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Global oil refineries map by FracTracker - Ted Auch

Tracking Global Oil Refineries and their Emissions

Potential Conflict Hotspots and Global Productivity Choke Points

Today, FracTracker is releasing a complete inventory of all 536 global oil refineries, along with estimates of daily capacity, CO2 emissions per year, and various products. These data have also been visualized in the map below.

Total productivity from these refineries amounts to 79,372,612 barrels per day (BPD) of oil worldwide, according to the data we were able to compile. However, based on the International Energy Agency, global production is currently around 96 million BPD, which means that our capacity estimates are more indicative of conditions between 2002 and 2003 according to BP’s World Oil Production estimates. We estimate this disparity is a result of countries’ reluctance to share individual refinery values or rates of change due to national security concerns or related strategic reasons.

These refineries are emitting roughly 260-283 billion metric tons (BMT) of CO2[1], 1.2-1.3 BMT of methane and 46-51 million metric tons of nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere each year. The latter two compounds have climate change potentials equivalent to 28.2-30.7 BMT and 14.1-15.3 BMT CO2, respectively.

66 million

Assuming the planet’s 7.6 billion people emit 4.9-5.0 metric tons per capita of CO2 per year, emissions from these 536 refineries amounts to the CO2 emissions of 52-57 million people. If you include the facilities’ methane and N2O emissions, this figure rises to 61-66 million people equivalents every year, essentially the populations of the United Kingdom or France.

Map of global oil refineries

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | View static map | Download map data

BP’s data indicate that the amount of oil being refined globally is increasing by 923,000 BPD per year (See Figure 1). This increase is primarily due to improved productivity from existing refineries. For example, BP’s own Whiting, IN refinery noted a “$4-billion revamp… to boost its intake of Canadian crude oil from 85,000 bpd to 350,000 bpd.”

Figure 1. Global Oil Production 1965 to 2016 (barrels per day)

Figure 1. Global Oil Production, 1965 to 2016 (barrels per day) – Data courtesy of British Petroleum (BP) World Oil Production estimates.

 

Potential Hotspots and Chokepoints

Across the globe, countries and companies are beginning to make bold predictions about their ability to refine oil.

Nigeria, for example, recently claimed they would be increasing oil refining capacity by 13% from 2.4 to 2.7 million BPD. Currently, however, our data indicate Nigeria is only producing a fraction of this headline number (i.e., 445,000 BPD). The country’s estimates seem to be more indicative of conditions in Nigeria in the late 1960s when oil was first discovered in the Niger Delta. Learn more.

Is investing in – and doubling down on – oil refining capacity a smart idea for Nigeria’s people and economy, however? At this point, the country’s population is 3.5 times greater than it was in the 60’s and is growing at a remarkable rate of 2.7% per year. Yet, Nigeria’s status as one of the preeminent “Petro States” has done very little for the majority of its population – The oil industry and the Niger Delta have become synonymous with increased infant mortality and rampant oil spills.

Sadly, the probability that the situation will improve in a warming – and more politically volatile – world is not very likely. 

Such a dependency on oil price has been coupled to political instability in Nigeria, prompting some to question whether the discovery of oil was a cure or a curse given that the country depends on oil prices – and associated volatility – to balance its budget: Of all the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) countries, Nigeria is near the top of the list when it comes to the price of oil the country needs to balance its budget – Deutsche Bank and IMF estimate $123 per barrel as their breaking point. This is a valuation that oil has only exceeded or approached 4.4% of the time since 1987 (See Figure 2).

Former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Charles Soludo, once put this reliance in context:

… For too long, we have lived with borrowed robes, and I think for the next generation, for the 400 million Nigerians expected in this country by the year 2050, oil cannot be the way forward for the future.

Other regions are also at risk from the oil market’s power and volatility. In Libya, for example, the Ras Lanuf oil refinery (with a capacity of 220,000 BPD) and the country’s primary oil export terminal in Brega were the focal point of the Libyan civil war in 2011. Not coincidentally, Libya also happens to be the Petro State that needs the highest per-barrel price for oil to balance its budget (See Figure 2). Muammar Gaddafi and the opposition, National Transitional Council, jostled for control of this pivotal choke point in the Africa-to-Europe hydrocarbon supply chain.

The fact that refineries like these – and others in similarly volatile regions of the Middle East – produce an impressive 10% (7,166,900 BPD) of global demand speaks to the fragility of these Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex focal points, as well as the planet’s fragile dependence on fossil fuels going forward.

Weekly Spot Price of Brent Sweet Crude ($ Per Barrel) and estimates of the prices OPEC/Petro States need to balance their budgets.

Figure 2. Weekly Spot Price of Brent Sweet Crude ($ Per Barrel) and estimates of the prices OPEC/Petro States need to balance their budgets.

 

Dividing Neighbors

These components of the fossil fuel industry, and their associated feedstocks and pipelines, will continue to divide neighbors and countries as political disenfranchisement and inequality grow, the climate continues to change, and resource limitations put increasing stress on food security and watershed resiliency worldwide.

Not surprisingly, every one of these factors places more strain on countries and weakens their ability to govern responsibly.

Thus, many observers speculate that these factors are converging to create a kind of perfect storm that forces OPEC governments and their corporate partners to lean even more heavily on their respective militaries and for-profit private military contractors (PMCs) to prevent social unrest while insuring supply chain stability and shareholder return.[2,3] The increased reliance on PMCs to provide domestic security for energy infrastructure is growing and evolving to the point where in some countries it may be hard to determine where a state’s sovereignty ends and a PMC’s dominance begins – Erik Prince’s activities in the Middle East and Africa on China’s behalf and his recent aspirations for Afghanistan are a case in point.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, whiskey is for drinking and hydrocarbons are for fighting over. 

The international and regional unaccountability of PMCs has added a layer of complexity to this conversation about energy security and independence. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela provide examples of how fragile political stability is, and more importantly how dependent this stability is on oil refinery production and what OPEC is calling ‘New Optimism.’ To be sure, PMCs are playing an increasing role in political (in)stability and energy production and transport. Since knowledge and transparency are essential for peaceful resolutions, we will continue to map and chronicle the intersections of geopolitics, energy production and transport, social justice, and climate change.


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance; and Bryan Stinchfield, Associate Professor of Organization Studies, Department Chair of Business, Organizations & Society, Franklin & Marshall College


Relevant Data

Footnotes and References

  1. Assuming a tons of CO2 to barrels of oil per day ratio of 8.99 to 9.78 tons of CO2 per barrel of oil based on an analysis we’ve conducted of 146 refineries in the United States.
  2. B. Stinchfield.  2017.  “The Creeping Privatization of America’s Armed Forces”.  Newsweek, May 28th, 2017, New York, NY.
  3. R. Gray.  “Erik Prince’s Plan to Privatize the War in Afghanistan”.  The Atlantic, August 18th, 2017, New York, NY.
Mobile app update release feature image

FracTracker Mobile App Now Includes Activity Feed and Mapped Pipelines

Explore and Document Drilling Activity Near You with the FracTracker App

The oil and gas industry – from its wells to pipelines to refineries – has a variety of ways of impacting the communities and environment that surround its infrastructure. Given the scope of the industry, it’s almost impossible to see how oil and gas affects people and for them to share their experiences with others. Until today. FracTracker is excited to announce that we have completely rebuilt and significantly improved our frack-tracking mobile app. This app can serve as a documenting and tracking tool for reporters, residents, researchers, and groups concerned about oil and gas and its impacts.

Screenshots

Updated App Features

The free app, available for iPhone and Android users, still offers the ability to see drilling near you in the U.S. and add reports and photos about this activity onto a shared map. Based on feedback from many of our partners and readers, we have added and updated several features, as well.

  • Profile – Sign in to the app with an email address and password, with the option to add other information to your profile. This area is also where you can privately view your previous and pending reports.
  • Activity Feed – Shows the most recent submissions by app users. Scroll down to view older reports.
  • Save As Draft – Not ready to submit your report? Save it as a draft and return to submit it later.
  • Real-Time Submissions – We will no longer be curating incoming reports before they go live – so the activity feed and map show real-time submissions.
  • Flagging Tool – Mark a submission as inappropriate. A FracTracker moderator will review the report and take the appropriate action.
  • Indicate Senses Affected – Classify a report by the sense(s) impacted – e.g. Nearby drilling activity is loud, or an impoundment is causing noxious odors.
  • Pipelines Mapped – In addition to active wells and user reports, we have added national pipelines to the map. Please note that many of the pipeline locations are approximate because detailed, public pipeline data is lacking. Help us make this information more accurate by posting photos of pipelines near you.

Feedback Loops

Several organizations and community groups helped to test and improve the app during its redesign, including residents living amongst the oil and gas fields on the Front Range of Colorado and Southwest Pennsylvania, as well as with students at Drexel University.

When we redesigned our mobile app, we felt it was important to go into communities that are living amongst the oil and gas industry. Together, we identified what they needed most when reporting their concerns and potential impacts. The results are a very versatile app. People living around urban refinery hubs, as well as those living in rural extraction regions, will find this tool incredibly useful.

We’d love to hear your feedback about these changes once you have had a chance to explore the app’s updated features.

The app was developed by FracTracker Alliance in collaboration with Viable Industries, L.L.C.

Mobile App Contact

Kirk Jalbert, PhD, MFA
Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
FracTracker Alliance
jalbert@fractracker.org

Photo courtesy of Claycord.com

Tracking Refinery Emissions in California’s Bay Area Refinery Corridor

Air quality in the California Bay Area has been steadily improving over the last decade, and the trend can even be seen over just the course of the last few years. In this article we explore data from the ambient air quality monitoring networks in the Bay Area, including a look at refinery emissions.

From the data and air quality reports we find that that many criteria pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX) have decreased dramatically, and areas that were degraded are now in compliance.

While air pollution from certain sectors such as transportation have been decreasing, the north coast of the East Bay region is home to a variety of petrochemical industry sites. This includes five petroleum refineries. The refineries not only contribute to these criteria pollutants, but also emit a unique cocktail of toxic and carcinogenic compounds that are not monitored and continue to impact cardiovascular health in the region. This region, aptly named the “refinery corridor” has a petroleum refining capacity of roughly 800,000 BPD (barrels per day) of crude oil.

Petroleum refineries in California’s East Bay have always been a contentious issue, and several of the refineries date back to almost the turn of the 20th century. The refineries have continuously increased their capacities and abilities to refine dirtier crude oil through “modernization projects.” As a result, air quality and health impacts became such a concern that in 2006 and again in 2012, Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party candidate, was elected as Mayor of the City of Richmond. Richmond, CA became the largest city in the U.S. with a Green Party Mayor. While there have been many strides in the recent decade to clean up these major sources of air pollution, health impacts in the region including cardiovascular disease and asthma, as well as cancer rates, are still disproportionately high.

Regulations

To give additional background on this issue, let’s discuss some the regulations tasked with protecting people and the environment in California, as well as climate change targets.

New proposals for meeting California’s progressive carbon emissions standards were proposed in January of 2017. A vote to decide on the plan to meet the aggressive new climate target and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% across all sectors of the economy will happen this month, May 2017! Over the last ten years the refineries have invested in modernization projects costing more than $2 billion to reduce emissions.

However – a current proposal will actually allow the refineries to process more crude oil by setting a standard for emissions by volume of crude/petroleum refined, rather than an actual cap on emissions. The current regulatory approach focuses on “source-by-source” regulations of individual equipment, which ignores the overall picture of what’s spewing into nearby communities and the atmosphere. Even the state air resources board has supported a move to block the refineries from accepting more heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands.

New regulatory proposals incentivize refineries to continue expanding operations to refine more oil, resulting in a larger burden on the health of these already disproportionately impacted environmental justice communities. Chevron, in particular, is upgrading their Richmond refinery in a way as to allow it to process dirtier crude in larger volumes from the Monterey Shale and Canada’s Tar Sands. Since the production volumes of lighter crudes are shrinking, heavier dirtier crudes are becoming a larger part of the refinerys’ feedstocks. Heavier crudes require more energy to refine and result in larger amounts of hazardous emissions.

Upgrades are also being implemented to address greenhouse gas emissions. While the upgrades address the carbon emissions, regulatory standards without strict caps for other pollutants will allow emissions of criteria and toxic air pollutants such as VOC’s, nitrosamines, heavy metals, etc… to increase. In fact, newly proposed emissions standards for refineries will make it easier for the refineries to increase their crude oil volumes by regulating emissions on per-barrel standards. Current refining volumes can be seen below in Table 1, along with their maximum capacity.

Table 1. Bay Area refineries average oil processed and total capacity

Refinery Location Ave. oil processed
Barrels Per Day (2012 est.)
Max. capacity (BPD)
Chevron U.S.A. Inc. Richmond Refinery Richmond 245,271 >350,000
Tesoro Refining & Marketing, Golden Eagle Refinery Martinez 166,000 166,000
Shell Oil Products US, Martinez Refinery Martinez 156,400 158,000
Valero Benicia Refinery Benicia 132,000 150,000
Phillips 66, Rodeo San Francisco Refinery Rodeo 78,400 100,000

Source: California Energy Commission. One barrel of oil = 42 U.S. gallons.

Environmental Health Inequity

The Bay Area, and in particular the city of Richmond, have been noted in the literature as a place where environmental racism and environmental health disparity exist. The city’s residents of color disproportionately live near the refineries and chemical plants, which is noted in early works on environmental racism by pioneers of the idea, such as Robert Bullard (Bullard 1993a,b).

Since the issue has been brought to national attention by environmental justice groups like West County Toxics Coalition, progress has been made to try to bring justice, but it has been limited. People of color are still disproportionately exposed to toxic, industrial pollution in that area. A recent study showed 93% of respondents in Richmond were concerned about the link between pollution and health, and 81% were concerned about a specific polluter, mainly the Chevron Refinery (Brody et al. 2012). Recent health reports continue to show the trend that these refinery communities suffer disproportionately from cases of asthma and cardiovascular disease and higher mortality rates from a variety of cancers.

Health Impact Studies

Manufacturing and refining are known to produce particularly toxic pollution. Additionally, there has been research done on the specific makeup of pollution in the refinery corridor. The best study to do this is the Northern California Household Exposure Study (Brody et al. 2009). They examined indoor and outdoor air in Richmond, a refinery corridor community, and Bolinas, a nearby but far more rural community. They found 33% more compounds in Richmond, along with higher concentrations of each compound. The study also found very high concentrations of vanadium and nickel in Richmond, some of the highest levels in the state. Vanadium and nickel have been shown to be some of the most dangerous PM2.5 components as we previously stated, which gives reason to believe the air pollution in Richmond is more toxic than in surrounding areas.

Another very similar study compared the levels of endocrine disrupting compounds in Richmond and Bolinas homes, and found 40 in Richmond homes and only 10 in Bolinas (Rudel et al. 2010). This supports the idea that a large variety of pollutants with synergistic effects may be contributing to the increased mortality and hospital visits for communities in this region. This small body of research on pollution in Richmond suggests that the composition of air pollution may be more toxic and thus trigger more pollution-related adverse health outcomes than in surrounding communities.

Air Quality Monitoring

As discussed above and in FracTracker’s previous reports on the refinery corridor, the refinery emissions are a unique cocktail whose synergistic effects may be driving much of the cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer risk in the region. Therefore, the risk drivers in the Bay Area need to be prioritized, in particular the compounds of interest emitted by the petrochemical facilities.

The targets for emissions monitoring are compounds associated with the highest risk in the neighboring communities. An expert panel was convened in 2013 to develop plans for a monitoring network in the refinery corridor. Experts found that measurements should be collected at 5 minute intervals and displayed to the public real-time. The gradient of ambient air concentrations is determined by the distance from refinery, so a network of three near-fence-line monitors was recommended. Major drivers of risk are supposed to be identified by air quality monitoring conducted as a part of Air District Regulation 12m Rule 15: Petroleum Refining Emissions tracking. According to the rule, fence-line monitoring plans by refinery operators:

… must measure benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes (BTEX) and HS concentrations at refinery fence-lines with open path technology capable of measuring in the parts per billion range regardless of path length. Open path measurement of SO2, alkanes or other organic compound indicators, 1, 3-butadiene, and ammonia concentrations are to be considered in the Air Monitoring Plan.

The following analysis found that the majority of hazardous pollutants emitted from refineries are not monitored downwind of the facility fence-lines, much less the list explicitly named in the regulations above.

As shown below in Figure 1, the most impacted communities are in those directly downwind of the facility. According to the BAAQMD, each petroleum refinery is supposed to have fence-line monitoring. Despite this regulation developed by air quality and health experts, only two out of the five refineries have even one fence-line monitor. Real-time air monitoring data at the Chevron Richmond fence-line monitor and the Phillips 66 Rodeo fence-line monitor can be found on fenceline.org. Data from these monitors are also aggregated by the U.S. EPA, and along with the other local monitors, can be viewed on the EPA’s interactive mapping platform.

Figure 1. Map of Hydrogen Sulfide Emissions from the Richmond Chevron Refinery
Refinery emissions - H2S gradient

Hazardous Emissions and Ambient Pollution

Since the majority of hazardous chemicals emitted from the refineries are not measured at monitoring sites, or there are not any monitoring sites at the fence-line or downwind of the facility, our mapping exercises instead focus on the hazardous air pollution for which there is data.

As shown in the map of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) above, the communities immediately neighboring the refineries are subjected to the majority of hazardous emissions. The map shows the rapidly decreasing concentration gradient as you get away from the facility. H2S would have been a good signature of refinery emissions throughout the region if there were more than three monitors. Also, those monitors only existed until 2013, when they were replaced with a singular monitor in a much better location, as shown on the map. The 2016 max value is much higher because it is more directly downwind of Chevron Refinery.

The interpolated map layer was created using 2013 monitoring data from three monitors that have since been removed. The 2016 monitoring location is in a different location and has a maximum value more than twice what was recorded at the 2013 location.

Table 2. Inventory of criteria pollutant emissions for the largest sectors in the Bay Area

Annual average tons per day
PM10 PM2.5 ROG NOX SOX CO
Area wide 175.51 52.90 87.95 19.92 0.62 161.86
Mobile 20.33 16.27 183.12 380.52 14.93 1541.50
Total Emissions 16.30 12.14 106.58 50.59 45.95 44.31

Table adapted from the BAAQMD Refinery Report. PM10 = particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter  (about the width of a human hair); PM2.5 = PM less than 2.5 microns in diameter; ROG = reactive organic gases; NOX = nitrogen oxides; SOX = sulfur oxides; CO = carbon monoxide.

Additionally, exposure assessment can also rely on using surrogate emissions to understand where the plumes from the refineries are interacting with the surrounding communities. It is particularly important to also discriminate between different sources of pollution. As we see in Table 2 above, the largest volume of particulate matter (PM), NOX, and CO emissions actually come from mobile sources, whereas the largest source of sulfur dioxide and other oxides (SOX) is from stationary sources. Since the relationship between PM2.5 and health outcomes is most established, the response to ambient levels of PM2.5 in the refinery corridor gives insight into the composition of PM as well as the presence of other species of hazardous air pollution. On the other hand, SO2 can be used as a surrogate for the footprint of un-monitored air toxics.

Pollutants’ Fingerprints

Particulate Matter

Figure 2. Map of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 2 above displays ambient levels of PM2.5, and as the map shows, the highest levels of particulate matter surround the larger metro area of downtown Oakland and also track with the larger commuting corridors. The map shows evidence that the largest contributor to PM2.5 is truly the transportation (mobile) sector. PM2.5 is one hazardous air pollutant which negatively impacts health, causing heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), among other conditions. PM2.5 is particulate matter pollution, meaning small particles suspended in the air, specifically particles under 2.5 microns in diameter. Exposure to high levels of PM2.5 increases the risk of MI within hours and for the next 1-2 days (Brooks et al. 2004; Poloniecki et al. 1997).While refineries may not be the largest source of PM in the Bay Area, they are still large point sources that contribute to high local conditions of smog.

The chemical make-up of the particulate matter also needs to be considered. In addition, the toxicity of PM from the refineries is of particular concern. Since particulate matter acts like small carbon sponges, the source of PM affects its toxicity. The cocktail of hazardous air toxics emitted by refineries absorb and adsorb to the surfaces of PM. When inhaled with PM, these toxics including heavy metals and carcinogens are delivered deep into lung tissue.

Pooled results of many studies showed that for every 10 micrograms per meter cubed increase in PM2.5 levels, the risk of MI increases 0.4-1% (Brooks et al. 2010).  However, this relationship has not been studied in the context of EJ communities. EJ communities are generally low income communities of color (Bullard 1993), which have higher exposures to pollution, more sources of stress, and higher biological markers of stress (Szanton et al. 2010; Carlson and Chamberlein 2005). All of these factors may affect the relationship between PM2.5 and MI, and increase the health impact of pollution in EJ communities relative to what has been found in the literature.

