democratic candidates have made suggestive comments in the past, they have made their position clear. As Senator Harris stated in the vice presidential debate: “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.”

The debate around this issue is not on whether or not fracking should be banned– something neither party advocates– but rather around the facts. Republican candidates have inflated the extent of fracking jobs by up to 3500 percent. But the natural gas industry and the fracking boom have failed to deliver the job growth and prosperity that was predicted by proponents a decade ago. In reality, the total number of jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania never reached more than 30,000 over the last five years and is now less with the industry’s economic decline.

The total number of jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania never reached more than 30,000 over the last five years and is now less with the industry’s economic decline.

The debate should not be around the facts- those are already firmly established. The debate should be around how to best support fossil fuel workers in the inevitable transition to cleaner energy. What does a just transition that supports workers and the climate look like?

FracTracker Alliance and The Breathe Project have compiled a fact sheet to help us answer this question based on where Pennsylvania currently stands.

 

 

Breathe Project
Energy Innovation Center – Suite 140
1435 Bedford Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

breathe@breatheproject.org

 

Straight Talk on the Future of Jobs in Pennsylvania (September 2020)

 

The Breathe Project and FracTracker Alliance have crafted the following messaging for refuting the conflated job numbers being touted by pro-fossil fuel organizations and political candidates regarding fracking and jobs in Pennsylvania that, in some cases, has inflated natural gas jobs in the state by 3500 percent.

The natural gas industry and the fracking boom have failed to deliver the job growth and prosperity that was predicted by proponents a decade ago. The total number of jobs in the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania never reached more than 30,000 over the last five years and is now less with the industry’s economic decline.

 

FACTThe Pa. Dept. of Labor and Industry (DLI) reported that direct employment in natural gas development totaled 19,623 in 2016. This was down from 28,926 total natural gas development jobs in 2015. This includes jobs in drilling, extraction, support operations and pipeline construction and transportation. (StateImpact, 2016)

Pa. DLI  calculated the employment figures using data from six data classifications at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — specifically, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes for cured petroleum and natural gas extraction, natural gas liquid extraction, drilling oil and gas wells, support activities for oil and gas operations, oil and gas pipeline and related structures and pipeline transportation of natural gas. (Natural Gas Intel, 2016)

Inflated estimates of fracking-related jobs in Pennsylvania under previous Gov. Tom Corbett included regulators overseeing the industry as gas jobs, truck drivers, and those working in highway construction, steel mills, coal-fired power plants, sewage treatment plants, and others. Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration revised the way gas industry jobs were calculated to reflect a more accurate depiction of jobs in the sector.

 

FACT: Food & Water Watch calculated that there were 7,633 jobs pre-boom (2001 – 2006), which rose to 25,960 oil and gas industry jobs post-boom (2016 – 2018). (FWW, March 2020)

 Food & Water Watch created a more accurate model using a definition that encompasses only jobs directly involved with domestic oil and gas production, specifically: oil and gas extraction; support activities for oil and gas operations; drilling oil and gas wells; oil and gas pipeline construction; and pipeline transportation.

FACT:  The Food & Water Watch analysis also reports that misleadingly broad definitions in industry-supported job reports overstated the industries’ scope. The industry analysis included broad swaths of manufacturing industries including “fertilizer manufacturing,” convenience store workers, and gas station workers, which accounted for nearly 35 percent of all oil and gas jobs in their analysis. (FWW, PwC at 5 and Table 4 at 9, 2019)

FACT: As a point of comparison, in 2019, close to 1 million state residents were working in healthcare, 222,600 in education, and over 590,000 in local and state government. (Pennsylvania Bureau of Labor Statistics, July, 2020)

FACT: To forecast fracking-related job growth, the American Petroleum Institute used a model with exaggerated multipliers and faulty assumptions, such as the amount of purchases made from in-state suppliers, and it double counted jobs, leading to wildly optimistic estimates. (Ohio River Valley Institute, August 2020)

FACT: In addition, many of the jobs claimed in a 2017 American Chemistry Council Appalachian petrochemical economic impact study would arise in plastics manufacturing, which raises two concerns. First, both the ACC study and subsequent reports by the U.S. Department of Energy assume that 90% of the ethylene and polyethylene produced by imagined Appalachian cracker plants would be shipped out of the region to be used in manufacturing elsewhere in the country and the world. Of the 10% that would presumably stay in the region, much or most of it would serve to replace supplies that the region’s plastics manufacturers currently source from the Gulf Coast. (Ohio River Valley Institute, August 2020)

 

The fracking and petrochemical industries create unsustainable boom and bust cycles that do not holistically improve local economies.

FACT: Economic analyses show that the oil and gas industry is a risky economic proposition due to the current global oversupply of plastics, unpredictable costs to the industry, a lower demand for plastics, and increased competition. The analyses call into question industry’s plans to expand fracking and gas infrastructure in the region. (IEEFA, August 2020)

FACT: Plans to build petrochemical plants in Beaver County, Pennsylvania and Belmont, Ohio, for the sole purpose of manufacturing plastic nurdles will not be as profitable as originally portrayed. (IEEFA Report, June 2020)

 

A clean energy economy is the only way forward.

FACT: The Dept. of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report (2017) and E2 Clean Jobs Pennsylvania Report (2020) shows that clean energy jobs in Pennsylvania employ twice as many people as the fossil fuel industry prior to the pandemic.

