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National Energy and Petrochemical Map

FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!

The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:

         For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps. 

This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
  • The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
  • The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
  • With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
  • Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.

Electricity generation

The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?

National Map of Power plants

Power plants by energy source. Data from EIA.

In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.

In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).

National Energy Sources Pie Chart

Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.

This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.Fracking's astronomical decline rates - after one year, a well may be producing less than one-fifth of the oil and gas it produced its first year. To keep up with production, operators must pump exponentially more water, chemicals, and sand, or just drill a new well.

The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”

The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.

This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.

In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.

How does your state generate electricity?
Legend

Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.

One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others.  The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Transportation

In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.

Map of transportation infrastructure

Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.

The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses.  Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.

China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.

In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a  “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.

We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals

Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.

This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.

Map of Petrochemical Infrastructure

Petrochemical infrastructure. Data from EIA.

Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.

The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.

As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.

Petrochemical infrastructure

Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.

“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”

Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.

Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)

In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”

What will this map look like in the next 30 years?

A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”

Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could  zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?

Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.

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Tennessee

Oil & Gas Activity in Tennessee



We are slowly adding oil and gas information related to Tennessee to FracTracker.org. This page will update as more maps and articles are developed about TN. Check back soon!

Data on TN’s class II injection wells can be downloaded here. Last updated: February 25, 2019

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Petrochemical development in the Houston, Texas area

COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry

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

Health Impacts of COVID-19 and Oil & Gas 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persistent Negative Returns 

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

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

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

 

Plummeting Prices

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

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

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

Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety

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

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

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

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

Grasping at straws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Show’s Over for Oil & Gas 

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

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

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

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

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

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National Energy and Petrochemical Map

FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!

The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:

         For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps. 

This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
  • The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
  • The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
  • With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
  • Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.

Electricity generation

The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?

National Map of Power plants

Power plants by energy source. Data from EIA.

In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.

In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).

National Energy Sources Pie Chart

Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.

This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.Fracking's astronomical decline rates - after one year, a well may be producing less than one-fifth of the oil and gas it produced its first year. To keep up with production, operators must pump exponentially more water, chemicals, and sand, or just drill a new well.

The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”

The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.

This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.

In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.

How does your state generate electricity?
Legend

Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.

One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others.  The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Transportation

In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.

Map of transportation infrastructure

Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.

The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses.  Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.

China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.

In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a  “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.

We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals

Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.

This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.

Map of Petrochemical Infrastructure

Petrochemical infrastructure. Data from EIA.

Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.

The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.

As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.

Petrochemical infrastructure

Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.

“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”

Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.

Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)

In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”

What will this map look like in the next 30 years?

A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”

Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could  zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?

Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.

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destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Pipelines Continue to Catch Fire and Explode

For the past decade, petroleum operators in the United States have been busy pumping record amounts of oil and gas from the ground. But has the pace been too frenzied? Since the vast majority of the oil and gas is not used in situ, the industry must transport these hydrocarbon products to other locations. The principal way of achieving this is through pipelines, a process which has resulted in thousands of incidents, causing hundreds of injuries and fatalities, thousands of evacuations, and billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

The United States has an estimated 3 million miles of hazardous liquid, gas distribution, and gathering and transmission pipelines in operation, and more are being built every day. Not only have the pipelines themselves become so ubiquitous that most people never give them a second thought, the incidents themselves have become so familiar to us that even severe ones struggle to gain any attention outside of the local media area.

In 2019, there were 614 reported pipeline incidents in the United States, resulting in the death of 10 people, injuries to another 35, and about $259 million in damages. As mentioned below, some of these totals are likely to creep upward as additional reports are filed. In terms of statistical fluctuations, 2019 was slightly better than normal, but of course statistics only tell a part of the story. Friends and family of the ten people that died last year would find no comfort knowing that there were fewer such casualties than 2017, for example. Similarly, it would be useless to comfort a family that lost their home by reminding them that someone lost an even bigger and more expensive home the year before.

Keeping in mind the human impact, let’s take a look at the data.

Pipeline Incident Summary

These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

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

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 12/31/2019

Report Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
Hazardous Liquids Lines 3,978 10 26 2,482 2,812,391,218 130 15
Gas Transmission & Gathering Lines 1,226 25 108 12,984 1,315,162,976 133 57
Gas Distribution 1,094 105 522 20,526 1,229,189,997 659 257
Totals 6,298 140 656 35,992 5,356,744,191 922 329

But is increasing the capacity of the pipes a good idea? As FracTracker has shown in the past, pipeline incidents occur at a rate of about 1.7 per day incidents per day. This holds true with updated data, showing 6,298 incidents from January 1, 2010 through December 17, 2019, which was the latest report filed when the data was downloaded in early February 2020.