Sulfur Dioxide

Figure 3 below shows the fingerprint of the refinery emissions on the refinery corridor, using SO2 emissions as a surrogate for the cocktail of toxic emissions. The relationship between SOand health endpoints of cardiovascular disease and asthma have also been established in the literature (Kaldor et al. 1984).

In addition to assessing SO2 as a direct health stressor, it is also the most effective tracer of industrial emissions and specifically petroleum refineries for a number of reasons. Petroleum refineries are the largest source of SO2 in the BAAQMD by far (Table 1), and there are more monitors for SO2 than any of the other emitted chemical species that can be used to fingerprint the refineries. The distribution of SO2 is therefore representative of the cocktail of a combination of the hazardous chemicals released in refinery emissions.

Figure 3. Map of Sulfur Dioxide for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Further Research

The next step for FracTracker Alliance is to further explore the relationship between health effects in the refinery communities and ambient levels of air pollution emitted by the refineries. Our staff is currently working with the California Department of Public Health to analyze the response of daily emergency room discharges for a variety of health impacts including cardiovascular disease and asthma.

References

Brody, J. G., R. Morello-Frosch, A. Zota, P. Brown, C. Pérez, and R. A. Rudel. 2009. Linking Exposure Assessment Science With Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study. American Journal of Public Health 99:S600–S609.

Brook, R. D., B. Franklin, W. Cascio, Y. Hong, G. Howard, M. Lipsett, R. Luepker, M. Mittleman, J. Samet, S. C. Smith, and I. Tager. 2004. Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 109:2655–2671.

Brooks, R. D., S. Rajagopalan, C. A. Pope, J. R. Brook, A. Bhatnagar, A. V. Diez-Roux, F. Holguin, Y. Hong, R. V. Luepker, M. A. Mittleman, A. Peters, D. Siscovick, S. C. Smith, L. Whitsel, and J. D. Kaufman. 2010. Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 121:2331–2378.

Bullard, R. D. 1993a. Race and Environmental Justice in the United States Symposium: Earth Rights and Responsibilities: Human Rights and Environmental Protection. Yale Journal of International Law 18:319–336.

Bullard, R. D. 1993b. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. South End Press.

Carlson, E.D. and Chamberlain, R.M. (2005), Allostatic load and health disparities: A theoretical orientation. Res. Nurs. Health, 28: 306–315. doi:10.1002/nur.20084

Kaldor, J., J. A. Harris, E. Glazer, S. Glaser, R. Neutra, R. Mayberry, V. Nelson, L. Robinson, and D. Reed. 1984. Statistical association between cancer incidence and major-cause mortality, and estimated residential exposure to air emissions from petroleum and chemical plants. Environmental Health Perspectives 54:319–332.

Poloniecki, J. D., R. W. Atkinson, A. P. de Leon, and H. R. Anderson. 1997. Daily Time Series for Cardiovascular Hospital Admissions and Previous Day’s Air Pollution in London, UK. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 54:535–540.

Rudel, R. A., R. E. Dodson, L. J. Perovich, R. Morello-Frosch, D. E. Camann, M. M. Zuniga, A. Y. Yau, A. C. Just, and J. G. Brody. 2010. Semivolatile Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds in Paired Indoor and Outdoor Air in Two Northern California Communities. Environmental Science & Technology 44:6583–6590.

Szanton SL, Thorpe RJ, Whitfield KE. Life-course Financial Strain and Health in African-Americans. Social science & medicine (1982). 2010;71(2):259-265. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.04.001.


By Daniel Menza, Data & GIS Intern, and Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo credit: Claycord.com

Shell Ethane Cracker

A Formula for Disaster: Calculating Risk at the Ethane Cracker

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

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

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

Known Ethane Cracker Risks

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

disaster-risk-infographic-websize

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

williams-geismar-explosion-websize

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

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

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

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

Potential Risks & Shell’s Mixed Messages

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Opening the Floodgates

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

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

Ethane Cracker Hazards Map

View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

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

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

Final Calculations

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

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

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

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

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