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Mapping the Petrochemical Build-Out Along the Ohio River

New maps show the build-out of oil and gas infrastructure that converts the upper Ohio River Valley’s fracked gas into petrochemical products

In 2004, Range Resources purchased land in Washington County, Pennsylvania and “fracked” the first well in the Marcellus Shale, opening the flood gates to a wave of natural gas development.

Since then, oil and gas companies have fracked thousands of wells in the upper Ohio River Valley, from the river’s headwaters in Pennsylvania, through Ohio and West Virginia, and into Kentucky.

Industry sold natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, but 15 years since the first fracked Marcellus well, it’s clear that natural gas is more of a barrier than a bridge. In fact, oil and gas companies are not bridging towards clean energy at all, but rather investing in the petrochemical industry- which converts fracked gas into plastic.

This article dives into the expanding oil, gas, and petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley, with six maps and over 16,000 data points detailing the build-out of polluting infrastructure required to make plastic and other petrochemical products from fossil fuels.

Fracking for plastic

The petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly, with $164 billion planned for new infrastructure in the United States alone. Much of the build-out involves expanding the nation’s current petrochemical hub in the Gulf Coast, yet industry is also eager to build a second petrochemical hub in the Ohio River Valley.

The shale rock below the Ohio River Valley releases more than methane gas used for energy. Fracked wells also extract natural gas liquids (NGLs) which the petrochemical industry manufactures into products such as plastic and resins. Investing in the petrochemical industry is one way to capitalize on gases that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere via venting and flaring. As companies continue to spend billions more on drilling than they’re bringing in, many are looking towards NGLs as their saving grace.

These maps look at a two-county radius along the upper Ohio River where industry is most heavily concentrated.

Step 1. Extraction

The petrochemical lifecycle begins at the well, and there are a lot of wells in the Ohio River Valley. The majority of the natural gas produced here is extracted from the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays, which also contain “wet gas,” or NGLs, such as ethane, propane, and butane.

Rig in Greene County, PA. Photo by Ted Auch.

12,507

active, unconventional wells in the upper Ohio River Valley

Of particular interest to the petrochemical industry is the ethane in the region, which can be “cracked” into ethylene at high temperatures and converted into polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The Department of Energy predicts that production of ethylene from ethane in the Appalachian Basin will reach 640,000 barrels a day by 2025 – that’s 20 times the amount produced in 2013.

In our first map, we attempted to show only active and unconventional (fracked) wells, a difficult task as states do not have a uniform definition for “unconventional” or “active.” As such, we used different criteria for each state, detailed below.

This map shows 12,660 wells, including:

  • 12,507 shale oil and gas wells:
    • 5,033 wells designated as “active” and “unconventional” in Pennsylvania
    • 2,971 wells designated as “drilled,” “permitted,” or “producing,” and are drilled in the Utica-Point Pleasant and Marcellus Shale in Ohio
    • 4,269 wells designated as “active” or “drilled” in the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia
    • 234 wells designated as “horizontal” and are not listed as abandoned or plugged in Kentucky
  • 153 Class II injection wells, which are used for the disposal of fracking wastewater
    • 2 in Pennsylvania
    • 101 in Ohio
    • 42 in West Virginia
    • 8 in Kentucky

The map also shows the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays, and a line demarcating the portions of these plays that contain higher quantities of wet gas. These wet gas regions are of particular interest to the petrochemical industry. Finally, the Devonian-Ohio Shale play is visible as you zoom in.



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Step 2. Transportation

Burned hillside near Ivy Lane after the Revolution Pipeline Exploded

Site of the Revolution Pipeline explosion. Photo: Darrell Sapp, Post Gazette.

A vast network of pipelines transports the oil and gas from these wells to processing stations, refineries, power plants, businesses, and homes. Some are interstate pipelines passing through the region on their way to domestic and international markets.

A number of controversial pipeline projects cross the Ohio River Valley. Construction of the Mariner East II Pipeline is under criminal investigation, the Revolution Pipeline exploded six days after it came on line, protesters are blocking the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is in the Supreme Court over permits to cross the Appalachian Trail.

Accurate pipeline data is not typically provided to the public, ostensibly for national security reasons.  The result of this lack of transparency is that residents along the route are often unaware of the infrastructure, or whether or not they might live in harm’s way. While pipeline data has improved in recent years, much of the pipeline data that exists remains inaccurate. In general, if a route is composed of very straight segments throughout the rolling hills of the Upper Ohio River Valley, it is likely to be highly generalized.

The pipeline map below includes:

  • natural gas interstate and intrastate pipelines
  • 8 natural gas liquid pipelines
  • 7 petroleum product pipelines
  • 3 crude oil pipelines
  • 18 pipeline projects that are planned or under construction for the region, including 15 natural gas pipelines and 3 natural gas liquids pipelines. To view a spreadsheet of these pipelines, click here.