Pipeline Usage in the United States

In 2018, roughly three million miles of natural gas pipelines transported almost 28 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas, which is roughly 13 times the volume of Mount Everest. For liquids, pipeline data is available showing shipments of from one region of the country (known as a PAD District) to another, which shows that 1.27 billion barrels of crude oil were shipped through almost 81,000 miles of pipelines in 2018, and 3.39 billion barrels through nearly 214,000 miles of pipes when counting natural gas liquids and refined petroleum products.

Note that these figures are less than 2018 estimates based on 70% of liquid petroleum products being moved by pipeline. This discrepancy could be accounted for by the dramatic increase in production in recent years, or perhaps by intra-PAD shipments not listed in the data above. For example, petroleum produced in the Permian Basin in western Texas and eastern New Mexico may travel nearly 500 miles by pipeline en route to export terminals on the Gulf coast, while remaining in the same PAD District. If the 70% estimate holds true, then roughly 2.8 billion barrels (117 billion gallons) of crude would be shipped by pipeline, more than twice as much as the 1.27 billion barrel figure shown above.

The drilling boom in the United States was quickly followed by a boom in pipeline construction. Total mileage for liquid pipelines – known as hazardous liquid lines – increased by 20% from 2010 to 2018. For those aware of thousands of miles of recent gas pipeline projects, it is confusing to hear that the data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) are mixed for natural gas. It does show a 2.4% increase in total miles for gas distribution mainlines to 1.3 million miles, and a 2.0% increase over the same time in distribution service lines, which run from the mainlines to the consumer. However, the total mileage for transmission lines – which are large diameter pipes that move gas long distances – actually contracted 2.1% to just under 302,000 miles. Total mileage for gathering lines fell even more, by 8.4% to just under 18,000 miles. However, since PHMSA estimates only 5% of gathering lines report to the agency, this last figure is probably not a valid estimate.

If this data is accurate, it means that the thousands of miles of transmission and gathering lines built in recent years were more than offset by decommissioned routes. However, given the record production levels mentioned above, it is almost certain that total capacity of the system has gone up, which can be accomplished through a combination of increased pressure and diameter of the pipe.

Hazardous Liquids

Table. 2. Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.
Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 350 1 3 686 1,075,193,990 8 1
2011 344 0 1 201 273,526,547 9 2
2012 366 3 4 235 145,477,426 10 2
2013 401 1 6 858 278,525,540 15 2
2014 455 0 0 34 140,211,610 20 4
2015 460 1 0 138 256,251,180 16 1
2016 420 3 9 104 212,944,094 17 2
2017 415 1 1 58 163,118,772 7 0
2018 405 0 2 165 152,573,682 15 1
2019 362 0 0 3 114,568,377 13 0
Grand Total 3978 10 26 2482 2,812,391,218 130 15

The most important statistics when considering pipeline incidents are those representing bodily harm – injuries and fatalities. In those respects, at least, 2019 was a good year for hazardous liquid pipelines, with no reported injuries or fatalities. Most of the other metrics were below average as well, including 362 total incidents, three evacuees, $115 million in damages, and zero explosions. The 13 reported fires represents a typical year. However, we should keep in mind that the results may not be complete for 2019. The data was downloaded on February 3, 2020, but represented the January 2020 update of the dataset. Additionally, there is often a gap between the incident date and the reporting date, which is sometimes measured in months.

One thing that really sticks out about hazardous liquid pipelines is that the pipelines that fail the most often are the newest. Of the hazardous liquid incidents since 2010, 906 occurred in pipelines that were installed within the decade. By means of comparison, the same amount of incidents occurred in the same period for pipes installed in the 40 years between 1970 and 2009. Of course, the largest category is “Unspecified,” where the install year of the pipeline was left blank in 1,459 of the 3,978 total incidents (37%).

The causes of the incidents are dominated by equipment failure, where the 1,811 incidents accounted for 46% of the total. The next highest total was corrosion failure with 798 incidents, or 20% of the total. Six of the incidents in the “Other Outside Force Damage” are attributed to intentional damage, representing 0.15% of the total.