FACT: The 4-state region of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania has formed a coalition of labor, policy experts and frontline community leaders called Reimagine Appalachia. This coalition is in the process of addressing the vast number of jobs in renewable and clean energy industries in a report that will be published this fall.

Reimagine Appalachia seeks major federal funding packages that will create jobs, rebuild infrastructure and addresses climate change that will ensure that no one is left behind going forward.

 

Sources

O’Leary, Sean. “The Not-So-Natural Gas Boom,” Westvirginiaville.com, Aug. 10, 2020.

O’Leary, Sean. “Lies, damned lies, and economic impact studies,” Ohio River Valley Institute, Aug. 31, 2020.

O’Leary, Sean. “Game Unchanged . . . But, Not Unchangeable,” Ohio River Valley Institute, Aug. 11, 2020.                                                                                                                                                 Food & Water Watch. “Phantom Jobs: Fracking Job Creation Numbers Don’t Add Up,” March 2020.

Natural Gas Intel

Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection Energy Programs. 2020 Pennsylvania Energy Employment Report,

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). “IEEFA report: Financial risks loom for Shell’s Pennsylvania petrochemicals complex,” June 4, 2020.

IEEFA. “Petrochemicals may be another bad bet for the oil industry,” Aug. 19, 2020.

E2. “Clean Jobs Pennsylvania 2020,” April 15, 2020.

Natural Gas Intel. “Direct Employment in Natural Gas Development Declines by One-Third in Pennsylvania,” Dec. 23, 2016.

PennLive. “How many jobs has Marcellus Shale Really Created?” Jan. 5, 2019.

StateImpact, “Pa. oil and gas jobs down 32 percent since last year,” Dec. 23, 2016.

 

The Breathe Project is a coalition of citizens, environmental advocates, public health professionals and academics using the best available science and technology to improve air quality, eliminate climate pollution and make our region a healthy, prosperous place to live.

FracTracker Alliance is a 501(c)3 organization that maps, analyzes, and communicates the risks of oil, gas, and petrochemical development to advance just energy alternatives that protect public health, natural resources, and the climate.

 

Feature image of construction of the Royal Dutch Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, October 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

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Pipeline Map

Mariner East 2 Causes Dozens of Spills Since Lockdown Began, Over 300 in Total

FracTracker Alliance has released a new map of drilling fluid spills along the Mariner East 2 pipeline route, showing 320 spills from its construction since 2017. Of those, a combined 147 incidents have released over 260,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Pennsylvania waterways. 

The unpermitted discharge of drilling fluid, considered “industrial waste,” into waters of the Commonwealth violates The Clean Streams Law.

What you need to know:

  • Sunoco’s installation of the Mariner East 2 pipeline has triggered 320 incidences of drilling mud spills since 2017, releasing between 344,590 – 405,990 gallons of drilling fluid into the environment. View an interactive map and see a timeline of these incidents.
  • Construction has caused between 260,672 – 266,223 gallons of drilling fluid to spill into waterways, threatening the health of ecosystems and negatively affecting the drinking water of many residents.
  • There have been 36 spills since Pennsylvania entered a statewide shutdown on March 16th, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These spills released over 10,000 gallons of drilling fluid — most of which poured into Marsh Creek Lake in Marsh Creek State Park. See a map of this incident.

Pipeline Map

 

While the total reported volume of drilling fluid released into the environment from the pipeline’s construction is between 344,590 – 405,990 gallons, the actual total is larger, as there are 28 spills with unknown volumes. Spills of drilling mud are also referred to as “inadvertent returns,” or “frac-outs.” 

Most of these spills occurred during implementation of horizontal directional drills (HDD). HDDs are used to install a pipeline under a waterway, road, or other sensitive area. This technique requires large quantities of drilling fluid (comprising water, bentonite clay, and chemical additives), which when spilled into the environment, can damage ecosystems and contaminate drinking water sources. 

ME2 Background

The Mariner East 2 pipeline project is part of the Mariner East pipeline system, which carries natural gas liquids (NGLs) extracted by fracked wells in the Ohio River Valley east, to the Marcus Hook Facility in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The NGLs will then go to Europe to be turned into plastic. Explore FracTracker’s other resources on this project:

Three dozen spills during COVID-19 pandemic

There have been 36 spills since the Commonwealth shutdown statewide on March 16th, 2020, leaks that have jeopardized drinking water sources, putting communities at even higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most concerning occurred on August 10th, when pipeline construction released 8,163 gallons of drilling fluids into a wetland and stream system that drains into Marsh Creek Lake in Chester County, a drinking water reservoir (Figure 1). The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, private contractors, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are responding to the incident and conducting water tests.

On August 11th, construction caused a 15-foot wide and eight-foot deep subsidence event in the wetland (Figure 1). This caused drilling fluid to flow underground and contaminate groundwater, while also “adversely impacting the functions and values of the wetland.” Thirty-three acres of the lake are now closed to boating, fishing, and other uses of the lake — an extra blow, given the solace state parks have provided to many during this pandemic.

Map of Spills at Marsh Creek Lake

Figure 1. This HDD crossing in Upper Uwchlan Township, Chester County, caused over 8,000 gallons of drilling mud to spill into waterways. However, installation of the parallel 16-inch pipeline also caused spills at this same location in 2017.

A plume of drilling mud, captured here on video, entered the Marsh Creek Lake and settled on the lake bottom. 

Upper Uwchlan Reroute

Last week, the PA DEP ordered Sunoco to suspend work on this HDD site and to implement a reroute using a course Sunoco had identified as an alternative in 2017:

“A 1.01 mile reroute to the north of the HDD is technically feasible. This would entail adjusting the project route prior to this HDD’s northwest entry/exit point to proceed north, cross under the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then proceed east for 0.7 miles parallel to the turnpike, cross Little Conestoga Road, then turn south, cross under the turnpike, and then reintersect the existing project route just east of this HDD’s southeast entry/exit point. There is no existing utility corridor here, however; therefore, this route would create a Greenfield utility corridor and would result in encumbering previously unaffected properties. The route would still cross two Waters of the Commonwealth and possible forested wetlands, and would pass in near proximity or immediately adjacent to five residential home sites. Both crossings of the turnpike would require “mini” HDDs or direct pipe bores to achieve the required depth of cover under the highway. Considered against the possibility of additional IRs [inadvertent returns] occurring on the proposed HDD, which are readily contained and cleaned up with minimal affect to natural resources, the permanent taking of the new 4 easement and likely need to use condemnation against previously unaffected landowners results in SPLP’s opinion that managing the proposed HDD is the preferred option.”

Based on that description, the route could follow the general direction of the dashed line in Figure 2:

Map of pipeline

Figure 2. Possible reroute of Mariner East 2 Pipeline shown with dashed line

The DEP’s order also requires Sunoco to restore and remediate “impacted aquatic life, biota, and habitat, including the functions and values of the impacted wetlands resources, and all impacted recreational uses.” Sunoco must submit an Impact Assessment and Restoration Plan for this drill site by October 1, 2020, and the plan must provide for five years of monitoring after its completed restoration. In the meantime, Sunoco must secure the borehole using “grouting or equivalent method,” and continue to monitor the site. 

Sunoco’s continued negligence

The August incident likely surprised no one, as it was not the first spill at this location, and Sunoco’s own assessment acknowledged that this HDD crossing came with “a moderate to high risk of drilling fluid loss and IRs.”

Residents also sounded alarm bells for this drilling site. The proposal for just this location garnered over 200 public comments, all of which called on the DEP to deny Sunoco’s permit for drilling in this area. Many implored the DEP to consider the alternate route Sunoco must now use. 

George Alexander, a Delaware County resident who runs a blog on this pipeline, the Dragonpipe Diary, says, “Sunoco/Energy Transfer continues to demonstrate in real time that they cannot build the Mariner Pipelines without inflicting harm upon our communities … The Marsh Creek situation is reminiscent of the damage to another favorite Pennsylvania lake, Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County.”

In 2017, Sunoco spilled over 200,000 gallons of drilling fluid into Raystown Lake, and released millions more underground. The spill caked acres of the lakebed with a coating of mud, hurting aquatic life and limiting recreational access to the lake. Sunoco failed to report the spills when they occurred, and the DEP fined the company $1.95 million for the incident. The fine is one of many Sunoco has incurred, including a $12.6 million penalty in February 2018 for permit violations, and more recently, a $355,636 penalty for drilling fluid discharges into waterways across eight counties.

Bleak outlook for oil and gas pipelines

On top of the delays, fines, strong public opposition, and even House and Senate members calling for permits to be revoked,  there’s another factor working against Sunoco — the bleak financial outlook of the petrochemical industry.

The fracking boom triggered investment in projects to convert the fracked gas to plastic, leading to an oversupply in the global market. The industry made ambitious plans based on the price of plastic being $1/pound. Now, in 2020, the price is 40 – 60 cents per pound. If the Mariner East 2 pipeline is brought online, it likely will not be as profitable as its operators expected.

The poor finances of the oil and gas industry have led to the demise of several pipeline projects over the last few months. Phillips 66 announced in March it was deferring two pipelines — the Liberty Pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Wyoming to Oklahoma — and the Red Oak Pipeline system, planned to cross from Oklahoma to Texas. Kinder Morgan expressed uncertainty for its proposed Texas Permian Pass pipeline,  and Enterprise Products Partners cancelled its Midland-to-ECHO crude oil pipeline project. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline also was cancelled this past July by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, following “an unacceptable layer of uncertainty and anticipated delays,” and the Williams Constitution pipeline was also abandoned after years of challenges. In fact, the EIA recently reported that more pipeline capacity has been cancelled in 2020 than new capacity brought in service.

Will the Mariner East 2 be the next to fall?

Before you go

A note from the Safety 7: The Safety 7 are seven residents of Delaware and Chester Counties who are challenging Sunoco before the [Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission]. If you are outraged at the ongoing threat to our communities from this dangerous, destructive pipeline, please consider donating to the Safety 7 Legal fund … Our next hearing begins September 29, and funds from your support are urgently needed. This motion is representative of the kind of legal work we need, if we are to prevail in protecting our communities from this dangerous pipeline project. Please contribute today if you are able, and please share this appeal widely and let your friends and family know why this case matters to you!