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Step 3. Oil and Gas Transport and Processing

Pipelines transport oil and the natural gas stream to an array of facilities. Compressor stations and pumping stations aid the movement of the products through pipelines, while processing stations separate out the natural gas stream into its different components, including NGLs, methane, and various impurities.

At this step, a portion of the extracted fossil fuels are converted into sources of energy: power plants can use the methane from the natural gas stream to produce electricity and heat, and oil refineries transform crude oil into products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel.

A separate portion of the fuels will continue down the petrochemical path to be converted into products such as plastics and resins. Additionally, a significant portion of extracted natural gas leaks unintentionally as “fugitive emissions” (an estimated 2-3%) or is intentionally vented into the atmosphere when production exceeds demand.

This map shows 756 facilities, including:

  • 29 petroleum and natural gas power plants
    • 3 electric utilities
    • 24 independent power producers
    • 1 industrial combined heat and power (CHP) plant
    • 1 industrial power producer (non CHP)
  • 10 pumping stations, which assist in the transmission of petroleum products in pipelines
  • 645 compressor stations to push natural gas through pipelines
  • 21 gas processing plants which separate out NGLs, methane, and various impurities from the natural gas stream
  • 46 petroleum terminals, which are storage facilities for crude and refined petroleum products, often adjacent to intermodal transit networks
  • 3 oil refineries, which convert crude oil into a variety of petroleum-based products, ranging from gasoline to fertilizer to plastics
  • 2 petroleum ports, which are maritime ports that process more than 200 short tons (400,000 pounds) of petroleum products per year

*A small portion of these facilities are proposed or in construction, but not yet built. Click on the facilities for more information. 



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Step 4. Storage

After natural gas is extracted from underground, transported via pipeline, and separated into dry gas (methane) and wet gas (NGLs), its components are often pumped back underground for storage. With the expansion of the petrochemical industry, companies are eager to find opportunities for NGL storage.

Underground storage offers a steady supply for petrochemical manufacturers and allows industry to adapt to fluctuations in demand. A study out of West Virginia University identified three different types of NGL storage opportunities along the Ohio and Kanawha River valleys:

  1. Mined-rock cavern: Companies can mine caverns in formations of limestone, dolomite, or sandstone. This study focused on caverns in formations of Greenbrier Limestone.
  2. Salt cavern: Developing caverns in salt formations involves injecting water underground to create a void, and then pumping NGLs into the cavern.
  3. Gas field: NGLs can also be stored in natural gas fields or depleted gas fields in underground sandstone reservoirs.

Above-ground tanks offer a fourth storage option.

Natural gas and NGL storage contains many risks. These substances are highly flammable, and accidents or leaks can be fatal. A historically industrialized region, the Ohio River Valley is full of coal mines, pipelines, and wells (including abandoned wells with unknown locations). All of this infrastructure creates passages for NGLs to leak and can cause the land above them to collapse. As many of these storage options are beneath the Ohio River, a drinking water supply for over 5 million people, any leak could have catastrophic consequences.

Furthermore, there are natural characteristics that make the geology unsuitable for underground storage, such as karst geological formations, prone to sinkholes and caves.

Notable Storage Projects

Appalachia Development Group LLC is heading the development of the Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub initiative, “a regional network of transportation, storage and trading of Natural Gas Liquids and chemical intermediates.” The company has not announced the specific location for the project’s storage component. Funding for this project is the subject of national debate; the company applied for a loan guarantee through a federal clean energy program, in a move that may be blocked by Congress.

Energy Storage Ventures LLC plans to construct the Mountaineer NGL Storage facility near Clarington, Ohio along the Ohio River. This facility involves salt cavern storage for propane, ethane, and butane. To supply the facility, the company plans to build three pipelines beneath the Ohio River: two pipelines (one for ethane and one for propane and butane) would deliver NGLs to the site from Blue Racer Natrium processing plant. A third pipeline would take salt brine water from the caverns to the Marshall County chlorine plant (currently owned by Westlake Chemical Corp).

The storage map below shows potential NGL storage sites to feed petrochemical infrastructure as well as natural gas storage for energy production:



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Step 5. Petrochemical Manufacturing

While conventional oil and gas extraction has occurred in the region for decades, and fracking for 15 years, the recent petrochemical build-out adds an additional environmental and health burdens to the Ohio River Valley. Our final map represents the facilities located “downstream” in the petrochemical process which convert fossil fuels into petrochemical products.

An image of plastic pellets

Polyethylene pellets, also called nurdles, manufactured by ethane crackers. Image source.

Ethane Crackers

Much of the petrochemical build-out revolves around ethane crackers, which convert ethane from fracked wells into small, polyethylene plastic pellets. They rely on a regional network of fracking, pipelines, compressor stations, processing stations, and storage to operate.