Gas Transmission & Gathering

Table. 3. Gas Transmission and Gathering Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.
Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 116 10 61 373 596,151,925 19 7
2011 128 0 1 874 125,497,792 14 6
2012 116 0 7 904 58,798,676 15 7
2013 112 0 2 3,103 53,022,396 11 4
2014 142 1 1 1,482 61,533,154 15 6
2015 149 6 16 565 61,498,753 10 6
2016 97 3 3 944 107,524,564 8 4
2017 126 3 3 202 85,665,233 17 7
2018 118 1 7 4,088 77,753,611 17 6
2019 122 1 7 449 87,716,872 7 4
Grand Total 1,226 25 108 12,984 1,315,162,976 133 57

One person died and seven were injured from gas transmission and gathering line accidents that were reported to PHMSA in 2019, which were both below average for this dataset. The total number of incidents was typical, while the 499 evacuees, $88 million in property damage, seven fires, and four explosions were all below normal. Note that only a small fraction of the nation’s gathering lines are required to report incident data to PHMSA, so this data should not be seen as comprehensive. And as with the hazardous liquid incidents, it is likely that not all incidents occurring during the year have had reports filed in time for this analysis.

The distribution of the age of pipes that failed within the past decade is different from the hazardous liquid pipelines. Pipes installed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were the most likely to fail, although failures in routes built this century represent a secondary peak. The number of incidents where the age of pipe data field was not completed remains high at 135 incidents, but the data gap is not as outrageous as it is for hazardous liquid lines.

Once again, equipment failure is the most common cause of transmission and gathering line accidents, with 390 incidents accounting for 32% of the total. Corrosion failure was the second most common reason, with 239 incidents accounting for an additional 19%. One incident was attributed to intentional damage, accounting for 0.08% of the total.

Gas Distribution

Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 120 11 44 2,080 21,155,972 82 29
2011 116 13 53 4,417 27,105,022 73 32
2012 88 9 46 746 25,556,562 61 22
2013 104 8 36 1,606 37,363,960 59 20
2014 106 18 93 2,037 72,885,067 61 30
2015 101 4 32 948 32,176,608 65 24
2016 115 10 75 2,510 56,900,068 71 28
2017 104 16 34 1,960 72,226,380 57 17
2018 110 7 81 2,561 827,647,610 64 31
2019 130 9 28 1,661 56,172,748 66 24
Grand Total 1,094 105 522 20,526 1,229,189,997 659 257
Table 4. Gas Distribution Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.

The nine fatalities and 28 injuries reported for gas distribution lines in 2019 were obviously tragic, but these totals are both below what would be expected in a typical year. The 130 incidents and 66 fires were both above average totals, while the 1,661 evacuees, $56 million in property damage, and 24 explosions were all below average. As with the other reports, these totals are subject to change as additional reports are filed.

The distribution for the age of pipes that failed during the past decade is more like a normal (or bell curve) distribution than the other two datasets, with the most incidents occurring in pipeline routes laid in the 1990s. Much like the hazardous liquids dataset, however, the largest category is “Unspecified”, where the age of the pipe was not entered into the data for one reason or another. These 222 incidents account for 20% of the total, and if we had this data, the distribution could be significantly different.

The causes of distribution line incidents are attributed very differently than either the hazardous liquids or transmission and gathering line datasets. The leading cause is “Other Outside Force Damage,” with 355 incidents accounting for 32% of the total, followed by 330 “Excavation Damage” incidents accounting for an additional 30%. This difference could well be explained because this type of line tends to occur in highly populated areas. The largest subtype for the outside force damage category is damage by motor vehicles not involved in excavation, with 160 incidents, followed by fires or explosions which the operator claims did not originate with the pipeline, with 78 incidents. Intentional damage remains rare – although still way too high – with 15 incidents, or 1.4% of the overall total.

Data Notes

PHMSA incident data is ultimately self-reported by the various operators. Because the vast majority of gathering lines do not report to the agency, this dataset should not be seen as comprehensive for incidents in that category.

There were eleven issues with faulty location data that we were able to correct for this map. There are likely to be more, as only the ones with coordinates rendering outside of the United States were identified. Some of these had mixed up latitude and longitude values, or omitted the negative value for longitude, placing the points in Kyrgyzstan, the Himalayas, and Mongolia. One record had no coordinates at all, but included a detailed description of the location, which was then found on Google Maps. Two wells that rendered in Canada were on the correct longitude for the county that they belonged in, but had faulty latitude values. One of these was reduced by exactly 20° of latitude, while the other was reduced by exactly 7° of latitude, and were then located in the proper county. Other than the adjustments for these eleven incidents, all location data reflects the data available on the PHMSA .

Additional Leaks

The data above reflects 6,298 incidents over the course of a decade, with a few more incidents likely to trickle in during the next few updates of the reports by PHMSA. And while these discrete incidents account for the majority of human impacts in terms of life and well-being, it is worth noting that these 1.7 incidents per day are not the only problems that occur along millions of miles of pipelines in this country.