Learn more and donate here.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance

This map and analysis relied on data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

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LNG development puts Wyalusing, Pennsylvania in the cross-hairs

New Fortress Energy plans to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, but residents in close proximity to the extensive facility and those along the transportation routes are pushing back due to health and safety concerns.

Overview

North America has an excess of fracked gas. The price of gas continues to plummet, due largely to an oversupply that exceeds market demand from Americans who want to enjoy their so-called “energy independence.” According to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), there is almost 18% more stored gas at the end of 2019 as there was at the end of 2018, translating to an increase of over 500 billion cubic feet over the course of a year.

What was once a promised economic boom to many communities has given way to bust. This is due, in part, to less production across the fracking fields, to the cancellation of numerous pipelines, and to the lack of domestic markets for fracked gas.

As costs for wind, solar, and grid-scale battery storage continue to drop, people are increasingly less reliant on fossil fuels. Aside from underground storage, what can industry do with all that excess product so industry has a justification to keep drilling?

Rather than cutting back on production, industry chooses to relieve domestic over-saturation by sending the gas off-shore for export.

While gas is typically moved from source to consumer via pipelines, transporting gas long distances overseas presents a technical challenge. Industry chooses to compress the gas under pressure or cryogenics so that it takes up less space. Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is simply super-cooled methane, stored at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit.

A new LNG project in northern Pennsylvania

A little more than a year ago, New Fortress Energy announced plans to invest $800 million to develop a liquefied natural gas plant along the scenic Susquehanna River in the Bradford County, Pennsylvania community of Wyalusing. In this quiet community of fewer than 600 people, formerly open fields and woodland are slated to be converted into massive LNG complex spanning 260 acres. The plant would produce approximately 3.6 million gallons of LNG each day.

Located on the site of the proposed LNG project is a historic marker, memorializing the pre-Colonial settlement of Friedenshütten. Here, indigenous Mahican, Lenape, and Haudenosaunee converts to Christianity lived with Moravian missionaries. The village was active between 1765 and 1772. According to Katherine Faull of Bucknell University “the Friedenshütten mission was dissolved in 1772, ostensibly because of the uncertainty of the land deals that had been made with the Cayuga who had jurisdiction over that part of Pennsylvania.” Portions of the settlement structure area visible in the 1768 map (Figure 1) are 700 feet from the New Fortress methane liquefaction buildings.

Figure 1. Map by Georg Wenzel Golkowsky, 1768 (TS Mp.213.13, Unity Archives, Herrnhut)

New Fortress Energy has plans to cut a 50-foot-wide stormwater drainage ditch directly through this historic site. Construction of the plant would reportedly create up to 500 temporary jobs, and 50 permanent ones.

Figure 2. Aerial view of site preparation work at the New Fortress LNG plant site. Source: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance

The site plan for the new facility, developed in October 2018, includes large gas engines, a liquefaction facility, a hydrocarbon impoundment basin, LNG storage and pumps, a gas treatment facility, transformers, and tanker staging areas. Some features are sited within 500 feet of the railroad.

Figure 3. Proposed site plan of the New Fortress LNG facility in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. Map by FracTracker Alliance.

An air quality plan for the New Fortress LNG facility was approved in July, 2019. Although construction was well underway starting in spring 2019, work is currently paused on the site. New Fortress has not indicated when work would resume, but expects the construction process to span two to 2.5 years.

Where to, after Wyalusing?

Without an adequate market for the gas in the United States, LNG is destined for shipping overseas in specially-designed LNG carrier ships. In 2018, according to US government data reported in rigzone.com:

“….28 countries in total received LNG exports during 2018. However, just ten countries accounted for 82 percent of the U.S. LNG direct tanker exports that year and the top four markets shared 187 shipments between them. South Korea, the top destination, received 73 cargoes in all, followed by Mexico with 53, Japan with 37 and lastly China with 24. Of the remainder, Jordan, Chile, India, Turkey, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil took only a small number of shipments each. In addition to the standard large shipments of LNG in dedicated tankers, small shipments of LNG in special containers known as ISOs were sent to the Bahamas and Barbados.”

Presently, plans are in the works for the construction of a new LNG export facility in Gibbstown, New Jersey, located just downstream from Philadelphia on the Delaware River. The Gibbstown site was formerly the home of Dupont Repauno Works, where dynamite was manufactured from 1880 to 1954. Later, the main products made there were commodity chemicals such as nitric acid. The proposed export terminal design includes two 43-foot-deep docks that would accommodate LNG tankers.

The advocacy organization “Empower NJ” provides a comprehensive description here of the proposed expansion of the deepwater LNG export terminal at Gibbstown. LNG delivered to the site would be stored in an old underground cavern previously used by Dupont. While dredging for a single dock at Gibbstown was approved by the Delaware River in 2019, new plans to build two more loading berths at a second dock are now under consideration.

Modes of transportation from Wyalusing to Gibbstown

In collaboration with Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), FracTracker looked at potential overland routes for how the LNG produced in Wyalusing would reach the nearest export terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey, a distance of 200 or more miles away.

While transportation by rail of liquefied natural gas had not been permitted by federal regulations, a significant change in rules occurred in June 2020. Under pressure from the current administration in Washington, DC, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a final rule that authorized the bulk transportation of LNG by rail.