In 2017, Royal Dutch Shell began construction on the first ethane cracker to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. Located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, this plant is expected to produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year. In the process, it will release an annual 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).

A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio. Several organizations, including the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, FreshWater Accountability Project, and Earthworks have filed an appeal against Ohio EPA’s issuance of the air permit for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker.

Shell Ethane Cracker

The Shell Ethane Cracker, under construction in Beaver County, is expected to produce 1.6 million tons of plastic per year. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.

Methanol plants also convert part of the natural gas stream (methane) into feedstock for a petrochemical product (methanol). Methanol is commonly used to make formaldehyde, a component of adhesives, coatings, building materials, and many other products. In addition to methanol plants and ethane crackers, the map below also shows the facilities that make products from feedstocks, such as fertilizer (made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), paints, and of course, plastic.

These facilities were determined by searching the EPA’s database of industrial sites using the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).

In total, we mapped 61 such facilities:

  • 2 methanol plants (both in construction)
  • 3 ethane crackers (one in construction, one under appeal, and one uncertain project)
  • 12 petrochemical manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32511)
  • 31 plastic manufacturing facilities
    • 2 plastic bag and pouch manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 326111)
    • 2 plastic packaging materials and unlaminated film and sheet manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32611)
    • 2 plastic packaging film and sheet (including laminated) manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 326112)
    • 1 unlaminated plastic film and sheet (except packaging) manufacturing facility (NAICS code 326113)
    • 1 unlaminated plastics profile shape manufacturing facility (NAICS code 326121)
    • 2 laminated plastics plate, sheet (except packaging), and shape manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 32613)
    • 21 facilities listed as “all other plastics product manufacturing” (NAICS code 326199)
  • 11 paint and coating manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 325510)
  • 2 nitrogenous fertilizer manufacturing facilities (NAICS code 325311)



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Visualizing the Build-Out

How are these facilities all connected? Our final map combines the data above to show the connections between the fossil fuel infrastructure. To avoid data overload, not all of the map’s features appear automatically on the map. To add features, view the map full screen and click the “Layers” tab in the top right tool bar.



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A better future for the Valley

The expansion of oil and gas infrastructure, in addition to the downstream facilities listed above, has rapidly increased in the last few years. According to the Environmental Integrity Project, regulatory agencies in these four states have authorized an additional 15,516,958 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents to be emitted from oil and gas infrastructure since 2012. That’s in addition to emissions from older oil and gas infrastructure, wells, and the region’s many coal, steel, and other industrial sites.

View the Environmental Integrity Project’s national map of emission increases here, which also includes permit documents for these new and expanding facilities.

The petrochemical build-out will lock in greenhouse gas emissions and plastic production for decades to come, ignoring increasingly dire warnings about plastic pollution and climate change. A recent report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance found that the greenhouse gas emissions across the plastic lifecycle were equivalent to emissions from 189 coal power plants in 2019 – a number that’s predicted to rise in coming years.

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What does the petrochemical build out look like in the Ohio River Valley?

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The oil and gas industry’s plan to increase plastic manufacturing capacity is a desperate attempt to stay relevant as fracking companies “hemorrhage cash” and renewable energy operating costs beat out those of fossil fuels. Investing instead in clean energy, a less mechanized and more labor intensive industry, will offer more jobs and economic opportunities that will remain relevant as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.

In fact, the United States already has more jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency, and alternative vehicles than jobs in fossil fuels. It’s time to bring these opportunities to the Ohio River Valley and bust the myth that Appalachian communities must sacrifice their health and natural resources for economic growth.

People gather at the headwaters of the Ohio River to advocate for the sustainable development of the region. Add your voice to the movement advocating for People Over Petro by signing up for the coalition’s email updates today!

Download the maps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This data in this article are not exhaustive. FracTracker will be updating these maps as data becomes available.

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

Appalachia storage hub prospects map by FracTracker

Storing Natural Gas Liquids in Appalachia

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

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

Background

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

Natural Gas Production Estimates:

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

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

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

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

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

Why does industry need storage?

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

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

What does storage look like?

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

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

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

Underground storage options

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

Where could storage sites be located?

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

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

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

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

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

Existing NGL Storage

Storage in the United States

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

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

Appalachia Storage & Trading Hub

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

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

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

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

Mountaineer NGL Storage Project

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Where is this plastic going?

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

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

Export markets

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

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

Historical and Projected Ethylene Production Capacity by Global Area

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

Graph of ethylene consumption by global area.

Figure 3. Ethylene consumption by global region. Source

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

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

Plastic is one way to subsidize this dying industry…

Beyond Storing Natural Gas Liquids

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

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

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

Looking into the future

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

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

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

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist