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Appalachia storage hub prospects map by FracTracker

Storing Natural Gas Liquids in Appalachia

Last month, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a report titled Ethane Storage and Distribution Hub in the United States to Congress. The report sums up several other recent geologic studies and economic analyses that evaluate the potential to create a large petrochemical hub in southwest Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and northeastern Kentucky.

Most people call this region Appalachia because of the mountains, or the Ohio River Valley because of the namesake river. The petrochemical industry looks deeper: they’ve branded it Shale Crescent USA, after the shale gas thousands of feet underground. This article summarizes recent developments on storing natural gas liquids, including ethane, in this region – whatever you prefer to call it.

Background

The United States currently produces more natural gas than any other country in the world, with much of the fracked gas coming from the Marcellus and Utica shales in Appalachia. The DOE report predicts that production in this region will continue growing from an estimated at 8.19 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2017, to 13.55 Tcf in 2025 and 19.5 Tcf in 2050.

Natural Gas Production Estimates:

8.19 Tcf in 2017
13.55 Tcf in 2025
19.5 Tcf in 2050

In addition to oil and gas, fracking produces natural gas liquids (NGLs), such as ethane, propane, and butane. NGLs are a key component of the petrochemical industry, which takes these resources and converts them into plastics and resins. As industry extracts more natural gas, it will also be left with more NGLs to manage.

Hoping to profit off NGLs, the oil and gas industry is investing in petrochemical production. In the Appalachian basin, the DOE predicts that production of ethylene from ethane will reach 640,000 barrels a day by 2025 (this is 20 times the amount the region produced in 2013). The Gulf Coast of the U.S., as well as countries in Asia and the Middle East, are also growing their production capacities. Globally, ethylene production is projected to grow 31% from 2017 to 2025.

The rise of the petrochemical industry is coming at a point when there’s an increasing global awareness of the disaster that is plastic pollution. As much as 12.7 million tons of plastic waste goes into the ocean each year, affecting over 700 species of marine animals. On land, plastic waste is often shipped to less developed nations, where it ends up polluting poor communities and contaminating their drinking water and air.

Nevertheless, politicians in PA, OH, and WV are working hard to attract petrochemical build-out in Appalachia. The region already houses much of the infrastructure needed for a petrochemical hub, such as fracked wells that pump out NGLs and processing plants to separate these liquids from the rest of the natural gas stream. One thing it’s missing, however, is significant capacity to store natural gas liquids – particularly ethane.

Why does industry need storage?

Ethane storage offers several benefits to the petrochemical industry. For one, it would serve as a steady supply of ethane for plants like ethane crackers, which “crack” ethane into ethylene to make polyethylene plastic. With this constant supply (transported to crackers via pipeline), plants can operate 24 hours a day, year round, and avoid using energy to shutdown and restart. Storage also allows industry to adapt to fluctuations in demand. If demand decreases, ethane can be set aside instead of being burned off when a natural gas stream is processed.

Another argument for expanding petrochemical activity in Appalachia is to diversify the industry’s geography. The current petrochemical hub in Texas and Louisiana (where over 95% of the country’s ethylene production takes place) is subject to extreme weather events. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused over half of the nation’s polyethylene production capacity to shut down. The report mentions “extreme weather events” multiple times as justification for building a petrochemical hub in Appalachia. This stance strongly suggests that the DOE is preparing for increased hurricanes and flooding from climate change, although this is never explicitly stated. Unsurprisingly, the industry’s role in causing climate change is left out from the report as well.

What does storage look like?

While the term ‘natural gas liquid’ may seem like an oxymoron, it refers to the different forms the substances take depending on temperature and pressure. At normal conditions, NGLs are a gas, but when pressurized or exposed to extremely cold temperatures,  they act as a liquid. NGLs occupy significantly less space as a liquid, and are therefore moved and stored as a pressurized or refrigerated liquid.

Storage can be in above ground tanks, but is often underground in gas fields or underground caverns. NGLs are highly volatile, and storing them above ground puts workers and surrounding communities at risk. For example – last week, an above ground storage tank exploded at a natural gas processing plant in Washington County, PA, sending four people to the hospital. While underground storage is often perceived as “safer,” it still poses significant risks, particularly in a geography like Appalachia full of wells, coal mines, and pipelines. This underground infrastructure can cause NGLs to leak during storage or the land above them to collapse.

A study out of West Virginia University, titled “A Geologic Study to Determine the Potential to Create an Appalachian Storage Hub For Natural Gas Liquids,” identified three different types of storage opportunities along the Ohio and Kanawha river valleys:

Underground storage options

  1. Mined-rock cavern: Companies can mine caverns in formations of limestone, dolomite, or sandstone. The formation must be at least 40 feet thick to hold NGLs. This study focused on formations of the Greenbrier Limestone, which occurs throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
  2. Salt cavern: Developing salt caverns involves injecting water underground to create a void, and then pumping NGLs into the cavern. Suitable salt caverns have “walls” at least 100 feet thick above and below the cavern. The study recommended salt caverns 1,500 to 3,000 feet deep, but considered those as deep as 6,700 feet.
  3. Gas field: NGLs can also be stored in natural gas fields or depleted gas fields in underground sandstone reservoirs. Suitable gas fields are 2,000 feet deep or more according to the WVU study.

Where could storage sites be located?

The West Virginia University study identified and ranked thousands of gas fields, several salt caverns, and many regions in the Greenbrier Limestone that could serve as NGL storage. Most of the top-ranked opportunities are in West Virginia, near the state’s borders with Ohio and Pennsylvania, and several cross beneath the Ohio or Kanawha rivers. The researchers conclude with three “prospects,” which are circled in Figure 1.

A map of storing natural gas liquids opportunities in the Ohio River Valley

Figure 1. NGL storage opportunities identified by the Appalachian Oil and Natural Gas Consortium at West Virginia University

The table below lists the specific storage opportunities in each prospect, as well as the available data on depth, thickness, and acreage of the formations. Also listed are the counties that the storage facility would cross into.

Name Type Depth (feet) Thickness (feet) Counties Land Size (acres)
Salina F4 Salt cavern Salt cavern >100 to 150 Primarily Columbiana, OH, also Hancock, WV & Beaver, PA 83,775
Salina F4 salt cavern Salt cavern 100 to 150 Primarily Jefferson, OH, also Brooke & Hancock WV, & Washington, PA 129,017
Ravenna-Best Consolidated Field Depleted gas field 4,107 to 6,497 25 to 156 Mahoning, OH 69,000
No specific field was ranked Gas field in Oriskany sandstone 3,000 to 7,000 0 to 70+ Throughout the prospect

Existing NGL Storage

Storage in the United States

Currently, the U.S. has two major NGL storage hubs (both in salt caverns): One is in Mont Belvieu, Texas and the other in Conway, Kansas. These facilities are strategically located near the petrochemical industry’s hub along the Gulf Coast. There is also underground storage in Sarnia, Ontario.

Industry in Appalachia is connected to these storage facilities via pipelines, including Sunoco’s Mariner West that transports ethane to Sarnia, and the Appalachia-Texas-Express (ATEX) pipeline that takes ethane to Mont Belvieu. However, as suggested above, NGL storage in Appalachia is also under development.

Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub

Appalachia Development Group LLC is heading the development of the Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub initiative. The company has not announced the specific location for underground storage, but has been working hard to secure the funds  for this development.

In September of 2017, Appalachia Development Group submitted part 1 of a 2-part application for a $1.9 billion loan to the US DOE Loan Program Office. The DOE approved the application the following January, inviting the company to submit the second part, which is currently pending. This second part goes through the DOE’s Title XVII innovative clean energy projects loan program.

According to the DOE, this program “provides loan guarantees to accelerate the deployment of innovative clean energy technology.” Paradoxically, this means the DOE may give clean energy funds to the petrochemical industry, which is fueled by fossil fuels and does not provide energy but rather plastic and resins.

Steven Hedrick, the CEO of Appalachia Development Group, was part of a West Virginia trade delegation that traveled to China in 2017 to meet with China’s largest energy company. This meeting, which included President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping, resulted in China Energy agreeing to invest $83.7 billion to support natural gas and petrochemical development in West Virginia. (Of note: This agreement has faced uncertainty following Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods). West Virginia Governor Jim Justice later criticized Hedrick’s involvement in the meeting, where he promoted the interests of his private company.

Mountaineer NGL Storage Project

Another company, Energy Storage Ventures LLC, has plans to construct NGL storage near Clarington, Ohio. This facility would be on land formerly belonging to Quarto Mining Company’s Powhatan Mine No. 4. Called “Mountaineer NGL Storage,” the project would develop salt caverns to store propane, ethane, and butane. Each cavern could store 500,000 barrels (21 million gallons) of NGLs.

The video below, made by the Energy Storage Ventures, describes the process of developing salt caverns for storage.

The Mountaineer NGL Storage Project location is about 12 miles south of the PTTGC ethane cracker (if built), in Dilles Bottom Ohio. It’s also roughly 60 miles south of the Shell ethane cracker (under construction) in Potter Township, PA. If developed, the project could supply these plants with ethane and allow them to continuously operate. According to Energy Storage Ventures President, David Hooker, the project would also trigger $500 million in new pipelines in the region and $1 billion in fractionation facilities to separate NGLs.

Energy Storage Ventures wants to build three pipelines beneath the Ohio River. Two pipelines (one for ethane and one for propane and butane) would deliver NGLs to the storage site from Blue Racer Natrium, a fractionation plant that separates dry natural gas from NGLs. A third pipeline would take salt brine water from the caverns to the Marshall County chlorine plant (currently owned by Westlake Chemical Corp). These facilities, as well as the locations of the two ethane crackers storage could serve, are in the map below. This map also includes the potential storage opportunities the researchers at West Virginia University identified.

View map full screen | How FracTracker maps work

Referring to concerns about building pipelines and caverns near the Ohio River, a drinking water source for 5 million people, the company’s president David Hooker stated, “This is not rocket science. These things have operated safely for years… Salt, at depth, is impermeable. You won’t see any migration out of the salt.”

This video is a rendering of what the 200-acre site will look like, including the salt water impoundment structure (capable of holding 3.25 million barrels), and the infrastructure needed to deliver products and equipment by rail and truck:

The company has stated that it owns both the land and mineral rights it needs to develop the caverns, but the project has also faced delays.

Where is this plastic going?

One common argument for a petrochemical hub in Appalachia is the region’s proximity to the downstream sector of petrochemical industry. Manufacturers such as PPG Industries, Dow Chemical Inc., and BASF are all based in the area and could make use of the feedstock from an Appalachian hub.