William Limpert has analyzed information about pipeline leakage in gas transmission lines, which found that 0.35% of the volume of gas was lost in transmission, one tenth of which was vented or flared intentionally, for example in compressor station blowdown events. This means that 0.315% of the gas is released unintentionally.

These numbers sound tiny, but due to the enormous volume of gas transported in pipes, they really add up quickly. For example, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Mr. Limpert’s primary focus, is scheduled to transmit 1.5 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas per day. At a typical rate of failure, we could expect leakage of 4.725 million cubic feet (MMcf) per day, or 1.725 billion cubic feet over the course of a year. That’s enough gas to provide to all Pennsylvania residential consumers for about 13 days in August, and this is just from one pipeline.

As mentioned above, the entire pipeline network moved about 28 Tcf in 2018. The estimated amount leaked at 0.315% is 88.2 Bcf. What would residential consumers pay for that volume of gas? Even with the current low prices due to the gas glut, the average residual price was $9.43 per Mcf in November 2019, the most recent data available. That means that residential consumers would pay roughly $832 million for an equivalent amount of gas.

Still More Leaks

There are also countless leaks that occur during the construction of the pipelines themselves. When pipelines are built, they have numerous obstacles to navigate during their construction. Among the most challenging are linear obstacles, such as roads and streams. A method that the industry regularly uses to avoid having to trench through these features is horizontal directional drilling (HDD).

While HDDs are meant to minimize impacts, they very frequently result in an incident known as an “inadvertent return,” when volumes of drilling mud return to the surface through a series of underground voids, frequently karst geology or abandoned mines. The leaking borehole under the road or stream then leaks drilling mud – sometimes thousands of gallons of it – which can then affect aquatic stream life. Additionally, these areas represent voids in the matrix that is intended to keep the pipeline stable and may represent future opportunities for catastrophic failure.

These features are so prevalent in some parts of the country that pipeline operators seem to be unable to avoid them, and regulators seem unwilling to press the issue in a proactive fashion. For example, Energy Transfers’ Mariner East II pipeline is currently being built to move natural gas liquids from Appalachia to its industrial complex and export terminal at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. During construction, there have been hundreds of inadvertent returns, both to the soil and waters of the Commonwealth. The presence of karst and abandoned mines along the route were well known ahead of time to the operator designing and implementing the HDDs, as well as the regulators who approved their use.

The many issues along the Mariner East II route, when combined with a massive pipeline explosion in Beaver County led to Pennsylvania’s decision to temporarily block all permit actions by the operator statewide. That hold is now lifted, leading residents along the route worried about a new batch of inadvertent returns, related sinkholes, and other follies as the project is completed. Construction activities for the parallel Mariner East 2X pipeline are already underway.

While residents along the Mariner East pipeline system have seen more than their fair share of impacts from the construction, these impacts are not at all rare on unusual. What is unusual, however, is for regulators to provide data highlighting these types of errors. In Pennsylvania, enough people requesting data on a variety of problematic pipelines has prompted the Department of Environmental Protection to create a Pennsylvania Pipeline Portal page. This only includes information on recent major pipeline projects and is not comprehensive in terms of content, but it is a major step in the right direction in terms of data transparency.

Can We Do Better?

Statistics can never capture the full force of tragedies. Most of us are aware of this point intellectually, and yet when we are confronted with such numbers, it seems that we are obliged to process them in one form or another. Perhaps the most common way is to compartmentalize it, where we might acknowledge the data and misfortune that they represent, but the file it away in the messy cabinet of our mind, clearing the slate of active thought for the next bit of information. Many of us never stop to question whether we can do better.

So, can we do better with pipelines? Perhaps so. If there are structural hazards such as abandoned mines or karst, perhaps regulators could demand that the operator route around them. If there are residents nearby, communities should demand that the pipeline get rerouted as well. Of course, these reroutes will just push the impacts elsewhere, but hopefully to an area where people won’t be affected by them, if such a place exists. Certainly, there could be better standards for construction and identification, so that there are fewer accidents involving pipelines. Or better yet, we could transition to renewable fuels for an ever-increasing share of our energy needs, making dirty and dangerous pipelines a relic of the past.

The one thing that we can no longer afford to do is continue to stick our fingers in our ears and dismiss the entire issue of pipeline safety as manageable or the cost of doing business.

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

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

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National Energy and Petrochemical Map

FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!

The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:

         For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps. 

This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
  • The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
  • The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
  • With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
  • Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.

Electricity generation

The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?

National Map of Power plants

Power plants by energy source. Data from EIA.

In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.

In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).

National Energy Sources Pie Chart

Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.

This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.Fracking's astronomical decline rates - after one year, a well may be producing less than one-fifth of the oil and gas it produced its first year. To keep up with production, operators must pump exponentially more water, chemicals, and sand, or just drill a new well.

The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”

The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.

This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.

In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.

How does your state generate electricity?
Legend

Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.

One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others.  The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Transportation

In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.

Map of transportation infrastructure

Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.

The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses.  Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.

China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.

In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a  “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.

We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals

Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.

This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.

Map of Petrochemical Infrastructure

Petrochemical infrastructure. Data from EIA.

Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.

The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.

As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.

Petrochemical infrastructure

Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.

“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”

Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.

Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)

In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”

What will this map look like in the next 30 years?

A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”

Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could  zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?

Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.

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Tennessee

Oil & Gas Activity in Tennessee



We are slowly adding oil and gas information related to Tennessee to FracTracker.org. This page will update as more maps and articles are developed about TN. Check back soon!

Data on TN’s class II injection wells can be downloaded here. Last updated: February 25, 2019

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Petrochemical development in the Houston, Texas area

COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry

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

Health Impacts of COVID-19 and Oil & Gas 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persistent Negative Returns 

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

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

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

 

Plummeting Prices

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

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

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

Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety

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

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

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

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

Grasping at straws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Show’s Over for Oil & Gas 

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

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

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

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

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

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National Energy and Petrochemical Map

FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!

The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:

         For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps. 

This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
  • The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
  • The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
  • With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
  • Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.

Electricity generation

The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?

National Map of Power plants

Power plants by energy source. Data from EIA.

In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.

In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).

National Energy Sources Pie Chart

Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.

This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.Fracking's astronomical decline rates - after one year, a well may be producing less than one-fifth of the oil and gas it produced its first year. To keep up with production, operators must pump exponentially more water, chemicals, and sand, or just drill a new well.

The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”

The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.

This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.

In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.

How does your state generate electricity?
Legend

Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.

One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others.  The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Transportation

In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.

Map of transportation infrastructure

Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.

The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses.  Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.

China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.

In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a  “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.

We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals

Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.

This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.

Map of Petrochemical Infrastructure

Petrochemical infrastructure. Data from EIA.

Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.

The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.

As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.

Petrochemical infrastructure

Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.

“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”

Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.

Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)

In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”

What will this map look like in the next 30 years?

A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”

Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could  zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?

Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.

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destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Pipelines Continue to Catch Fire and Explode

For the past decade, petroleum operators in the United States have been busy pumping record amounts of oil and gas from the ground. But has the pace been too frenzied? Since the vast majority of the oil and gas is not used in situ, the industry must transport these hydrocarbon products to other locations. The principal way of achieving this is through pipelines, a process which has resulted in thousands of incidents, causing hundreds of injuries and fatalities, thousands of evacuations, and billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

The United States has an estimated 3 million miles of hazardous liquid, gas distribution, and gathering and transmission pipelines in operation, and more are being built every day. Not only have the pipelines themselves become so ubiquitous that most people never give them a second thought, the incidents themselves have become so familiar to us that even severe ones struggle to gain any attention outside of the local media area.

In 2019, there were 614 reported pipeline incidents in the United States, resulting in the death of 10 people, injuries to another 35, and about $259 million in damages. As mentioned below, some of these totals are likely to creep upward as additional reports are filed. In terms of statistical fluctuations, 2019 was slightly better than normal, but of course statistics only tell a part of the story. Friends and family of the ten people that died last year would find no comfort knowing that there were fewer such casualties than 2017, for example. Similarly, it would be useless to comfort a family that lost their home by reminding them that someone lost an even bigger and more expensive home the year before.

Keeping in mind the human impact, let’s take a look at the data.

Pipeline Incident Summary

These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

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

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 12/31/2019

Report Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
Hazardous Liquids Lines 3,978 10 26 2,482 2,812,391,218 130 15
Gas Transmission & Gathering Lines 1,226 25 108 12,984 1,315,162,976 133 57
Gas Distribution 1,094 105 522 20,526 1,229,189,997 659 257
Totals 6,298 140 656 35,992 5,356,744,191 922 329

But is increasing the capacity of the pipes a good idea? As FracTracker has shown in the past, pipeline incidents occur at a rate of about 1.7 per day incidents per day. This holds true with updated data, showing 6,298 incidents from January 1, 2010 through December 17, 2019, which was the latest report filed when the data was downloaded in early February 2020.