Plans on how to deliver the LNG from the plant in Wyalusing to the export terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey have not been finalized, and could be by roadway or railway, or both. According to the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania-based Citizen’s Voice:

In its assessment, PHMSA concluded that transporting LNG via roadways carries the same inherent risks as railways, but there is a higher likelihood of an accident because of the larger number of trucks needed compared to train cars.

The DOT-113 tank cars New Fortress received approval for can carry nearly 30,700 gallons of LNG — three times more than a single tanker truck. But, because train cars carry significantly more LNG and are transported together along railways, an incident “could lead to higher consequences,” according to the environmental assessment.

How much risk?

Because there is little to no precedent of transporting such high volumes of liquefied natural gas on roads or railroads, the extent of the disaster that could occur from a leak or crash is generally unknown. However, Delaware Riverkeeper has cited research warning about the unique characteristics of supercooled gas if it rapidly expands and spreads across terrain:

“….transport of LNG has unique safety hazards, exposing those along this particular rail route to unprecedented and unjustifiable risk. An LNG release boils furiously into a flammable vapor cloud 600 times larger than the storage container. An unignited ground-hugging vapor cloud can move far distances,[1]  and exposure to the vapor can cause extreme freeze burns. If in an enclosed space, it asphyxiates, causing death.1 If ignited, the fire is inextinguishable; the fire is so hot that second-degree burns can occur within 30 seconds for those exposed within a mile. An LNG release can cause a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion.[2]  The explosive force of LNG is similar to a thermobaric explosion – a catastrophically powerful bomb. The 2016 U.S. Emergency Response Guidebook advises fire chiefs initially to immediately evacuate the surrounding 1-mile area.[3]  No federal field research has shown how far the vapor cloud can move chiefs initially to immediately evacuate the surrounding 1-mile area.[4]  No federal field research has shown how far the vapor cloud can move…”

You can read Delaware Riverkeeper’s full statement of the organization’s opposition to the transportation of LNG in rail cars here.

Visualizing the routes

FracTracker mapped the most likely transport routes by road and by rail, along with demographic information (Figures 5 – 9). In collaboration with DRN, we also assessed minority and low-income population density along each route, using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s environmental justice (EJ) screening dataset, EJSCREEN. “Minority” as defined by the United States Census data used by EPA, refers to individuals who reported their race and ethnicity as something other than “non-Hispanic White” alone.

On average, around 21% of the population along the truck routes, and about 25% of the population along the train routes, is part of an EJ community. EJ communities are those that are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards and with increased vulnerability to said hazards. Due to systemic racism, injustice, and poverty, EJ communities tend to have higher proportions of residents who are low-income and/or minorities.

  Total Population Minority Population Low-Income Population
Truck Route A 612,747 123,071 (20%) 122,830 (20%)
Truck Route B 929,236 207,924 (22%) 183,420 (20%)
Rail Route A 1,649,638 477,816 (29%) 392,577 (24%)
Rail Route B 1,947,544 479,500 (25%) 411,536 (21%)

Figure 4. Demographics of Environmental Justice (EJ) communities along New Fortress Energy’s liquified natural gas (LNG) transportation routes in the eastern United States.

Click here to view this map fullscreen, in its own window.

And click through the tabs below to see static images of the various routes.

Figure 5. Rail Route A passes within 2 miles of a population of 1,649,638. 29% (477,816 individuals) are minorities, and 24% (392,577 individuals) are low income, according to 2010 US Census data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of their EJSCREEN program. Map made by FracTracker Alliance and published by Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Growing municipal and regulatory opposition to transport of LNG through communities

Municipal opposition against the plan to construct the LNG facility at Wyalusing is mounting. On Wednesday, September 2, 2020, the Borough Council of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania (Lackawanna County) voted in opposition to the New Fortress Energy LNG project. Their resolution asked the Delaware River Basin Commission to vote to disapprove Dock 2, the cargo destination of the LNG trucks and trains that will be traversing Lackawanna County with their hazardous content.

And in most recent news, on September 10, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted to delay approving an application to expand the port facilities at Gibbstown, NJ that would have enabled LNG tankers to dock there. In this important turn of events, the representatives from New York, Delaware and New Jersey voted for the delay, while the Pennsylvania representative abstained, and the Federal representative from the US Army Corps of Engineers voted to deny it. The vote was preceded by a comment period in which the public expressed unanimous desire to stop the project, citing impacts to human and environmental health, as well as impacts from methane on climate catastrophe.

In the upcoming months, prior to when they meet again until December, the DRBC will more deeply consider the details of the application. Until that time, forward progress on the LNG plant and the export terminal is effectively halted.

In conclusion

As communities start to consider the impacts to health and safety posed by massive fossil fuel infrastructure—whether that is pipelines, compressor stations, drilling operations, or rail and road transport—clean energy alternatives like solar, wind, and geothermal become the sensible option for all. We applaud the elected officials in Clarks Summit for their vote early this month, and look forward to more following suit.