However, the report doesn’t make it clear where the plastic and resin end products will land. It does state that the demand in the United States isn’t enough to swallow up two major petrochemical hubs worth of plastic.

Export markets

The DOE report states that, “the development of new petrochemical capacity in Appalachia is not necessarily in conflict with Gulf Coast expansion.” Since the Gulf Coast already has the infrastructure for export, it could focus on international markets while Appalachia meets domestic demand. Alternatively, the Appalachian hub could serve European destinations while the Gulf Coast hub delivers to Pacific Basin and South American destinations. Plastic consumption is highly correlated with population, so countries with large, growing populations such as India and China are likely markets.

It’s important to note that the U.S. isn’t the only country increasing its production of petrochemical derivatives, and as the report notes, exports from the US “may face a challenge from global capacity surplus.” Figure 2 shows that global production of ethylene is expected to surpass global consumption, shown in Figure 3. The graph of consumption likely ignores the impact of plastic-reducing policies that hundreds of countries and cities are implementing. As such, it may be an over-estimation.

Historical and Projected Ethylene Production Capacity by Global Area

Figure 2. Historical and future ethylene production by global region. Source

Graph of ethylene consumption by global area.

Figure 3. Ethylene consumption by global region. Source

In the end, it appears that the industry’s plan is to build first, and worry about markets later, hoping that a growing supply of affordable plastic will increase consumption.

Perhaps the reason industry is so eager to forge a market is because oil and gas is struggling with a lot of debt. A study out of the Sightline Institute found that as of the first half of 2018, “US fracking-focused oil and gas companies continued their eight-year cash flow losing streak.”  The Center for International Environmental Law found that petrochemicals generally have a larger profit margin than oil and gas: “In 2015, ExxonMobil’s Chemicals segment accounted for roughly 10% of its revenues but more than 25% of its overall profits.”

Plastic is one way to subsidize this dying industry…

Beyond Storing Natural Gas Liquids

The motive behind developing storage is to catalyze and support a major industry. The DOE report states that the new infrastructure required “would include gathering lines, processing plants, fractionation facilities, NGLs storage facilities, ethane crackers, and then…plants for polyethylene, ethylene dichloride, ethylene oxide, and other infrastructure.” A hub would require more fracking and wastewater injection wells, cause even more heavy truck traffic that adds stress to roadways, and require additional power plant capacity to serve its electricity demand.

In other words, an Appalachia petrochemical hub would profoundly impact the region. The report contains an in-depth analysis of the economic impacts, but fails to mention any environmental concerns, social impacts on communities, or health effects. The other major studies on this buildout,  mentioned above, follow a similar pattern.

A quick look at industry along the Gulf Coast tells you that environmental, social, and health concerns are very real and produce their own economic debts. The petrochemical industry has created a “cancer alley” in Texas and Louisiana, disproportionately impacting low-income and minority communities. Yet, industry is preparing another hub without a single comprehensive environmental impact assessment or health assessment for the region. As each pipeline, fracked well, and plant is permitted separately, we can’t properly assess the cumulative negative impacts this development will have on our waterways, forests, soil, or air quality. Therefore, we also won’t know how it will affect our health.

Looking into the future

The report analyzes the industry through 2050. It states that NGL output in Appalachia:

… will continue to grow throughout the forecast period. As natural gas production gradually migrates away from liquids-rich gas areas, which are expected to slowly deplete, to dryer areas, the rate of growth in NGPL production will slow relative to the rate of natural gas production growth.

In 31 years, the kids growing up in Appalachia right now could be left with brownfields, dried-up wells, and abandoned ethane crackers. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Last year, the DOE reported that there are more jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency, and alternative vehicles than in fossil fuels. By using funds such as the DOE’s Title XVII innovative clean energy loan – for actual clean energy – we can bring economic development to the region that will be relevant past 2050 and that won’t sacrifice our health and natural resources for short-term private gains.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist

Map of pipeline incidents across the US

Pipeline Incidents Continue to Impact Residents

Pipelines play a major role in the oil and gas extraction industry, allowing for the transport of hydrocarbons from well sites to a variety of infrastructure, including processing plants, petrochemical facilities, power generation plants, and ultimately consumers. There are more than 2.7 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States, or more than 11 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

With all of this infrastructure in place, pipelines are inevitably routed close to homes, schools, and other culturally or ecologically important locations. But how safe are pipelines, really? While they are typically buried underground and out of sight, many residents are concerned about the constant passage of volatile materials through these pipes in close proximity to these areas, with persistent but often unstated possibility that something might go wrong some day.

Safety talking points

In an attempt to assuage these fears, industry representatives and regulators tend to throw around variants of the word “safe” quite a bit:

Pipelines are the safest and most reliable means of transporting the nation’s energy products.
— Keith Coyle, Marcellus Shale Coalition

Although pipelines exist in all fifty states, most of us are unaware that this vast network even exists. This is due to the strong safety record of pipelines and the fact that most of them are located underground. Installing pipelines underground protects them from damage and helps protect our communities as well.
— Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Pipelines are an extremely safe way to transport energy across the country.
Pipeline 101

Knowing how important pipelines are to everyday living is a big reason why we as pipeline operators strive to keep them safe. Pipelines themselves are one of the safest ways to transport energy with a barrel of crude oil or petroleum product reaching its destination safely by pipeline 99.999% of the time.
American Petroleum Institute

But are pipelines really safe?

Given these talking points, the general public can be excused for being under the impression that pipelines are no big deal. However, PHMSA keeps records on pipeline incidents in the US, and the cumulative impact of these events is staggering. These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

  1. Gas Distribution (lines that take gas to residents and other consumers),
  2. Gas Transmission & Gathering (collectively bringing gas from well sites to processing facilities and distant markets), and
  3. Hazardous Liquids (including crude oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids).

Below in Table 1 is a summary of pipeline incident data from 2010 through mid-November of this year. Of note: Some details from recent events are still pending, and are therefore not yet reflected in these reports.

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018

Report Incidents Injuries Fatalities Evacuees Fires Explosions Damages ($)
Gas Distribution 934 473 92 18,467 576 226 381,705,567
Gas Transmission & Gathering 1,069 99 24 8,614 121 51 1,107,988,837
Hazardous Liquids 3,509 24 10 2,471 111 14 2,606,014,109
Totals 5,512 596 126 29,552 808 291 4,095,708,513

Based on this data, on average each day in the US 1.7 pipeline incidents are reported (a number in line with our previous analyses), requiring 9 people to be evacuated, and causing almost $1.3 million in property damage. A pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days. These incidents result in an injury every 5 days, on average, and a fatality every 26 days.

Data shortcomings

While the PHMSA datasets are extremely thorough, they do have some limitations. Unfortunately, in some cases, these limitations tend to minimize our understanding of the true impacts. A notable recent example is a series of explosions and fires on September 13, 2018 in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. Cumulatively, these incidents resulted in the death of a young man and the injuries to 25 other people. There were 60-80 structure fires, according to early reports, as gas distribution lines became over-pressurized.

The preliminary PHMSA report lists all of these Massachusetts fires as a single event, so it is counted as one fire and one explosion in Table 1. As of the November 14 download of the data, property damage has not been calculated, and is listed as $0. The number of evacuees in the report also stands at zero. This serves as a reminder that analysis of the oil and gas industry can only be as good as the available data, and relying on operators to accurately self-report the full extent of the impacts is a somewhat dubious practice.

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This map shows pipeline incidents in the US from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018. Source: PHMSA. One record without coordinates was discarded, and 10 records had missing decimal points or negative (-) signs added to the longitude values. A few obvious errors remain, such as a 2012 incident near Winnipeg that should be in Texas, but we are not in a position to guess at the correct latitude and longitude values for each of the 5,512 incidents.

Another recent incident occurred in Center Township, a small community in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near Aliquippa on September 10, 2018. According to the PHMSA Gas Transmission & Gathering report, this incident on the brand new Revolution gathering line caused over $7 million in damage, destroying a house and multiple vehicles, and required 49 people to evacuate. The incident was indicated as a fire, but not an explosion. However, reporting by local media station WPXI quoted this description from a neighbor:

A major explosion, I thought it was a plane crash honestly. My wife and I jumped out of bed and it was just like a light. It looked like daylight. It was a ball of flame like I’ve never seen before.

From the standpoint of the data, this error is not particularly egregious. On the other hand, it does serve to falsely represent the overall safety of the system, at least if we consider explosions to be more hazardous than fires.

Big picture findings

Comparing the three reports against one another, we can see that the majority of incidents (64%) and damages (also 64%) are caused by hazardous liquids pipelines, even though the liquids account for less than 8% of the total mileage of the network. In all of the other categories, however, gas distribution lines account for more than half of the cumulative damage, including injuries (79%), deaths (73%), evacuees (62%), fires (71%), and explosions (78%). This is perhaps due to the vast network (more than 2.2 million miles) of gas distribution mains and service lines, as well as their nature of taking these hazardous products directly into populated areas. Comparatively, transmission and hazardous liquids lines ostensibly attempt to avoid those locations.

Is the age of the pipeline a factor in incidents?

Among the available attributes in the incident datasets is a field indicating the year the pipeline was installed. While this data point is not always completed, there is enough of a sample size to look for trends in the data. We determined the age of the pipe by subtracting the year the pipe was installed from the year of the incident, eliminating nonsensical values that were created when the pipeline age was not provided. In the following section, we will look at two tables for each of the three reports. The first table shows the cause of the failure compared to the average age, and the second breaks down results by the content that the pipe was carrying. We’ll also include a histogram of the pipe age, so we can get a sense of how representative the average age actually is within the sample.

A. Gas distribution

Each table shows some fluctuation in the average age of pipeline incidents depending on other variables, although the variation in the product contained in the pipe (Table 3) are minor, and may be due to relatively small sample sizes in some of the categories. When examining the nature of the failure in relation to the age of the pipe (Table 2), it does make sense that incidents involving corrosion would be more likely to afflict older pipelines, (although again, the number of incidents in this category is relatively small). On average, distribution pipeline incidents occur on pipes that are 33 years old.

When we look at the histogram (Figure 1) for the overall distribution of the age of the pipeline, we see that those in the first bin, representing routes under 10 years of age, are actually the most frequent. In fact, the overall trend, excepting those in the 40 t0 50 year old bin, is that the older the pipeline, the fewer the number of incidents. This may reflect the massive scale of pipeline construction in recent decades, or perhaps pipeline safety protocol has regressed over time.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 1. Age of pipeline histogram for gas distribution line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

B. Gas Transmission & Gathering

Transmission & Gathering line incidents occur on pipelines routes that are, on average, five years older than their distribution counterparts. Corrosion, natural force damage, and material failures on pipes and welds occur on pipelines with an average age above the overall mean, while excavation and “other outside force” incidents tend to occur on newer pipes (Table 4). The latter category would include things like being struck by vehicles, damaged in wildfires, or vandalism. The contents of the pipe does not seem to have any significant correlation with the age of the pipe when we take sample size into consideration (Table 5).

The histogram (Figure 2) for the age of pipes on transmission & gathering line incidents below shows a more normal distribution, with the noticeable exception of the first bin (0 to 10 years old) ranking second in frequency to the fifth bin (40 to 50 years old).

It is worth mentioning that, “PHMSA estimates that only about 5% of gas gathering pipelines are currently subject to PHMSA pipeline safety regulations.” My correspondence with the agency verified that the remainder is not factored into their pipeline mileage or incident reports in any fashion. Therefore, we should not consider the PHMSA data to completely represent the extent of the gathering line network or incidents that occur on those routes.

Pipeline incidents chart

Figure 2. Age of pipeline histogram for transmission & gathering line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

C. Hazardous Liquids

The average incident on hazardous liquid lines occurs on pipelines that are 27 years old, which is 6 years younger than for distribution incidents, and 11 years younger than their transmission & gathering counterparts. This appears to be heavily skewed by the equipment failure and incorrect operation categories, both of which occur on pipes averaging 15 years old, and both with substantial numbers of incidents. On the other hand, excavation damage, corrosion, and material/weld failures tend to occur on pipes that are at least 40 years old (Table 6).

In terms of content, pipelines carrying carbon dioxide happen on pipes that average just 11 years old, although there are not enough of these incidents to account for the overall departure from the other two datasets (Table 7).

The overall shape of the histogram (Figure 3) is similar to that of transmission & gathering line incidents, except that the first bin (0 to 10 years old) is by far the most frequent, with more than 3 and a half times as many incidents as the next closest bin (4o to 50 years old). Operators of new hazardous liquid routes are failing at an alarming rate. In descending order, these incidents are blamed on equipment failure (61%), incorrect operation (21%), and corrosion (7%), followed by smaller amounts in other categories. The data indicate that pipelines installed in previous decades were not subject to this degree of failure.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 3. Age of pipeline histogram for hazardous liquid line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

Conclusions

When evaluating quotes, like those listed above, that portray pipelines as a safe way of transporting hydrocarbons, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they are saying.

Are pipelines the safest way of transporting our nation’s energy products? This presupposes that our energy must be met with liquid or gaseous fossil fuels. Certainly, crude shipments by rail and other modes of transport are also concerning, but movements of solar panels and wind turbines are far less risky.

Does the industry have the “strong safety record” that PHMSA proclaims? Here, we have to grapple with the fact that the word “safety” is inherently subjective, and the agency’s own data could certainly argue that the industry is falling short of reasonable safety benchmarks.

And what about the claim that barrels of oil or petroleum products reach their destination “99.999% of the time? First, it’s worth noting that this claim excludes gas pipelines, which account for 92% of the pipelines, even before considering that PHMSA only has records on about 5% of gas gathering lines in their pipeline mileage calculations. But more to the point, while a 99.999% success rate sounds fantastic, in this context, it isn’t good enough, as this means that one barrel in every 100,000 will spill.

For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline has a daily capacity of 470,000 barrels per day (bpd). In an average year, we can expect 1,715 barrels (72,030 gallons) to fail to reach its destination, and indeed, there are numerous spills reported in the course of routine operation on the route. The 590,000 bpd Keystone pipeline leaked 9,700 barrels (407,400 gallons) late last year in South Dakota, or what we might expect from four and a half years of normal operation, given the o.001% failure rate. In all, PHMSA’s hazardous liquid report lists 712,763 barrels (29.9 million gallons) were unintentionally released, while an additional 328,074 barrels (13.8 million gallons) were intentionally released in this time period. Of this, 284,887 barrels (12 million gallons) were recovered, meaning 755,950 barrels (31.7 million gallons) were not.

Beyond that, we must wonder whether the recent spate of pipeline incidents in new routes is a trend that can be corrected. Between the three reports, 1,283 out of the 3,853 (32%) incidents occurred in pipelines that were 10 years old or younger (where the year the pipeline’s age is known). A large number of these incidents are unforced errors, due to poor quality equipment or operator error.

One wonders why regulators are allowing such shoddy workmanship to repeatedly occur on their watch.


By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project - Map by FracTracker Alliance

PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project: Risks of Bringing Plastic Manufacturing to Ohio

In 2012, a battle between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania was underway. Politicians and businesses from each state were eagerly campaigning for the opportunity to host Royal Dutch Shell’s “world-class” petrochemical facility. The facility in question was an ethane cracker, the first of its kind to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. In the end, Pennsylvania’s record-breaking tax incentive package won Shell over, and construction on the ethane cracker plant began in 2017.

Once completed, the ethane cracker will convert ethane from fracked wells into 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year.

Shell Ethane Cracker

Shell’s ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA. Image by Ted Auch, FracTracker.
Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Ohio and West Virginia, however, have not been left out of the petrochemical game. In addition to the NGL pipelines, cryogenic plants, and fractionation facilities in these states, plans for ethane cracker projects are also in the works.

In 2017, PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) put Ohio in second place in the “race to build an ethane cracker,” when it decided to build a plant in Belmont County, Ohio.

But first, why is the petrochemical industry expanding in the Ohio River Valley?

Fracking has opened up huge volumes of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Fracked wells in these states extract methane, which is then transported in pipelines and used as a residential, industrial, or commercial energy source. The gas in this region, however, contains more than just methane. Classified as “wet gas,” the natural gas stream from regional wells also contains natural gas liquids (NGLs). These NGLs include propane, ethane, and butane, and industry is eager to create a market for them.

Investing in plastic is one way for the industry to subsidize the natural gas production, an increasingly unprofitable enterprise. 

An image of plastic pellets

Plastic pellets, also called “nurdles,” the end product of ethane crackers.

Major processing facilities, such as cryogenic and fractionation plants, receive natural gas streams and separate the NGLs, such as ethane, from the methane. After ethane is separated, it can be “cracked” into ethylene, and converted to polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The plastic is shipped in pellet form to manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, where it is made into a variety of plastic products.

By building ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley, industry is taking advantage of the region’s vast underground resources.

PTTGC ethane cracker: The facts

PTTGC’s website states that the company “is Thailand’s largest and Asia’s leading integrated petrochemical and refining company.” While this ethane cracker has been years in the making, the company states that “a final investment decision has not been made.” The image below shows land that PTTGC has purchased for the plant, totaling roughly 500 acres, in Dilles Bottom, Mead Township.

According to the Ohio EPA, the plant will turn ethylene into:Recycling "2" symbol for HDPE plastic

  • 700,000 tons of high density polyethylene (HDPE) per year
  • 900,000 tons Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)

HDPE is a common type of plastic, used in many products such as bags, bottles, or crates. Look for it on containers with a “2” in the recycling triangle. LLDPE is another common type of plastic that’s weaker and more flexible; it’s marked with a “4.”

The ethane cracker complex will contain:

  • An ethylene plant
  • Four ethylene-based derivatives plants.
  • Six 552 MMBtu/hour cracking furnaces fueled by natural gas and tail gas with ethane backup
  • Three 400 MMBTU/hr steam boilers fueled by natural gas and ethane
  • A primary and backup 6.2 MMBtu/hour thermal oxidizer
  • A high pressure ground flare (1.8 MMBtu/hour)
  • A low pressure ground flare (0.78 MMBtu/hour)
  • Wastewater treatment systems
  • Equipment to capture fugitive emissions
  • Railcars for pygas (liquid product) and HDPE and LLDPE pellets
  • Emergency firewater pumps
  • Emergency diesel-fired generator engines
  • A cooling tower

Impacts on air quality

The plant received water permits last year, and air permits are currently under review. On November 29, 2018, the Ohio EPA held an information session and hearing for a draft air permit (the permit can be viewed here, by entering permit number P0124972).

FracTracker has previously reported on the air quality impacts, risks, and fragmented permitting process associated with the Shell ethane cracker in Pennsylvania. How does the PTTGC plant stack up?

The plant will be built in the community of Dilles Bottom, on the former property of FirstEnergy’s R.E. Burger Power Station, a coal power plant that shut down in 2011. The site was demolished in 2016 in preparation for PTTGC’s ethane cracker. In 2018, PTTGC also purchased property from Ohio-West Virginia Excavating Company. In total, the ethane cracker will occupy 500 acres.

R.E. Burger Power Station

R.E. Burger Power Station, which has been demolished for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker. Image Source

Table 1, below, is a comparison of the previous major source of air pollution source, the R.E. Burger Power Station, and predictions of the future emissions from the PTTGC ethane cracker. The far right column shows what percent of the former emissions the ethane cracker will release.

Table 1: Former and Future Air Emissions in Dilles Bottom, Ohio

Pollutant R.E.Burger Power Station
(2010 emissions)

PTTGC Ethane Cracker
(predicted emissions)

Percent of former emissions

CO (carbon monoxide) 143.33 544 379.5%
NOx (nitrogen oxides) 1861.2 164 8.81%
SO2 (sulfur dioxide) 12719 23 0.18%
PM10 (particulate matter, 10) 179.25 89 49.65%
PM2.5 (particulate matter, 2.5) 77.62 86 110.8%
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) 0.15 396 264000%

As you can see, the ethane cracker will emit substantially less sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxides compared with the R.E. Burger site. This makes sense, as these two pollutants are associated with burning coal. On the flip side, the ethane cracker will emit almost four times as much carbon monoxide and 263,900% more volatile organic compounds (percentages bolded in Table 1, above).

In addition to these pollutants, the ethane cracker will emit 38 tons per year of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS), a group of pollutants that includes benzene, chlorine, and ethyl chloride. These pollutants are characterized by the EPA as being “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.”

Finally, the ethane cracker is predicted to emit 1,785,043 tons per year of greenhouse gasses. In the wake of recent warnings on the urgent need to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and National Climate Assessment, this prediction is highly concerning.

While these emission numbers seem high, they still meet federal requirements and nearly all state guidelines. If the ethane cracker becomes operational, pollutant monitoring will be important to ensure the plant is in compliance and how emissions impact air quality. The plant will also attract more development to an already heavily industrialized area; brine trucks, trains, pipelines, fracked wells, compressor stations, cryogenic facilities, and natural gas liquid storage are all part of the ethane-to-plastic manufacturing process. The plastics coming from the plant will travel to facilities in the U.S. and abroad to create different plastic products. These facilities are an additional source of emissions.

Air permitting does not consider the full life cycle of the plant, from construction of the plant to its demolition, or the development associated with it.

As such, this plant will be major step back for local air quality, erasing recent improvements in the Wheeling metropolitan area, historically listed as one of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the country. Furthermore, the pollutants that will be increasing the most are associated with serious health effects. Over short term exposure, high levels of VOCs are associated with headaches and respiratory symptoms, and over long term exposure, cancer, liver and kidney damage.

Emergency preparedness

In addition to air quality impacts, ethane cracker plants also pose risks from fires, explosions, and other types of unplanned accidents. In 2013, a ruptured boiler at an ethane cracker in Louisiana caused an explosion that sent 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air. Three hundred workers evacuated, but sadly there were 167 suffered injuries and 2 deaths.

While researching Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, FracTracker worked with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn about emergency planning around the petrochemical industry. Emergency planners map out two and five mile zones around facilities, called emergency planning zones, and identify vulnerabilities and emergency responders within them.

With this in mind, the map below shows a two and five-mile radius around PTTGC’s property, as reported by Belmont County Auditor. Within these emergency planning zones are the locations of schools, day cares, hospitals, fire stations, emergency medical services, hospitals, and local law enforcement offices, reported by Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data.

The map also includes census data from the EPA that identifies potential environmental justice concerns. By clicking on the census block groups, you will see demographic information, such as income status, age, and education level. These data are important in recognizing populations that may already be disproportionately burdened by or more vulnerable to environmental hazards.

Finally, the map displays environmental data, also from the EPA, including a visualization of particulate matter along the Ohio River Valley, where massive petrochemical development is occurring. By clicking on a census block and then the arrow at the top, you will find a number of other statistics on local environmental concerns.

View map full screen  |  How FracTracker maps work

Emergency planning zones for Shell’s ethane cracker are available here.

Within the 5 mile emergency planning zone, there are:

  • 9 fire or EMS stations
  • 17 schools and/or day cares
  • 1 hospital
  • 6 local law enforcement offices

Within the 2 mile emergency planning zone, there are:

  • 3 fire or EMS stations
  • 7 schools and/or day cares
  • No hospitals
  • 3 local law enforcement offices

Sites of capacity, such as the fire and EMS stations, could provide emergency support in the case of an accident. Sites of vulnerability, such as the many schools and day cares, should be aware of and prepared to respond to the various physical and chemical risks associated with ethane crackers.

The census block where the ethane cracker is planned has a population of 1,252. Of this population, 359 are 65 years or older. That is well above national average and important to note; air pollutants released from the plant are associated with health effects such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, to which older populations are more vulnerable.

Conclusion

PTTGC’s ethane cracker, if built, will drastically alter the air quality of Belmont County, OH, and the adjacent Marshall County, WV. Everyday, the thousands of people in the surrounding region, including the students of over a dozen schools, will breathe in its emissions.

This population is also vulnerable to unpredictable accidents and explosions that are a risk when manufacturing products from ethane, a highly flammable liquid. Many of these concerns were recently voiced by local residents at the air permit hearing.

Despite these concerns and pushback, PTTGC’s website for this ethane cracker, pttgcbelmontcountyoh.com, does not address emergency plans for the area. It also fails to acknowledge the potential for any adverse environmental impacts associated with the plant or the pipelines, fracked wells, and train and truck traffic it will attract to the region.

With this in mind, we call upon PTTGC to acknowledge the risks of its facility to Belmont County and provide the public with emergency preparedness plans, before the permitting process continues.

If you have thoughts or concerns regarding PTTGC’s ethane cracker and its impact on air quality, the Ohio EPA is accepting written comments through December 11, 2018. We encourage you to look through the data on this map or conduct your own investigations and submit comments on air permit #P0124972.

Written comments should be sent to:

Ohio EPA SEDO-DAPC, Attn: Kimbra Reinbold
2195 Front St
Logan, OH 43138
Kimbra.reinbold@epa.ohio.gov

(Include permit #P0124972 within your comment)

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist

Piecing together the ethane cracker - Graphic by Sophie Riedel

Piecing Together an Ethane Cracker

How fragmented approvals and infrastructure favor petrochemical development

By Leann Leiter and Lisa Graves-Marcucci

Let’s think back to 2009, when oil and gas companies like Range Resources began drilling the northeast shale plays in earnest. Picture the various stages involved in drilling – such as leasing of land, clearing of trees, boring of wells, siting of compressor stations, and construction of pipelines to gather the gas. Envision the geographic scope of the gas infrastructure, with thousands of wells in Pennsylvania alone, and thousands of miles of pipelines stretching as far as Louisiana.

Figure 1. A pipeline right-of-way snakes behind a residential property in Washington County, PA. Photo credit: Leann Leiter.

Figure 1. A pipeline right-of-way snakes behind a residential property in Washington County, PA. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

Now, picture the present, where a homeowner looks out over her yard and wonders how a lease she signed with Shell several years prior made it possible for the company to run an ethane pipeline across her property and between her house and her garage.

Think forward in time, to 2022, the year when a world-scale ethane cracker is set to go online in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, to begin churning through natural gas liquids from wells in PA and others, producing a variety of disposable plastic products.

At each of these moments in gas development, which of the many stakeholders – industry leaders, local governments, state regulatory agencies, or landowners and residents – were granted a view of the full picture?

The proposed Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County is an illustration of the fragmented nature of gas development. From the extensive web of drilling infrastructure required to supply this massive facility, to several years of construction, this project is a case-study in piecemeal permitting. Such fragmentation creates a serious barrier to transparency and to the informed decision-making that relies upon it.

In the first two articles in this series on the petrochemical development in Beaver County, we focused on ethane cracker emergency scenarios and how the area might prepare. In this article, we draw the lens back to take in the larger picture of this region-altering project and highlight the effects of limited transparency.

The “Piecemeal” Nature of Gas Development

All across the Pennsylvania, proposed industrial development – even coal operations – have historically provided to the public, elected officials, and regulatory agencies the extent or footprint of their planned operations. Nonetheless, the oil and gas industry has in several instances undertaken a practice of developing its extensive infrastructure piece-by-piece. Operators of these facilities first acquire a GP-5 General Permit, which is only available to certain oil and gas operations with “minor” emissions and which allows them to avoid having the permit undergo public notice or comment. These operators then add emissions sources and increases through a series of minor amendments. While they are required to obtain a “major” source permit once their modifications result in major emissions, they avoid the scrutiny required for a major source by this fragmented process.

Unlike most other industrial permitting, the gas industry has enjoyed a much less transparent process. Instead of presenting their entire planned operation at the time of initial permit application, gas operators having been seeking – and receiving – incremental permits in a piecemeal fashion. This process puts local decision makers and the women, men, and children who live, work, and go to school near gas development at a severe disadvantage in the following ways:

  • Without full disclosure of the entirety of the planned project, neither regulatory bodies nor the public can conduct a full and factual assessment of land use impacts;
  • Incremental approvals allow for ever-expanding operations, including issuance of permits without additional public notification and participation;
  • Piecemeal approvals allow operations to continuously alter a community and its landscape;
  • The fragmented approval process prevents consideration of cumulative impacts; and
  • Without full transparency of key components of the proposed operations, emergency planning is hampered or non-existent.

From the Well to the Ethane Cracker

In the fragmented approval process of gas development, the proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County represents a pertinent example. Developers of this massive, multi-year, and many-stage project have only revealed the size and scope in a piecemeal fashion, quietly making inroads on the project (like securing land leases along the route of the pipeline required for the cracker, years in advance of permit approvals for the facility itself). By rolling out each piece over several years, the entirety of the petrochemical project only becomes clear in retrospect.

A World-Scale Petrochemical Hub

While Shell is still pursuing key approval from the PA Department of Environmental Protection, industry leaders treat the ethane cracker as a foregone conclusion, promising that this facility is but one step in turning the area into a “petrochemical hub.”

The cracker facility, alone, will push existing air pollution levels further beyond their already health-threatening state. Abundant vacant parcels around Shell’s cracker site are attractive sites for additional spin-off petrochemical facilities in the coming “new industry cluster.” These facilities would add their own risks to the equation, including yet-unknown chemical outputs emitted into the air and their resulting cumulative impacts. Likewise, disaster risks associated with the ethane cracker remain unclear, because in the piecemeal permitting process, the industry is not required to submit Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency (PPC) Plans until after receiving approval to build.

Figure 2: Visualization shows a portion of the extensive US natural gas interstate pipeline system stretching from the petrochemical hubs in the bayous of the Gulf Coast Basin to Pittsburgh's Appalachian Basin. However, petrochemical development in the northeast may reverse or otherwise change that flow. Visualization created by Sophie Riedel, Carnegie Mellon University, School of Architecture. Data on interstate natural gas supply sourced from Energy Information Administration, Form EIA176 "Annual Report of Natural Gas and Supplemental Gas Supply and Disposition," 2007.

Figure 2. A portion of the extensive US natural gas interstate pipeline system stretching from the petrochemical hubs in the bayous of the Gulf Coast Basin to Pittsburgh’s Appalachian Basin. However, petrochemical development in the northeast may reverse or otherwise change that flow. Visualization created by Sophie Riedel, Carnegie Mellon University, School of Architecture. Data on interstate natural gas supply sourced from Energy Information Administration, Form EIA176 “Annual Report of Natural Gas and Supplemental Gas Supply and Disposition,” 2007.

92.3 Miles of Explosive Pipeline

More than just a major local expansion, communities downriver and downwind will be susceptible to the impacts, including major land disturbance, emissions, and the potential for “incidents,” including explosion. The pipeline required to feed the cracker with highly flammable, explosive ethane would tie the tri-state region into the equation, expanding the zone of risk into Ohio and crossing through West Virginia.

Figure 3: The Falcon Pipeline, which would be used to transport ethane to the cracker in Beaver County. At 92.3 miles long, it consists of two “legs,” starting from Scio and Cadiz, Ohio and Houston, PA, respectively, and extending up to the site of Shell’s ethane cracker. Credit: Shell Pipeline Company LP.

Figure 3. The Falcon Pipeline, which would be used to transport ethane to the cracker in Beaver County. At 92.3 miles long, it consists of two “legs,” starting from Scio and Cadiz, Ohio and Houston, PA, respectively, and extending up to the site of Shell’s ethane cracker. Credit: Shell Pipeline Company LP

Renewed Demand at the Wellhead

No one piece of the gas infrastructure stands alone; all work in tandem. According to the  Energy Information Administration (EIA), the new US ethane crackers will drive consumption of ethane up by a 26% by the end of 2018. Gas wells in the northeast already supply ethane; new ethane crackers in the region introduce a way to profit from this by-product of harvesting methane without piping it to the Gulf Coast. How this renewed demand for ethane will play out at fracked wells will be the result of complex variables, but it will undoubtedly continue to drive demand at Pennsylvania’s 10,000 existing unconventional oil and gas wells and those of other states, and may promote bringing new ones online.

quote-from-petchem-report

Figure 4. Excerpt from Executive Summary of IHS Markit Report, “Prospects to Enhance Pennsylvania’s Opportunities in Petrochemical Manufacturing.”

Along with drilling comes a growing network of gathering and transmission lines, which add to the existing 88,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in Pennsylvania alone, fragment wildlife habitat, and put people at risk from leaks and explosions. Facilities along the supply stream that add their own pollution and risks include pump stations along the route and the three cryogenic facilities at the starting points of the Falcon Pipeline (see Fig. 6).

Figure 4: Several yards of the 88,000 miles of gas pipelines cutting through Pennsylvania. Finleyville, PA. Credit: Leann Leiter.

Figure 5. Several yards of the 88,000 miles of gas pipelines cutting through Pennsylvania. Finleyville, PA. Credit: Leann Leiter

The infrastructure investment required for ethane crackers in this region could reach $3.7 billion in processing facilities, pipelines for transmitting natural gas liquids including ethane, and storage facilities. A report commissioned by Team Pennsylvania and the PA Department of Community and Economic Development asserts that “the significant feedstock and transportation infrastructure required” will “exceed what is typically required for a similar facility” in the Gulf Coast petrochemical hub, indicating a scale of petrochemical development that rivals that of the southern states. This begs the question of how the health impacts in Pennsylvania will compare to those in the Gulf Coast’s “Cancer Alley.”

Figure 6. Houston, PA Cryogenic and Fractionation Plant, one of three such facilities supplying feedstock to the proposed Shell ethane cracker. Credit: Garth Lenz, iLCP.

Figure 6. Houston, PA Cryogenic and Fractionation Plant, one of three such facilities supplying feedstock to the proposed Shell ethane cracker. Credit: Garth Lenz, iLCP

Water Impacts, from the Ohio River to the Arctic Ocean

Shell’s facility is only one of the ethane crackers proposed for the region that, once operational, would be permitted to discharge waste into the already-beleaguered Ohio River. This waterway, which traverses six separate states, supplies the drinking water for over 3 million people. Extending the potential water impact even further, the primary product of the Shell facility is plastics, whose inevitable disposal would unnecessarily add to the glut of plastic waste entering our oceans. Plastic is accumulating at the alarming rate of 3,500 pieces a day on one island in the South Pacific and as far away as the waters of the Arctic.

Figure 7: View of the Ohio River, downriver from the site of Shell’s proposed ethane cracker. Existing sources of industrial pollution to the river include the American Electric power plants, coal loading docks, barges, coal ash lagoons, and dry coal ash beds shown in this picture, and at least two fracking operations within the coal plant areas. Credit: Vivian Stockman/ohvec.org; flyover courtesy SouthWings.org.

Figure 7. View of the Ohio River, downriver from the site of Shell’s proposed ethane cracker. Existing sources of industrial pollution to the river include the American Electric power plants, coal loading docks, barges, coal ash lagoons, and dry coal ash beds shown in this picture, and at least two fracking operations within the coal plant areas. Credit: Vivian Stockman/ohvec.org; flyover courtesy SouthWings.org.

How does fragmentation favor industry?

The gas and petrochemical industry would likely defend the logistical flexibility the piecemeal process affords them, allowing them to tackle projects, make investments, and involve new players as needed overtime. But in what other ways do the incredibly fragmented approval processes, and the limited requirements on transparency, favor companies like Shell and their region-changing petrochemical projects? And what effect does the absence of full transparency have on local communities like those in Beaver County? We conclude that it:

  • “Divides and conquers” the region. The piecemeal approach to gas development, and major projects like the Shell ethane cracker, deny any sense of solidarity between the people along the pipeline route resisting these potentially explosive channels cutting through their yards, and residents of Beaver County who fear the cracker’s emissions that will surround their homes.
  • Makes the project seem a foregone conclusion, putting pressure on others to approve. For example, before Shell formally announced its intention to build the facility in Potter Township, it rerouted a state-owned road to facilitate construction and increased traffic flow. Likewise, though a key permit is still outstanding with the PA DEP, first responders, including local volunteer firefighters, have already begun dedicating their uncompensated time to training with Shell. While this is a positive step from a preparedness standpoint, it is one of many displays of confidence by Shell that the cracker is a done deal.
  • Puts major decisions in the hands of those with limited resources to carry them out and who do not represent the region to be affected. In the case of the Shell ethane cracker, three township supervisors in Potter Township granted approvals for the project. The impacts, however, extend well beyond Potter or even Beaver county and include major air impacts for Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh area. Effects will also be felt by landowners and residents in numerous counties and two states along the pipeline route, those near cryogenic facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, plus those living on the Marcellus and Utica shale plays who will see gas well production continue and potentially increase.


Figures 8a and 8b. Potter Township Supervisors give the go-ahead to draft approval of Shell’s proposed ethane cracker at a January meeting, while confronted with public concern about deficiencies in Shell’s permit applications. Photos courtesy of the Air Quality Collaborative.

Fragmented Transparency, Compromised Decision-making

The piecemeal, incremental, and fragmented approval processes for the ethane cracker – and other gas-related facilities in the making – create one major problem. They make it nearly impossible for locals, elected officials, and regulatory agencies to see the whole picture as they make decisions. The bit-by-bit approach to gas development amounts to far-reaching development with irreversible impacts to environmental and human health.

We ask readers, as they contemplate the impacts closest to them – be it a fracked well, a hazardous cryogenic facility, the heavily polluted Ohio River, a swath of land taken up for the pipeline’s right-of-way, or Shell’s ethane cracker itself – to insist that they, their elected officials, and regulators have access to the whole picture before approvals are granted. It’s hard to do with a project so enormous and far-reaching, but essential because the picture includes so many of us.

Sincere Appreciation

To The International League of Conservation Photographers, The Ohio Environmental Council, and The Air Quality Collaborative for sharing photographs.

To Sophie Riedel for sharing her visualizations of natural gas interstate pipelines.

To Lisa Hallowell at the Environmental Integrity Project, and Samantha Rubright and Kirk Jalbert at FracTracker, for their review of and and invaluable contributions to this series.

Photo by Garth Lenz, iLCP - for Ethane Cracker article about risk and disclosure

Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure

By Leann Leiter and Lisa Graves Marcucci
Maps and data analysis by Kirk Jalbert

Highly industrialized operations like petrochemical plants inherently carry risks, including the possibility of large-scale disasters. In an effort to prepare, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders to fully understand the risk potential. Yet, the planned Shell ethane cracker and additional petrochemical operations being proposed for Western Pennsylvania are the first of their kind in our region. This means that residents and elected officials are without a frame of reference as they consider approving these operations. Officials find themselves tasked with reviewing and approving highly complicated permit applications, and the public remains uncertain of what questions to ask and scenarios to consider. Often overlooked in the decision-making process is valuable expertise from local first responders like police, fire and emergency crew members, HAZMAT teams, and those who protect vulnerable populations, like emergency room personnel, nursing home staff, and school officials.

Steam cracker at BASF's Ludwigshafen site. Photo credit: BASF - for risk and disclosure article

Example of cracker producing ethylene, located at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site. Photo credit: BASF

In the first article in this series , we tried to identify the known hazards associated with ethane crackers. In this article, we look more closely at how that risk could play out in Beaver County, PA and strive to initiate an important dialogue that invites valuable, local expertise.

In keeping with the first article in this series, we use the terms vulnerability and capacity. Vulnerability refers to the conditions and factors that increase the disaster impact that a community might experience, and capacity consists of the strengths that mitigate those impacts. Importantly, vulnerability and capacity frequently intertwine and overlap. We might, for example, consider a fire station to be a site of “capacity,” but if it lies within an Emergency Planning Zone (discussed more below), an explosion at the plant could render it a vulnerability. Likewise, “vulnerable” populations such as the elderly may have special skills and local knowledge, making them a source of capacity.

Emergency Planning: Learning from Louisiana

FracTracker got in touch with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn how a community already living with Shell-owned and other petrochemical facilities manages risk and disclosure. The Emergency Manager we spoke with explained that they designate a two- and a five-mile area around each new facility in their jurisdiction, like ethane crackers, during their emergency planning process. They call these areas “ emergency planning zones ” or EPZs, and they maintain records of the vulnerabilities and sites of capacity within each zone. In case of a fire, explosion, or other unplanned event at any facility, having the EPZs designated in advance allows them to mobilize first responders, and notify and evacuate everyone living, working, and attending school within the zone. Whether they activate a two- or a five-mile EPZ depends on the type of incident, and factors like wind speed and direction.

Based on those procedures, the map below shows similar likely zones for the proposed plant in Beaver County, along with sites of vulnerability and capacity.

Ethane Cracker Hazard Map

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

The map helps us visualize the vulnerability and capacity of this area, relative to the proposed ethane cracker. It includes three main elements: the Shell site and parcels likely to be targeted for buildout of related facilities, two Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) around the Shell facility, and infrastructure and facilities of the area that represent vulnerability and capacity.

vacant-parcels

Vacant parcels near the site

It is important to note that the proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County is merely the first of an influx of petrochemical spin-off facilities promised for the area, potentially occupying the various empty parcels indicated on the map above as “vacant properties” and presented in light gray in the screenshot left.

Each new facility would add its own risks and cumulative impacts to the equation. It would be impossible to project these additional risks without knowing what facilities will be built here, so in this article, we stick to what we do know – the risks already articulated by Shell, lessons learned from other communities hosting petrochemical industry in other parts of the country, and past disasters at similar facilities.

Vulnerability and Capacity in Beaver County

Red, blue, and green points on the map above and in the screenshot below stand in for hospitals like Heritage Valley Beaver; fire and emergency medical services like Vanport Volunteer Fire Company; police stations like the Beaver County Sheriff’s office; and daycares and schools like Center Grange Primary School.

Transportation routes, if impacted, could challenge evacuation. Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton pointed out that evacuations due to an event at this facility could also be complicated by the need to stay upwind, when evacuations would likely move in a downwind direction. This map lacks drinking water intakes and other essential features upon which lives depend, but which nonetheless also sit within this zone of vulnerability.

points-within-epzs

Points within EPZS

Vulnerability/capacity within 2-mile zone:

  • 1 hospital
  • 5 police stations
  • 10 fire/EMS stations
  • 23 schools/daycare facilities
  • 47,717 residents*

When expanded to 5-mile zone:

  • 2 hospitals
  • 9 police stations
  • 23 fire/EMS stations
  • 40 schools/daycare facilities
  • 120,849 residents*

*Note: For census tracts that are partly within a zone, a ratio is determined based on the percentage of land area in the tract within the zone. This ratio is then used to estimate the fraction of the population likely within the zone.

Stakeholders’ Right to Know

No person or community should be subjected to risk without the opportunity to be fully informed and to give meaningful input. Likewise, no group of people should have to bear a disproportionate share of environmental risks, particularly stakeholders who are already frequently disenfranchised in environmental decision-making. “Environmental justice” (EJ) refers to those simple principles, and DEP designates environmental justice areas based on communities of color and poverty indicators.

Presented as blue fields on the map and shown in the screenshot below, several state-designated EJ areas fall partially or entirely within the 2- and 5-mile EPZs (a portion of two EJ areas home to 2,851 people, and when expanded to five miles, two entire EJ areas and a portion of seven more, home to 18,679 people, respectively).

EJ Areas and Emergency Planning Zones around the Site

EJ Areas and Emergency Planning Zones around the Site

The basic ideas behind environmental justice have major bearing in emergency scenarios. For example, those living below the poverty line tend to have less access to information and news sources, meaning they might not learn of dangerous unexpected emissions plumes coming their way. They also may not have access to a personal vehicle, rendering them dependent upon a functioning public transportation system to evacuate in an emergency. Living below poverty level may also mean fewer resources at home for sheltering-in-place during a disaster, and having less financial resources, like personal savings, may lead to more difficult post-disaster recovery.

Local expertise

FracTracker recently consulted with the Emergency Management Director for Beaver County, Eric Brewer, and with Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton. Both indicated that their staff have already begun training exercises with Shell -including a live drill on site that simulated a fire in a work trailer. But when asked, neither reported that they had been consulted in the permit approval process. Neither had been informed of the chemicals to be held on site, and both referred to emergency planning considerations as something to come in the future, after the plant was built.

Unfortunately, the lack of input from public safety professionals during the permit approval stage isn’t unique to Beaver County. Our emergency management contact in Louisiana pointed to the same disturbing reality: Those who best understand the disaster implications of these dangerous developments and who would be mobilized to respond in the case of a disaster are not given a say in their approval or denial. This valuable local expertise – in Louisiana and in Beaver County – is being overlooked.

All Beaver County first responders who spoke with FracTracker clearly showed their willingness to perform their duties in any way that Shell’s new facility might demand, hopefulness about its safety, and a generally positive relationship with the company so far. Chief Carlton believes that the ethane cracker will be an improvement over the previous facility on the same site, the Horsehead zinc smelter, though a regional air pollution report characterizes this as a trade off of one type of dangerous pollution for another. Director Brewer pointed to the existing emergency plans for the county’s nuclear facility as giving Beaver County an important leg-up on preparedness.

But the conversations also raised concern about what the future relationship between the community and the industry will look like. Will funds be allocated to these first responders for the additional burdens brought on by new, unprecedented facilities, in what amount, and for how long into the future? Chief Carlton pointed out that until Shell’s on-site fire brigade is in place two or three years from now, her all-volunteer department would be the first line of defense in case of a fire or other incident. In the meantime, her fire company has ordered a much-needed equipment upgrade to replace a 30-year old, outdated tanker at a cost of $400,000. They are formally requesting all corporate businesses in the township, including Shell, to share the cost. Hopefully, the fire company will see this cost covered by their corporate neighbors who use their services. But further down the road? Once all is said and done, and Shell has what they need to operate unfettered, Chief Carlton wonders, “where do we stand with them?”

Waiting for disclosure of the risks

Emergency preparedness and planning should be a process characterized by transparency and inclusion of all stakeholders. However, when it comes to the Shell ethane cracker, those who will share a fence line with such operations have not yet been granted access to the full picture. Currently, the DEP allows industrial operations like the proposed ethane cracker to wait until immediately before operations begin to disclose emergency planning information, in the form of Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency (PPC) plans. In other words, when permits are up for approval or denial prior to construction, permit applicants are not currently required to provide PPC plans, and the public and emergency managers cannot weigh the risks or provide crucial input.

Shell’s Acknowledged Risks
According to public information provided by Shell

Sampling of Shell’s Disastrous
Petrochemical Precedents

Fire and Explosions

Shell’s Deer Park, Texas, 1997:
Blast at chemical plant

Leaks

Shell’s Deer Park, Texas refinery and chemical plant, 2013:
Harmful air pollution and benzene leak

Equipment Failures

Shell’s Martinez Refinery in California, 2016:
Equipment failure event; Shell’s refusal to reveal gases emitted

According to Shell, possible risks of the proposed Beaver County petrochemical facility include fire, explosion, leaks, and equipment failures. More than mere potentialities, examples of each are already on the books. The above table presents a sampling. Shell also points out the increased risk of traffic accidents, not explored in this chart. It is worth noting, however, that the proposed facility, and likely spin-off facilities, would greatly increase vehicular and rail traffic.

The ethane cracker in Beaver County plant has not yet been constructed. However, Shell operates similar operations with documented risks and their own histories of emergency events. Going forward, the various governmental agencies tasked with reviewing permit applications should require industrial operations like Shell, to make this information public as part of the review and planning process. Currently they can relegate safety information to a few vague references and get a free pass to mark it as “confidential” in permit applications. Strengthening risk disclosure requirements would be a logical and basic step toward ensuring that all stakeholders – including those with special emergency planning expertise – can have input on whether those risks are acceptable before permits are approved and site prep begins.

Until regulations are tightened, we invite Shell to fulfill its own stated objective of being a “good neighbor” by being forthcoming about what risks will be moving in next door. Shell can and should take the initiative to share information about its existing facilities, as well as lessons learned from past emergencies at those sites. Instead of waiting for the post-construction, or the “implementation” stage, all stakeholders deserve disclosure of Shell’s plans to prevent and respond to emergencies now.

In our next article, we will explore the infrastructure for the proposed Shell facility, which spans multiple states, and sort out the piecemeal approval processes of building an ethane cracker in Pennsylvania.


Sincere Appreciation

Emergency Managers and First Responders in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana and Potter Township and Center Township, PA.

Lisa Hallowell, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, for her review of this article series and contributions to our understanding of relevant regulations.

Kirk Jalbert, in addition to maps and analysis, for contributing key points of consideration for and expertise on environmental justice.

The International League of Conservation Photographers for sharing the feature image used in this article.

The image used on our homepage of the steam cracker at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site was taken by BASF.


By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for FracTracker Alliance and the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project and Lisa Graves Marcucci, PA Coordinator, Community Outreach of Environmental Integrity Project

With maps and analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance

Shell Ethane Cracker

A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker

by Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow
map & analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
in partnership with the Environmental Integrity Project

On January 18, 2016, Potter Township Supervisors approved conditional use permits for Shell Chemical Appalachia’s proposed ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, PA. A type of petrochemical facility, an ethane cracker uses energy and the by-products of so-called natural gas to make ethylene, a building block of plastics. FracTracker Alliance has produced informative articles on the jobs numbers touted by the industry, and the considerable negative air impacts of the proposed facility. In the first in a series of new articles, we look at the potential hazards of ethane cracker plants in order to begin calculating the risk of a disaster in Beaver County.

As those who stand to be affected by — or make crucial decisions on — the ethane cracker contemplate the potential risks and promised rewards of this massive project, they should also carefully consider what could go wrong. In addition to the serious environmental and human health effects, which might only reveal themselves over time, what acute events, emergencies, and disasters could potentially occur? What is the disaster risk, the potential for “losses, in lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services,” of this massive petrochemical facility?

Known Ethane Cracker Risks

A well-accepted formula in disaster studies for determining risk, cited by, among others, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), is Disaster Risk = (Hazard x Vulnerability)/Capacity, as defined in the diagram below. In this article, we consider the first of these factors: hazard. Future articles will examine the remaining factors of vulnerability and capacity that are specific to this location and its population.

disaster-risk-infographic-websize

Applied to Shell’s self-described “world-scale petrochemical project,” it is challenging to quantify the first of these inputs, hazard. Not only would a facility of this size be unprecedented in this region, but Shell has closely controlled the “public” information on the proposed facility. What compounds the uncertainty much further is the fact that the proposed massive cracker plant is a welcome mat for further development in the area—for a complex network of pipelines and infrastructure to support the plant and its related facilities, and for a long-term commitment to continued gas extraction in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.

williams-geismar-explosion-websize

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Williams Geismar Case Study, No. 2013-03-I-LA, October 2016.

We can use what we do know about the hazards presented by ethane crackers and nearby existing vulnerabilities to establish some lower limit of risk. Large petrochemical facilities of this type are known to produce sizable unplanned releases of carcinogenic benzene and other toxic pollutants during “plant upsets,” a term that refers to a “shut down because of a mechanical problem, power outage or some other unplanned event.” A sampling of actual emergency events at other ethane crackers also includes fires and explosions, evacuations, injuries, and deaths.

For instance, a ruptured boiler at the Williams Company ethane cracker plant in Geismar, Louisiana, led to an explosion and fire in 2013. The event resulted in the unplanned and unpermitted release of at least 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air, including ethylene, propylene, benzene, 1-3 butadiene, and other volatile organic chemicals, as well as the release of pollutants through the discharge of untreated fire waters, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. According to the Times-Picayune, “workers scrambl(ed) over gates to get out of the plant.” The event required the evacuation of 300 workers, injured 167, and resulted in two deaths.

The community’s emergency response involved deployment of hundreds of personnel and extensive resources, including 20 ambulances, four rescue helicopters, and buses to move the injured to multiple area hospitals. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board chalked up the incident to poor “process safety culture” at the plant and “gaps in a key industry standard by the American Petroleum Institute (API).” The accident shut the plant down for a year and a half.

Potential Risks & Shell’s Mixed Messages

Shell has done little to define the potential for emergencies at the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker plant, at least in materials made available to the public. Shell has revealed that general hazards include “fire, explosion, traffic accidents, leaks and equipment failures.”

However, we located numerous versions of Shell’s handout and found one notable difference among them—the brochure distributed to community members at a December 2016 public hearing held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) excluded the word “explosion” from the list of “potential safety concerns.” The difference is seen in comparing the two documents.

Figure #1 below: Excerpt of online version of a handout for Beaver County, dated May 2015, with “explosion” included in list of “potential safety concerns.” (Other Shell-produced safety documents, like the one included as an exhibit in the conditional use permit application on file with the township, and Shell’s webpage for the project, also include “explosion” in the list of hazards.)

Figure #2 below: Excerpt of handout, dated November 2016 and provided to the community at December 15, 2016 meeting, with the word “explosion” no longer included.

 

Additional hints about risks are peppered throughout the voluminous permit applications submitted by Shell to the PA DEP and Potter Township, such as references to mitigating acts of terror against the plant, strategies for reducing water contamination, and the possibility of unplanned upsets. But the sheer volume of these documents, coupled with their limited accessibility challenge the public’s ability to digest this information. The conditional use permit application submitted by Shell indicates the existence of an Emergency Response Plan for the construction phase, but the submission is marked as confidential.

Per Pennsylvania law, and as set forth in PA DEP guidelines, Shell must submit a Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan (PPC Plan) at an unspecified point prior to operation. But at that likely too-late stage, who would hear objections to the identified hazards, when construction of the plant is already a done deal? Even then, can we trust that the plan outlined by that document is a solid and executable one?

Shell’s defense of the Beaver County plant is quick to point out differences between other plants and the one to come, making the case that technical advances will result in safety improvements. But it is noteworthy that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board attributes failures at the Williams Geismar plant, in part, to “the ineffective implementation of…process safety management programs… as well as weaknesses in Williams’ written programs themselves.” The Geismar explosion demonstrates some of the tangible hazards that communities experience in living near ethane cracker plants. It is worth noting that the proposed Beaver County facility will have about 2½ times more ethylene processing capacity than the Geismar plant had at the time of the 2013 explosion.

Opening the Floodgates

In an effort to expand our understanding of risk associated with the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker and the extent of related developments promised by industry leaders, FracTracker Alliance has constructed the below map. It shows the site of the Shell facility and nearby land marked by Beaver County as “abandoned” or “unused.” These land parcels are potential targets for future build-out of associated facilities. Two “emergency planning zones” are indicated—a radius of 2 miles and a radius of 5 miles from the perimeter of Shell’s site. These projections are based upon FracTracker’s discussions with officials at the Saint Charles Parish Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who are responsible for emergency planning procedures in Norco, Louisiana, the site of another Shell ethane cracker facility. The emergency zones are also noted in the 2015 Saint Charles Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Also shown on the map is an estimated route of the Falcon pipeline system Shell intends to build, which will bring ethane from the shale gas fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note that this is an estimated route based on images shown in Shell’s announcement of the project. Finally, our map includes resources and sites of vulnerability, including schools, fire stations, and hospitals. The importance of these sites will be discussed in the next article of this series.

Ethane Cracker Hazards Map


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

While the site of the Shell cracker is worth attending to, it would be a mistake to limit assessments of disaster risk to the site of the facility alone. Shell’s proposed plant is but one component in a larger plan to expand ethane-based processing and use in the region, with the potential to rival the Gulf Coast as a major U.S. petrochemical hub. An upcoming conference on petrochemical construction in the region, scheduled for June 2017 in Pittsburgh, shows the industry’s commitment to further development. These associated facilities (from plants producing fertilizers to plastics) would utilize their own mix of chemicals, and their potential interactions would produce additional, unforeseen hazards. Ultimately, a cumulative impact assessment is needed, and should take into account these promised facilities as well as existing resources and vulnerabilities. The below Google Earth window gives a sense of what this regional build-out might look like.

What might an ethane cracker and related petrochemical facilities look like in Beaver County? For an idea of the potential build-out, take a tour of Norco, Louisiana, which includes Shell-owned petrochemical facilities.

Final Calculations

As discussed in the introduction, “hazard,” “vulnerability,” and “capacity” are the elements of the formula that, in turn, exacerbate or mitigate disaster risk. While much of this article has focused on drastic “hazards,” such as disastrous explosions or unplanned chemical releases, these should not overshadow the more commonplace public health threats associated with petrochemical facilities, such as detrimental impact on air quality and the psychological harm of living under the looming threat of something going wrong.

The second and third articles in this series will dig deeper into “vulnerability” and “capacity.” These terms remind us of the needs and strengths of the community in question, but also that there is a community in question.

Formulas, terminology, and calculations should not obscure the fact that people’s lives are in the balance. The public should not be satisfied with preliminary and incomplete risk assessments when major documents that should detail the disaster implications of the ethane cracker are not yet available, as well as when the full scale of future build-out in the area remains an unknown.

Much gratitude to Lisa Graves-Marcucci and Lisa Hallowell of the Environmental Integrity Project for their expertise and feedback on this article.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws. 

Ethane Cracker Discussion in Regional Air Pollution Report

Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) Air: Hazardous Air Pollutants

Although now we are an independent non-profit, FracTracker.org actually started as a project of CHEC at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. At that time, Matt, Kyle, and I worked with researchers such as Drew Michanowicz and Jim Fabisiak of Pitt, as well as Jill Kriesky now of the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project, on a data mapping and analysis project called PRETA. The Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) is intended to inform stakeholders about Southwest Pennsylvania’s major environmental health risks and provide ways to manage them. CHEC worked with key decision makers and other academics to identify, prioritize, and assess these risks. The top three risks identified were ozone, particulate matter (PM), and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Due to the extensive time that research like this takes, the final report about hazardous air pollutants was just recently released.

Relevant to our oil and gas readers, the HAPs report included a piece about the proposed ethane cracker slated to be built in Beaver County, PA. Below is an excerpt of PRETA HAPs that discusses how the air quality in our region may change as a result of the removal of the present zinc smelter on that site, in place of the new cracker facility.

 

Read Full Report (PDF)

Excerpt: The Proposed Monaca, PA Ethane Cracker

Future Trends: New Sources of HAPs in Western Pennsylvania?

All of the previous risk analyses and data discussed [earlier in the report] were drawn using historical data collected in previous years. There is considerable delay around emissions inventory collection, air monitoring data collection, atmospheric modeling, and the calculated risk estimates’ being made public. Hence, these analyses speak best toward past and present trends. They often are less useful in predicting future risks, especially when sources and technologies are constantly changing. For example, better pollution mitigation and retrofitting processes should curtail future emissions from present levels. In addition, changing the profile of various industries within a region also will alter atmospheric chemistry and subsequent risks in future scenarios.

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented expansion of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia driven in part by the recent feasibility of hydraulic fracturing, which is part of a drilling procedure that allows for the tapping of the vast methane deposits contained in the Marcellus and Utica shales beneath Pennsylvania and surrounding states. Primarily, drillers are seeking to extract methane (CH4), the primary component of natural gas. However, a portion of the natural gas present in our area is considered “wet gas,” which includes heavier hydrocarbons like ethane, propane, and butane that are typically dissolved in a liquid phase or condensate. These compounds are separated from the methane to be marketed as such products as liquid propane or used as feedstock in numerous other chemical processes. Therefore, a high demand remains for wet gas deposits regardless of fluctuating natural gas (methane) market prices. Thus, a large-scale expansion in other industries (e.g., chemical manufacturing) is anticipated to follow UNGD; new industrial facilities are needed to support the refining of wet gas condensates. For example, an ethane cracker converts or “cracks” ethane, a by-product of natural gas, into ethylene so that it can be used in the production of plastics.

Located in Monaca, Pa. (Beaver County), about 12 miles east of the West Virginia border, is an aging zinc smelter owned by the Horsehead Corporation. The present Horsehead facility is currently the largest zinc refining site in the United States, producing metallic zinc and zinc oxide from recycled material and steelmaking waste. The plant opened in the 1920s to take advantage of the by-products of steel manufacturing and has expanded and modernized over time. It employed about 600 workers until recently, when the company announced its relocation to a new state-of-the-art facility in North Carolina in the near future. The scope of this metal-refining operation was such that it was a significant source of metals and criteria air pollutants.

Recently, Shell Chemical, U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, announced plans to build an ethane cracker in the northeast to take advantage of UNGD. Lured by substantial tax benefits and other economic incentives, Shell chose the former zinc smelting site in Monaca as its proposed new location for such a facility and, in March 2012, received the approval from Pennsylvania officials to build this petrochemical complex. The cracker, according to industry representatives, will be a multibillion-dollar structure and provide thousands of jobs for Pennsylvanians 43, 44. However, many of these jobs depend on the influx of concurrent industries and technologies, which are projected to follow in the wake of sufficient petrochemical refining facilities like the ethane cracker. Thus, it is not likely to be the sole source of pollutants in the area once constructed. Though plant construction remains years away, regional air pollutant composition and chemistry are poised to change as well. Adding to the issue is the fact that the zinc smelter, ranked as one of the worst air polluters in the country in 2002 45, will be decommissioned and have its operations moved to North Carolina.

Here, we will attempt to compare the pollutant profiles of the old and new air pollution sources in order to deduce potential air pollutant changes to existing air quality in the region. Previous emission inventories are available for the Horsehead zinc smelter (EPA Toxic Release Inventory for 2008) 46. Although the proposed cracker facility’s engineering specifics are not available yet, using the records of a similar existing wet gas processing plant, we can approximate the proposed cracker’s yearly emissions. In this case, we have chosen the similarly sized Williams Olefins Cracker Facility currently operating in Geismar, La., whose emissions profiles for 2008 also were available 46. This plant, owned by Williams Partners, L.P., processes approximately 37,000 barrels of ethane and 3,000 barrels of propane per day and annually produces 1.35 billion pounds of ethylene.

Table 5 from PRETA HAPs report

In assessing the emission inventories at the two sites, we first sought to compare those pollutants that were common to both facilities. Table 5 (above) compares the annual release of criteria pollutants for which National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) exist. These include ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), lead, and carbon monoxide, for which health-based regulatory standards exist for their concentration in ambient air1. Not surprisingly, the zinc smelter released large amounts of lead into the air (five tons per year). The proposed ethane cracker, on the other hand, would release only trace amounts of lead into the air and about 0.1 percent of the sulfur dioxide, 3 percent of the carbon monoxide, and 50 percent of the nitrogen oxides of the zinc smelter. Overall, release of PM would be of a similar order of magnitude at the two sites. Thus, the representative cracker facility by itself emits less NAAQS criteria pollutants than the smelter facility.

Table 6 from PRETA HAPs report

Similarly, Table 6 (above) examines similarly reported HAPs released from both of the facilities in question. A comparison of available emissions inventories of HAPs reveals a list of common pollutants, including acrolein, benzene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Note the projected increase in release of acrolein and VOCs by the proposed ethane cracker. The latter are a rather broad class of organic chemicals that have high vapor pressure (low boiling point), allowing appreciable concentrations in the air as a gaseous phase 47, 48. Examples of VOCs include formaldehyde, d-limonene, toluene, acetone, ethanol (ethyl alcohol), 2-propanol (isopropyl alcohol), and hexanal, among others. They are common components of paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; and dry-cleaned clothing. They also possess a diverse range of health effects, including, but not limited to, eye and throat irritation, nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, and skin rashes at low doses, and kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage at high doses. Some are known or suspected carcinogens. These chemicals are more often known for their role in indoor air pollution and have been linked to allergies and asthma 49. Recall that acrolein is already the primary driver of noncancer respiratory risk in the PRETA area, and releases from the proposed cracker would theoretically add to that burden.