Pipeline Usage in the United States

In 2018, roughly three million miles of natural gas pipelines transported almost 28 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas, which is roughly 13 times the volume of Mount Everest. For liquids, pipeline data is available showing shipments of from one region of the country (known as a PAD District) to another, which shows that 1.27 billion barrels of crude oil were shipped through almost 81,000 miles of pipelines in 2018, and 3.39 billion barrels through nearly 214,000 miles of pipes when counting natural gas liquids and refined petroleum products.

Note that these figures are less than 2018 estimates based on 70% of liquid petroleum products being moved by pipeline. This discrepancy could be accounted for by the dramatic increase in production in recent years, or perhaps by intra-PAD shipments not listed in the data above. For example, petroleum produced in the Permian Basin in western Texas and eastern New Mexico may travel nearly 500 miles by pipeline en route to export terminals on the Gulf coast, while remaining in the same PAD District. If the 70% estimate holds true, then roughly 2.8 billion barrels (117 billion gallons) of crude would be shipped by pipeline, more than twice as much as the 1.27 billion barrel figure shown above.

The drilling boom in the United States was quickly followed by a boom in pipeline construction. Total mileage for liquid pipelines – known as hazardous liquid lines – increased by 20% from 2010 to 2018. For those aware of thousands of miles of recent gas pipeline projects, it is confusing to hear that the data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) are mixed for natural gas. It does show a 2.4% increase in total miles for gas distribution mainlines to 1.3 million miles, and a 2.0% increase over the same time in distribution service lines, which run from the mainlines to the consumer. However, the total mileage for transmission lines – which are large diameter pipes that move gas long distances – actually contracted 2.1% to just under 302,000 miles. Total mileage for gathering lines fell even more, by 8.4% to just under 18,000 miles. However, since PHMSA estimates only 5% of gathering lines report to the agency, this last figure is probably not a valid estimate.

If this data is accurate, it means that the thousands of miles of transmission and gathering lines built in recent years were more than offset by decommissioned routes. However, given the record production levels mentioned above, it is almost certain that total capacity of the system has gone up, which can be accomplished through a combination of increased pressure and diameter of the pipe.

Hazardous Liquids

Table. 2. Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.
Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 350 1 3 686 1,075,193,990 8 1
2011 344 0 1 201 273,526,547 9 2
2012 366 3 4 235 145,477,426 10 2
2013 401 1 6 858 278,525,540 15 2
2014 455 0 0 34 140,211,610 20 4
2015 460 1 0 138 256,251,180 16 1
2016 420 3 9 104 212,944,094 17 2
2017 415 1 1 58 163,118,772 7 0
2018 405 0 2 165 152,573,682 15 1
2019 362 0 0 3 114,568,377 13 0
Grand Total 3978 10 26 2482 2,812,391,218 130 15

The most important statistics when considering pipeline incidents are those representing bodily harm – injuries and fatalities. In those respects, at least, 2019 was a good year for hazardous liquid pipelines, with no reported injuries or fatalities. Most of the other metrics were below average as well, including 362 total incidents, three evacuees, $115 million in damages, and zero explosions. The 13 reported fires represents a typical year. However, we should keep in mind that the results may not be complete for 2019. The data was downloaded on February 3, 2020, but represented the January 2020 update of the dataset. Additionally, there is often a gap between the incident date and the reporting date, which is sometimes measured in months.

One thing that really sticks out about hazardous liquid pipelines is that the pipelines that fail the most often are the newest. Of the hazardous liquid incidents since 2010, 906 occurred in pipelines that were installed within the decade. By means of comparison, the same amount of incidents occurred in the same period for pipes installed in the 40 years between 1970 and 2009. Of course, the largest category is “Unspecified,” where the install year of the pipeline was left blank in 1,459 of the 3,978 total incidents (37%).

The causes of the incidents are dominated by equipment failure, where the 1,811 incidents accounted for 46% of the total. The next highest total was corrosion failure with 798 incidents, or 20% of the total. Six of the incidents in the “Other Outside Force Damage” are attributed to intentional damage, representing 0.15% of the total.