To stay up to date on the regional pushback against LNG and engage your voice in resistance, learn more at protectnorthernpa.org or sign-up to become an E-activist with Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial support by Lighthawk

[1] “Immediate ignition with liquid still on the ground could cause the spill to develop into a pool fire and present a radiant heat hazard. If there is no ignition source, the LNG will vaporize rapidly forming a cold gas cloud that is initially heavier than air, mixes with ambient air, spreads and is carried downwind.” P. 10 “Methane in vapor state can be an asphyxiant when it displaces oxygen in a confined space.” P. 11. SP 20534 Special Permit to transport LNG by rail in DOT-113C120W rail tank cars. Final Environmental Assessment. Docket No. PHMSA-2019-0100. December 5, 2019. P. 10.

[2] “LNG tank BLEVE is possible in some transportation scenarios.” Sandia National Laboratories, “LNG Use and Safety Concerns (LNG export facility, refueling stations, marine/barge/ferry/rail/truck transport)”, Tom Blanchat, Mike Hightower, Anay Luketa. November 2014. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1367739  P. 23.

[3] US DOT Emergency Response Guidebook. https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/hazmat/erg/emergency-response-guidebook-erg

[4] US DOT Emergency Response Guidebook. https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/hazmat/erg/emergency-response-guidebook-erg

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Landscape Changes and Mental Health Impacts in Southwestern Pennsylvania Communities: A Qualitative Study

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

Overview

Unconventional oil and natural gas development, or “fracking,” began in Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. Since then, over 12,000 unconventional wells have been drilled in the state, and over 15,000 violations have been documented at unconventional well sites. As fracking operations continue to expand, increasing numbers of residents have experienced significant health impacts and irreparable damage to their property. Southwest Pennsylvania in particular has been heavily impacted, with high concentrations of oil and gas infrastructure developed in Washington, Greene, and Fayette Counties.

Fracking operations have led to declining air quality, water and soil contamination, and drastic changes to the physical landscape including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, road construction, and damaged farmland. While the volume of scientific literature about the physical and mental health impacts of fracking is rising, few studies exist that specifically focus on residents’ perceptions of the changing physical landscape. The primary goal of this qualitative study was to identify residents’ attitudes about the changing physical landscape resulting from fracking operations. Furthermore, how have these landscape changes affected residents’ engagement with the outdoors and their overall health?

Mental health, green spaces, and a changing landscape

Many scientific studies have documented the relationship between fracking developments and mental health, and between mental health and access to green spaces and engagement with the outdoors. Peer-reviewed studies have looked at heavily fracked communities across the US, many of which focus on Pennsylvania residents. Methods typically involve one-on-one interviews, larger focus groups, surveys, or a combination of the three, to identify how living amongst oil and gas operations takes a toll on everyday life. These studies have found an increase in stress and anxiety, feelings of powerlessness against the oil and gas industry, social conflicts, sleep disturbances, and reduced life satisfaction. Additionally, residents have experienced disruptions in their sense of place and social identity. For a summary of published research about the mental health impacts from fracking, click here.

A healthy strategy many choose to cope with stress and anxiety is engagement in outdoor recreation. Having easily accessible “green spaces,” or land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation such as parks and conservation areas have been shown to promote physical and mental health. Many scientific studies have identified significantly fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress in populations with higher levels of neighborhood green space.1 Additionally, green spaces can aid recovery from mental fatigue and community social cohesion.2 3 However, residents in Southwestern Pennsylvania may slowly see their access to green spaces and opportunities for outdoor recreation decline due to the expansion of fracking operations. Figure 1 below shows a visual representation of the interconnected relationship between fracking, access to green spaces, and negative mental health impacts.

Figure 1. The interconnected relationship between fracking operations, landscape changes and decreasing access to outdoor recreation, and negative mental health impacts.

 

In the last 10-15 years, fracking operations in Southwest Pennsylvania have exploded. The development of new pipelines, access roads, well pads, impoundments, and compressor stations is widespread and altering the physical landscape. Figure 2 below illustrates just one of many examples of landscape disruption caused from fracking operations.

 

Figure 2. Examples of changes in the physical landscape caused from fracking operations in Greene County (A) and Washington County (B), Pennsylvania. Images taken from Google Earth.

 

Additionally, this time-slider map (Figure 3) illustrates a larger scale view of landscape changes in Greene County, Pennsylvania in a region just east of Waynesburg.

 

Figure 3. Time-slider map of a region in Greene County, PA where the left portion of the map is imagery from 2005, and the right portion of the map is from 2017. Active oil and gas wells are indicated by a blue pin, and compressor stations are in green.

 

Study design

A qualitative study was conducted to answer the following research questions:

  1. What are residents’ perception of the landscape changes brought about by fracking?
  2. Have these landscape changes caused any mental health impacts?
  3. Have changes to the physical landscape from oil and gas operations resulting in any changes in engagement with outdoor recreation?

To better understand these topics, residents living in Southwestern Pennsylvania were recruited to participate in one-on-one phone interviews, and an online survey was also distributed throughout the FracTracker Alliance network. Recruitment for the one-on-one phone interviews was accomplished through FracTracker’s social media, and email blasts through other partnering organizations such as Halt the Harm Network, People Over Petro, and the Clean Air Council. Similarly, the online survey was shared on FracTracker’s social media and also distributed through our monthly newsletter. Since this was not a randomized sample to select participants, these results should not be generalized to all residents living near oil and gas infrastructure. However, this study identifies how certain individuals have been impacted by the changing landscape brought about by fracking operations.

Eight residents completed phone interviews, all of whom resided in Washington County, PA. Residents were first asked how long they have lived in their current home, and if there was oil and gas infrastructure on or near their property. Oil and gas infrastructure was defined as well pads, compressor stations, pipelines, ponds or impoundments, or access roads. Next, residents were asked if they had any health concerns regarding fracking operations and gave personal accounts of how fracking operations have altered the physical landscape near their home and in their surrounding community. For those with agricultural land, additional questions were asked about fracking’s impact on residents’ ability to use their farmland. Lastly, residents were asked questions focused on engagement in outdoor recreation and if fracking had any impact on outdoor recreation opportunities. NVivo, a qualitative analysis software, was used identify emergent themes throughout the interviews,

In addition to the interviews, an online survey was also made available.The main purpose of the survey was to gauge where concerns about landscape changes from fracking operations fell in relation to other oil and gas impacts (i.e. air pollution, water contamination, excess noise and traffic, and soil contamination). Nine responses were recorded, and the results are discussed below. However, if you would like to add your thoughts, you can find the survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Z5DCWBD.

Main findings and emergent themes

Various emergent themes surrounding the oil and gas industry’s impact on public health and the environment were identified throughout the resident interviews. Residents shared their personal experiences and how they have been directly impacted by fracking operations, especially with reference to the changing physical landscape surrounding their homes and throughout their communities. Participants’ time of residence in Washington County ranged from 3 years to their entire life, and all participants had oil and gas infrastructure (well pad, pipelines, impoundment, access roads, or compressor station) on or next to their property.

Changes to the physical landscape and residents’ attitudes toward the altered environment

The first overarching theme was changes to the physical landscape and residents’ attitudes toward the altered environment. All interview participants expressed concerns about the changes to the physical landscape on or surrounding their property, especially regarding access roads and well pads. Although one participant mentioned that widening the township road in order to make room for fracking trucks benefited the local community, the majority of participants expressed frustration about the construction of access roads, excessive truck traffic, noise, and dust from the unpaved access roads. One individual stated, “My main concern is the dust from the road. I’m constantly breathing that in, and it’s all over my shed, on the cars, the inside of the house, the outside of the house.” Multiple participants discussed the oil and gas operations disrupting what was once peaceful farmland with beautiful scenery (see an example in Figure 4 below). Another individual stated, “And of course, the noise is just unbearable. They don’t stop…the clanging on the pipe, the blow off with the wells, pumps running, generators, trucks coming down the hill with their engine brakes on, blowing their horn every time they want another truck to move.”

 

Figure 4. Aerial view of oil and gas infrastructure next to a home in Scenery Hill, PA. Image courtesy of Lois Bower-Bjornson from the Clean Air Council.

 

Impacts to outdoor recreation activities

Impacts to outdoor recreation activities such as hunting, fishing, and hiking were another recurring theme throughout the interviews. Again, a majority of participants believed their opportunities to partake in outdoor recreation have been limited since fracking operations began in their area.

Among the top concerns was deteriorating air quality and increasing numbers of ozone action days, or days when the air quality index (AQI) for ozone reaches an unhealthy level for sensitive populations. Various participants expressed concerns about letting their children outside due to harmful air emissions and odors originating from well pads or compressor stations. Excessive truck traffic was also a safety concern that was mentioned, especially for those individuals with access roads on or neighboring their property.

Additionally, one individual noted landscape changes in areas commonly used for hiking stating, “You might be hiking along a trail and then realize that you’re no longer on the trail. You’re actually on a pipeline cut. Or you’ll get confused while you’re hiking because you’ll intersect with a road that was developed for a well pad, and it’s not on your map.” Along with hiking, participants also noted a change in hunting and fishing opportunities since fracking moved into the region. Concerns were expressed regarding harvesting any fish or wild game due to possible contamination from fracking chemicals, especially near watersheds with known chemical spills.

Going for a hike and immersing oneself in nature is a healthy way to unwind and relieve stress. However, a rising number of well pads and compressor stations are put in place near parks, hiking trails, and state game lands throughout Southwest Pennsylvania (Figure 5). Participants expressed concerns about feeling unable to escape oil and gas infrastructure, even when visiting these recreational areas. As one individual mentioned, “It really does change your experience of the outdoors. And, you know, it’s an area that’s supposed to be a protected natural area. Then you know you can’t really get away. Even there in public lands far away from buildings and roads. And you can’t really get away from it.”

 

Figure 5. A map of active oil and gas well pads and compressor stations in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Map layers also indicate wells pads and compressor stations within 1 mile of a park, hiking trail, ball park, or state game land.

View map fullscreen

Mental health impacts

But what are the mental health impacts that result from the changing physical landscape brought about by fracking? Aside from the physical health effects caused by fracking activity — such as respiratory illnesses from air pollution or skin irritation from contaminated well water — these landscape changes have taken a toll on participants’ mental health as well.

Sentimental value and emotional distress

Many participants described the sentimental value of their property, and the beautiful scenery surrounding their generational family farms. But after fracking began on neighboring property, witnessing their tranquil family farm suddenly become surrounded by dusty access roads, excessive truck traffic, noise, and deteriorating air quality took a serious emotional and mental toll. When asked about the impact of the changing landscape, one participant stated, “It’s the emotional part of watching her childhood farm being destroyed while she is trying to do everything she can to rebuild it to the way it used to be.”

An additional emergent theme surrounding fracking landscape changes was surrounding agricultural impacts. Participants with agricultural land were asked additional questions about fracking’s impacts on their ability to use their farmland. One individual noted that one of their fields was now unusable due to large rocks and filter fabrics left from construction of a well pad, and redirected runoff uphill of their fields. The loss of productive farmland has further contributed to the mental and emotional stress. One participant added, “Our house is ruined, our health is ruined, and our farms are ruined.” In addition to agricultural impacts on large farms, multiple participants also mentioned concerns about their smaller-scale gardens, citing uncertainty about the impacts of air pollution and soil contamination on their produce.

Feelings of powerlessness and social tension

Some participants mentioned feelings of powerlessness against the oil and gas industry. Many families were not consulted prior to fracking operations beginning adjacent to their property. In some cases, this has resulted in significant declines in property values, leaving residents with no financial means to escape oil and gas activity. It is important to note that many residents are given temporary financial incentives to allow fracking on their land. However, to some, the monetary compensation failed to make up for the toll fracking took on their physical and mental health. Lastly, some participants also mentioned feeling stress and anxiety from the social tension resulting from fracking. Debates about the restrictions and regulations on fracking have divided many communities, leading to conflicts and social tensions between once-amiable neighbors.

Survey results

In addition to the interviews, an online survey was distributed to gain more insight as to where concerns about the changing physical landscape fell in relation to other effects associated with oil and gas development (such as poor air quality, water or soil contamination, truck traffic, and noise).

Nine individuals responded to the survey, all of whom indicated having oil and gas infrastructure within five miles of their home. All respondents also indicated that they participated in a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, wildlife viewing/photography, camping, hunting, and fishing.

Interestedly, only five respondents stated they felt fracking had a negative impact on their health, three responded they were unsure, and one responded no. However, all participants felt fracking had a negative impact on their surrounding environment. When discussing outdoor recreation, eight of nine respondents stated they felt fracking limited their access to outdoor recreation opportunities.

Next, respondents indicated that the level of concern related to the changing landscape brought about by fracking was equal to concerns about air pollution, water and soil contamination, noise, and truck traffic (using a 5-point likert scale). Lastly, one respondent stated that they closed their outdoor recreation tourism business due to blowdown emission (the release of gas from a pipeline to the atmosphere in order to relieve pressure in the pipe so that maintenance or testing can take place) and noise from fracking operations.

Conclusion and future directions

In summary, fracking operations have deeply impacted these individuals living in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Not only do residents experience deteriorating air quality, water contamination, and physical health effects, but the mental and emotional toll of witnessing multigenerational farms become forever changed can be overbearing. Other mental health impacts included rising social tensions, feelings of powerlessness, and continuous emotional distress. Fracking operations continue to change the physical landscape, tarnishing Southwest Pennsylvania’s natural beauty and threatening access to outdoor recreation opportunities. Unfortunately, those not living in the direct path of fracking operations struggle to grasp the severity of fracking’s impact on families living with oil and gas infrastructure on or near their property. More widespread awareness of fracking’s impacts is needed to educate communities and call for stricter enforcement of regulations for the oil and gas industry. As one resident summed up their experiences,

 

“Engines are running full blast, shining lights, and just spewing toxins out there. And you can’t get away from it. You just can’t. You can’t drink the water. You can’t breathe the air. You can’t farm the ground. And you’re stuck here.”

 

Hopefully, shedding light on residents’ experiences such as these will bring policymakers to reconsider fracking regulations to minimize the impact on public health and the surrounding environment.

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

 

Acknowledgements

The 2020 Environmental Health Fellowship was made possible by the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and the Heinz Endowments.

Many thanks to all participants who took the time to share their experiences with me, Lois Bower-Bjornson with the Clean Air Council, Jessa Chabeau at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, and the FracTracker team for all of their feedback and expertise.

Feature image courtesy of Lois Bower-Bjornson from the Clean Air Council.

References:

1 Beyer, K., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F., & Malecki, K. (2014). Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(3), 3453-3472. doi:10.3390/ijerph110303453

2 Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., . . . Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140(3), 300-305. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2012.03.012

3 Maas, J., Dillen, S. M., Verheij, R. A., & Groenewegen, P. P. (2009). Social contacts as a possible mechanism behind the relation between green space and health. Health & Place, 15(2), 586-595. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.09.006

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FracTracker in the Field: Building a Live Virtual Map

 

August 19, 2020 Update:

The virtual story map is live!


In this special one-day fundraiser event, two intrepid FracTracker teams will build and share a live virtual map as we travel throughout the Ohio River Valley Region documenting oil, gas, and its effects on our health, climate, and environment.

How many sites can we visit in one day? What will we find?

 

 

 

We’ll share our findings to build awareness about the plight of this region—and so many other places victimized by this rogue industry. Plus, viewers will gain a firsthand understanding of how FracTracker turns data into real-world impact.

Proceeds will benefit the ongoing work of FracTracker to decarbonize our economy and promote environmental justice.

 

Whether you are able to contribute financially at this time or not, we hope you’ll join us on this virtual journey. You’ll see regular video updates along the way as we share our progress, and watch as a story map is updated throughout the day.

Join our team of explorers in spirit and pledge your support! We’re excited to share this journey with you.

 

 

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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