Table 7 from PRETA HAPs Report 2013

Table 7 shows a compiled list of HAPs that were released from the Geismar plant in 2008 but not from the zinc smelter, highlighting the potential change in the pollutant mixture. For comparison, the pollutants highlighted in yellow represent those that are several orders of magnitude greater than those emitted by the Clairton Coke Works in 2008. Note the rather large emissions of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde that were discussed above as the number one and number five existing cancer drivers in the area.

Other VOCs of note include ethylene glycol, ethylene oxide, methyl-tert-butyl ether and propionaldehyde. While all these pollutants may have toxic effects on their own, one of the primary concerns, especially in outdoor air, should be their ability to form secondary pollutants. For example, we have noted previously that both acetaldehyde and formaldehyde can be formed via photo-oxidation reactions of other hydrocarbons and VOCs. Thus, the direct emissions reported in the table are likely to be significant underestimations of the true burden of acetaldehyde and formaldehyde in the area near the cracker. It also should be mentioned that a complex nonlinear sensitivity exists among VOCs, NOX, and the production rate of ozone (O3). Most urban areas are considered NOX saturated or VOC sensitive and therefore have low VOC/NOX ratios. In these environments, ozone actually decreases with increasing NOX and increases with increasing VOCs—a potentially likely situation within the urban areas of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

In conclusion, it would appear that the replacement of the existing zinc smelter with the proposed ethane cracker has the potential to significantly transform the current pollutant mixture in the region. The elimination of lead and other heavy metal emissions would be replaced by increases in formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. In addition, it does not appear that the proposed ethane cracker alone would increase any of the NAAQS criteria air pollutants, with the possible exception of ozone. On the other hand, the rather large releases of several known cancer drivers, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, from the proposed cracker could increase cancer risk in the immediate proximity. In addition, the large influx of VOCs and fugitive emissions from these operations warrants further predictive analysis, especially with regard to current pollution-mitigating strategies that may not be anticipating a transforming pollutant mix.

Introduction of the ethane cracker & its effect on regional air quality in SW PA

Authors and Credits

University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
Center for Healthy Environments and Communities
Pittsburgh, PA | August 2013

Authors

Drew Michanowicz, MPH, CPH
Kyle Ferrar, MPH
Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH
Matt Kelso, BA
Jill Kriesky, PhD
James P. Fabisiak, PhD

Technical Support

Department of Communications Services
Marygrace Reder, BA
Alison Butler, BA

Full HAPs Report (PDF) | Ozone (PDF) | Particulate Matter (PDF)
For questions related to the full report, please contact CHEC.

References Mentioned in Excerpt

43. Detrow , S. (2012). What’s an ethane cracker? StateImpact – Pennsylvania. Accessed 12-18-12: http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/tag/ethane-cracker.

44. Kelso, M. (2012). Jobs impact of cracker facility likely exaggerated. FracTracker Alliance. Accessed 12-18-12: www.fractracker.org/2012/06/jobs-impact-of-cracker-facility-likely-exaggerated.

45. SCORECARD: The Pollution Information Site. (2002). Environmental Release Report: Zinc Corp. of America Monaca Smelter. Accessed 12-18-12: http://scorecard.goodguide.com/envreleases/facility.tcl?tri_id=15061ZNCCR300FR#major_chemical_releases.

46. U.S. EPA. (2008). Technology Transfer Network, Clearinghouse for Inventories and Emissions Factors The National Emissions Inventory. The National Emissions Inventory. Accessed 1-25-13: www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/net/2008inventory.html.

47. U.S. EPA. (2012). An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Volatile Organic Compounds. Accessed 12-18-12: www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html.

48. U.S. EPA. (2012). Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Accessed 12-18-12: www.epa.gov/iaq/voc2.html.

49. Nielsen, G.D., S.T. Larsen, O. Olsen, M. Lovik , L.K. Poulsen, C. Glue , and P. Wolkoff. (2007). Do indoor chemicals promote development of airway allergy? Indoor Air 17: pp. 236–255.

Read Full Report (PDF)

Jobs Impact of Cracker Facility Likely Exaggerated

This past January, when Ohio was still in the midst of the bidding war for the proposed cracker facility, Toledoans saw the following blurb in their paper, the Toledo Blade:

Gov. John Kasich is pursuing the multibillion-dollar ethane-cracker facility that Shell Chemicals LP plans to build in Ohio, West Virginia, or Pennsylvania to capitalize on the increasing harvest of natural gas from Marcellus shale. The American Chemistry Council estimates that the plant would generate 17,000 jobs in chemistry and other industries as well as $1 billion in wages and $169 million in tax revenue.

That’s some financial impact, right?  And now we are hearing the same figure coming out of Harrisburg via the Post-Gazette:

Estimates from the American Chemical Council have projected that a $3.2 billion ethane-processing facility, similar to the one that Shell is considering for Beaver County, would create more than 17,000 new jobs at the plant itself and among spinoff businesses along the supply chain.

Too bad it is isn’t very realistic.

Although the planned Monaca plant is one of several new cracker facilities planned in North America, currently, there are just a handful on the continent. In January, I posted about one of them, a Shell facility in Norco, Louisiana.  On their website, the multinational giant proudly proclaims the following, in bold type:

Shell Chemicals’ Norco facility is located in St. Charles Parish. The facility has over 600 full-time employees, more than 160 contractors, and generates an annual payroll of $50 million. The company pays more than $16 million in state and local taxes and $6M is property taxes that help fund public education as well as police and fire departments.

As I mentioned five months ago, those are significant contributions, to be sure. But it is a far cry from the projections of the American Chemistry Counsel (ACC) state above.  Shell also operates another cracker in Deer Park, Texas, which claims:

Shell Deer Park is a 1,500-acre complex located in Deer Park, Texas, approximately 20 miles east of downtown Houston along the Houston Ship Channel. Founded in 1929, Shell Deer Park is now home to 1,700 employees who operate a fully integrated refinery and petrochemical facility 24 hours a day.

That’s a lot of jobs, but as an integrated facility, it already accounts for some of the “spinoff businesses along the supply chain”.

Nova Chemicals operates another cracker in Sarnia, Onterio, which according to their website employs about 900 people who earn an estimated $86 million in wages and benefits each year.

So how silly is the claim of 17,000 jobs and $1 billion in wages? Consider that with all of its existing crackers and other facilities,

Shell chemicals companies staff total 8,500 worldwide. The majority of these support our manufacturing operations.  This does not include joint venture employees.”

Even with the JV employees not being counted, we are talking about major petrochemical plants in nine locations around the world, plus three technology centers.  So just who are these experts at the ACC who keep getting quoted for the 17,000 job figure? According to website:

The American Chemistry Council’s (ACC’s) mission is to deliver business value through exceptional advocacy using best-in-class member performance, political engagement, communications and scientific research.

Well played, ACC.  You have put on a best-in-class performance with your exceptional advocacy.  But for the rest of us, it is time to start considering more realistic jobs numbers when talking about the proposed ethylene producing facility.

Ethylene Cracker Would Contribute Jobs, Air Pollution

Last year, Shell Chemicals announced its intentions to build a multi-billion dollar ethylene cracker “in Appalachia”, effectively setting the stage for a bidding war between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. There have been numerous other plans for such plants in the area, including a recent partnership trying to get Aither Chemicals catalytic cracking process up in running, once again, “in Appalachia.”  The interest in the region is mostly due to the Marcellus and Utica shale gas produced in the region, which contains mostly methane (so-called natural gas used for heating, cooking, etc.), as well as other hydrocarbons that must be removed from the methane before the gas is put into pipelines.  These other hydrocarbons are mostly ethane, propane, and butane, which are converted into ethylene, propylene, and butadiene, respectively, through a process called cracking, and are then used for the creation of plastics, synthetic rubber, and other petrochemicals.

Whichever state lands these massive facilities stands to gain several thousand temporary construction jobs and several hundred permanent positions at the facility.  It seems reasonable to take a look at other similar facilities in the country, not only to get a reasonable idea of the economic contribution, but also to gain insight on the facility’s contribution to air pollution in the region.

I have chosen to look at the cracker in Norco, Loisiana, also run by Shell Chemicals. Norco is the ultimate company town, named for the now defunct New Orleans Refining Company, it contains not only the Shell plant, but also major petrochemical facilities owned by Dow, Hexion, and Valero. There is also a presence by Motiva, but all indications are that this is functionally part of the Shell plant that is simply owned by a different company.


Norco, LA as seen from Google Earth

According to the Shell page linked above, the facility employs 600 full time workers and 160 contractors for an annual payroll of $50 million. It also contributes $22 million in state, local, and property taxes to the community. That’s all very significant, albeit a far cry from the 17,000 jobs, $1 billion in wages, and $169 million in tax revenues that the good people of Ohio are being promised–perhaps those figures are over the estimated life of the facility, who knows? I’m guessing the proposed facility in Appalachia won’t be 22 times larger than the one in Norco, Louisiana though.

In terms of air emissions, it is hard to know what to expect. Emissions may wind up being quite different from Norco’s due to a different chemical composition of the feedstock, for example.  However, to get the conversation started, I have compiled the EPA’s 2008 National Emissions Inventory (NEI) estimated emissions for Norco, as well as a well known polluter that’s already in the area, Clairton Coke Works. I should mention that based on my experience, I don’t have a lot of faith of the validity of NEI data, especially for data in Pennsylvania (see this discussion about Clairton, for example), but it is what’s available.  Also, I need to mention that the data for Shell is aggregated between the Norco East, Norco West, and Motiva facilities, because from looking at the the websites for Shell and Motiva, the whole operation seems to be focused around cracking.  Let’s take a look:


2008 USEPA National Emissions Inventory for the Coke Works in Clairton, PA and the Shell ethylene cracker in Norco, LA

Now before you go to the EPA site to research these 84 pollutants, I didn’t put these up for direct comparison, since the facilities are obviously quite different. The point is that in an area that still largely in nonattainment for fine particulate matter and just recently re-entering attainment for ozone, the prospect of adding another major emitter of particulates and ozone and particulate precursors (as well as a whole host of other junk) isn’t going to help.