Gas Transmission & Gathering

Table. 3. Gas Transmission and Gathering Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.
Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 116 10 61 373 596,151,925 19 7
2011 128 0 1 874 125,497,792 14 6
2012 116 0 7 904 58,798,676 15 7
2013 112 0 2 3,103 53,022,396 11 4
2014 142 1 1 1,482 61,533,154 15 6
2015 149 6 16 565 61,498,753 10 6
2016 97 3 3 944 107,524,564 8 4
2017 126 3 3 202 85,665,233 17 7
2018 118 1 7 4,088 77,753,611 17 6
2019 122 1 7 449 87,716,872 7 4
Grand Total 1,226 25 108 12,984 1,315,162,976 133 57

One person died and seven were injured from gas transmission and gathering line accidents that were reported to PHMSA in 2019, which were both below average for this dataset. The total number of incidents was typical, while the 499 evacuees, $88 million in property damage, seven fires, and four explosions were all below normal. Note that only a small fraction of the nation’s gathering lines are required to report incident data to PHMSA, so this data should not be seen as comprehensive. And as with the hazardous liquid incidents, it is likely that not all incidents occurring during the year have had reports filed in time for this analysis.

The distribution of the age of pipes that failed within the past decade is different from the hazardous liquid pipelines. Pipes installed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were the most likely to fail, although failures in routes built this century represent a secondary peak. The number of incidents where the age of pipe data field was not completed remains high at 135 incidents, but the data gap is not as outrageous as it is for hazardous liquid lines.

Once again, equipment failure is the most common cause of transmission and gathering line accidents, with 390 incidents accounting for 32% of the total. Corrosion failure was the second most common reason, with 239 incidents accounting for an additional 19%. One incident was attributed to intentional damage, accounting for 0.08% of the total.

Gas Distribution

Year Incidents Fatalities Injuries Evacuees Damages ($) Fires Explosions
2010 120 11 44 2,080 21,155,972 82 29
2011 116 13 53 4,417 27,105,022 73 32
2012 88 9 46 746 25,556,562 61 22
2013 104 8 36 1,606 37,363,960 59 20
2014 106 18 93 2,037 72,885,067 61 30
2015 101 4 32 948 32,176,608 65 24
2016 115 10 75 2,510 56,900,068 71 28
2017 104 16 34 1,960 72,226,380 57 17
2018 110 7 81 2,561 827,647,610 64 31
2019 130 9 28 1,661 56,172,748 66 24
Grand Total 1,094 105 522 20,526 1,229,189,997 659 257
Table 4. Gas Distribution Pipeline Incident Impact Summary. Data from PHMSA.

The nine fatalities and 28 injuries reported for gas distribution lines in 2019 were obviously tragic, but these totals are both below what would be expected in a typical year. The 130 incidents and 66 fires were both above average totals, while the 1,661 evacuees, $56 million in property damage, and 24 explosions were all below average. As with the other reports, these totals are subject to change as additional reports are filed.

The distribution for the age of pipes that failed during the past decade is more like a normal (or bell curve) distribution than the other two datasets, with the most incidents occurring in pipeline routes laid in the 1990s. Much like the hazardous liquids dataset, however, the largest category is “Unspecified”, where the age of the pipe was not entered into the data for one reason or another. These 222 incidents account for 20% of the total, and if we had this data, the distribution could be significantly different.

The causes of distribution line incidents are attributed very differently than either the hazardous liquids or transmission and gathering line datasets. The leading cause is “Other Outside Force Damage,” with 355 incidents accounting for 32% of the total, followed by 330 “Excavation Damage” incidents accounting for an additional 30%. This difference could well be explained because this type of line tends to occur in highly populated areas. The largest subtype for the outside force damage category is damage by motor vehicles not involved in excavation, with 160 incidents, followed by fires or explosions which the operator claims did not originate with the pipeline, with 78 incidents. Intentional damage remains rare – although still way too high – with 15 incidents, or 1.4% of the overall total.

Data Notes

PHMSA incident data is ultimately self-reported by the various operators. Because the vast majority of gathering lines do not report to the agency, this dataset should not be seen as comprehensive for incidents in that category.

There were eleven issues with faulty location data that we were able to correct for this map. There are likely to be more, as only the ones with coordinates rendering outside of the United States were identified. Some of these had mixed up latitude and longitude values, or omitted the negative value for longitude, placing the points in Kyrgyzstan, the Himalayas, and Mongolia. One record had no coordinates at all, but included a detailed description of the location, which was then found on Google Maps. Two wells that rendered in Canada were on the correct longitude for the county that they belonged in, but had faulty latitude values. One of these was reduced by exactly 20° of latitude, while the other was reduced by exactly 7° of latitude, and were then located in the proper county. Other than the adjustments for these eleven incidents, all location data reflects the data available on the PHMSA .

Additional Leaks

The data above reflects 6,298 incidents over the course of a decade, with a few more incidents likely to trickle in during the next few updates of the reports by PHMSA. And while these discrete incidents account for the majority of human impacts in terms of life and well-being, it is worth noting that these 1.7 incidents per day are not the only problems that occur along millions of miles of pipelines in this country.

William Limpert has analyzed information about pipeline leakage in gas transmission lines, which found that 0.35% of the volume of gas was lost in transmission, one tenth of which was vented or flared intentionally, for example in compressor station blowdown events. This means that 0.315% of the gas is released unintentionally.

These numbers sound tiny, but due to the enormous volume of gas transported in pipes, they really add up quickly. For example, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Mr. Limpert’s primary focus, is scheduled to transmit 1.5 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas per day. At a typical rate of failure, we could expect leakage of 4.725 million cubic feet (MMcf) per day, or 1.725 billion cubic feet over the course of a year. That’s enough gas to provide to all Pennsylvania residential consumers for about 13 days in August, and this is just from one pipeline.

As mentioned above, the entire pipeline network moved about 28 Tcf in 2018. The estimated amount leaked at 0.315% is 88.2 Bcf. What would residential consumers pay for that volume of gas? Even with the current low prices due to the gas glut, the average residual price was $9.43 per Mcf in November 2019, the most recent data available. That means that residential consumers would pay roughly $832 million for an equivalent amount of gas.

Still More Leaks

There are also countless leaks that occur during the construction of the pipelines themselves. When pipelines are built, they have numerous obstacles to navigate during their construction. Among the most challenging are linear obstacles, such as roads and streams. A method that the industry regularly uses to avoid having to trench through these features is horizontal directional drilling (HDD).

While HDDs are meant to minimize impacts, they very frequently result in an incident known as an “inadvertent return,” when volumes of drilling mud return to the surface through a series of underground voids, frequently karst geology or abandoned mines. The leaking borehole under the road or stream then leaks drilling mud – sometimes thousands of gallons of it – which can then affect aquatic stream life. Additionally, these areas represent voids in the matrix that is intended to keep the pipeline stable and may represent future opportunities for catastrophic failure.

These features are so prevalent in some parts of the country that pipeline operators seem to be unable to avoid them, and regulators seem unwilling to press the issue in a proactive fashion. For example, Energy Transfers’ Mariner East II pipeline is currently being built to move natural gas liquids from Appalachia to its industrial complex and export terminal at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. During construction, there have been hundreds of inadvertent returns, both to the soil and waters of the Commonwealth. The presence of karst and abandoned mines along the route were well known ahead of time to the operator designing and implementing the HDDs, as well as the regulators who approved their use.

The many issues along the Mariner East II route, when combined with a massive pipeline explosion in Beaver County led to Pennsylvania’s decision to temporarily block all permit actions by the operator statewide. That hold is now lifted, leading residents along the route worried about a new batch of inadvertent returns, related sinkholes, and other follies as the project is completed. Construction activities for the parallel Mariner East 2X pipeline are already underway.

While residents along the Mariner East pipeline system have seen more than their fair share of impacts from the construction, these impacts are not at all rare on unusual. What is unusual, however, is for regulators to provide data highlighting these types of errors. In Pennsylvania, enough people requesting data on a variety of problematic pipelines has prompted the Department of Environmental Protection to create a Pennsylvania Pipeline Portal page. This only includes information on recent major pipeline projects and is not comprehensive in terms of content, but it is a major step in the right direction in terms of data transparency.

Can We Do Better?

Statistics can never capture the full force of tragedies. Most of us are aware of this point intellectually, and yet when we are confronted with such numbers, it seems that we are obliged to process them in one form or another. Perhaps the most common way is to compartmentalize it, where we might acknowledge the data and misfortune that they represent, but the file it away in the messy cabinet of our mind, clearing the slate of active thought for the next bit of information. Many of us never stop to question whether we can do better.

So, can we do better with pipelines? Perhaps so. If there are structural hazards such as abandoned mines or karst, perhaps regulators could demand that the operator route around them. If there are residents nearby, communities should demand that the pipeline get rerouted as well. Of course, these reroutes will just push the impacts elsewhere, but hopefully to an area where people won’t be affected by them, if such a place exists. Certainly, there could be better standards for construction and identification, so that there are fewer accidents involving pipelines. Or better yet, we could transition to renewable fuels for an ever-increasing share of our energy needs, making dirty and dangerous pipelines a relic of the past.

The one thing that we can no longer afford to do is continue to stick our fingers in our ears and dismiss the entire issue of pipeline safety as manageable or the cost of doing business.

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

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

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