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Re: Falcon ethane pipeline project

Falcon Pipeline Moves Forward Despite Unresolved Concerns

Pittsburgh, PA – Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced their decision to issue a permit for the construction of Shell’s Falcon ethane pipeline project in southwest PA. FracTracker Alliance is extremely disappointed that DEP is allowing this project to proceed despite heavy opposition from the public and unaddressed concerns for the safety and well-being of nearby residents and the surrounding environment.

The past year has seen countless issues from the construction of new pipelines in the Commonwealth – from hundreds of “inadvertent returns,” (spills of bentonite drilling mud) along the path of the Mariner East II project to the catastrophic explosion of the week-old Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County. These reoccurring and serious incidents make it clear that oil and gas midstream companies are rushing to put infrastructure in place, and DEP and other regulatory agencies have been failing in their mission to adequately supervise the process.

According to data from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, there were 108 pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania between January 2010 and mid-July 2018, resulting in 8 fatalities, 15 injuries, requiring over 1,100 people to be evacuated from their homes, and causing more than $66 million in property damage. This track record, which does not include the Revolution Pipeline explosion in September of 2018, is frankly unacceptable.

Certainly, the Commonwealth has invested heavily in the Shell Ethane Cracker facility, offering steep tax subsidies and even paying the global petrochemical giant $2.10 for every barrel of ethane it consumes from Pennsylvania wells, equivalent to $1.6 billion over the next 25 years. It appears to FracTracker that these business arrangements have made the continued extraction and exploitation of hydrocarbons the priority for DEP, not protecting the environment and health and safety of Pennsylvanians, as the mission of the Department suggests is their focus. DEP’s decision also traces an unfortunate pattern of opaqueness and poor timing by announcing unpopular decisions right before the holidays.

Fundamentally, oil and gas companies like Shell exist to make profits, and will therefore make decisions to maximize earnings and limit their costs, if left to their own devices. This approach is often directly at odds with public safety, so Pennsylvania entrusts DEP to oversee the operations. FracTracker feels that with their decision to move forward with the project on December 20, 2018, DEP brushed over dozens of substantial concerns regarding the Falcon ethane pipeline project, and therefore failed in this mission. We remain unconvinced that the “appropriate construction techniques and special conditions” required by DEP will adequately protect the environment and health and safety of residents along the Falcon pipeline route.

Dec. 21st Update: After this article was written, FracTracker learned that Ohio’s EPA issued an air quality permit for the cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio on December 21st. The short public comment period and the rush to issue permits again illustrates that significant public health and environmental concerns are given minimal importance versus corporate wishes and political expediency. The regulatory paradigm is broken. The public has been ill served by the agencies entrusted to safeguard their interests. A collective regional voice should be raised in protest.

Brook LenkerExecutive Director, FracTracker Alliance

About FracTracker Alliance

Started in 2010 as a southwestern Pennsylvania area website, FracTracker Alliance is now a national organization with regional offices across the United States in Pennsylvania, Washington DC, New York, Ohio, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Its goal is to support advocacy groups at the local, regional and national level, informing their actions to positively shape our nation’s energy future. www.fractracker.org


Learn more about FracTracker’s coverage of the Falcon ethane pipeline project by exploring the posts below:

A map of deficiencies along the Falcon Pipeline Route

The Falcon Pipeline: Technical Deficiencies

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In August 2016, Shell announced plans for the “Falcon Ethane Pipeline System,” a 97-mile pipeline network intended to feed Shell’s ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. In response to available data, FracTracker launched the Falcon Public EIA Project in January of 2018 to unearth the environmental and public health impacts of the proposed pipeline. As part of that project, today we explore Shell’s Chapter 105 application and the deficiencies the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) cited after reviewing Shell’s application.

Just a heads up… there are a lot.

Shell originally submitted a Chapter 105 application to the DEP to receive a permit for water obstruction and encroachment. The DEP began reviewing the application in January of 2018. On June 1st, they sent Shell technical deficiency letters listing several issues with the application. Shell responded to these deficiencies on August 1st.

Now, it’s up to the DEP to decide if Shell’s response is adequate, and if the department should go ahead and approve the application or require more work from Shell. Explore the technical deficiencies below for more information.

Technical Deficiencies

Below is a map that highlights several of the deficiencies the DEP found with Shell’s application and a brief explanation of each one. Expand the map full-screen to explore more layers – Some layers only become visible when you zoom in due to the level of detail they display.

View Map Full Screen | How Our Maps Work

Next, we’ll walk you through the technical deficiencies, which we have broken down into the following categories:

  1. Wetlands, rivers, streams
  2. Stormwater control
  3. Public health and safety (drinking water & trails)
  4. Conservation areas
  5. Alternative routes
  6. Geological concerns (including mining issues)
  7. Documentation issues
Legend

A = Allegheny County, B = Beaver County, W = Washington County. The numbers reference the number listed in the deficiencies letter.

1. Wetlands, Rivers, & Streams

Water withdrawal from rivers and discharge

  • B2 A2 W2 The project will discharge waste water from an industrial activity to a dry swale, surface water, ground water, or an existing sanitary sewer system or separate storm water system. The DEP requested that Shell identify and describe this discharge, as the DEP’s Clean Water Program must authorize discharges. Shell stated that water will be discharged from hydrostatic testing, (which ensures a pipeline can withstand high pressure by pumping water through it to test for leaks), and a PAG-10 permit (needed for hydrostatic test water discharge) was submitted to the DEP July 27, 2018 with the locations of discharge. Drawings of the discharges are in Attachment O. (The locations of the discharges were not included in Shell’s public response to this deficiency.)
  • B33 A31 W31 Shell will be withdrawing water for hydrostatic testing. The DEP asked Shell to explain the intake and discharge methods so the DEP can decide if these should be included as impacts. The DEP also asked Shell to provide the location of intake and discharge. The DEP’s Clean Water Program must authorize discharges. In response, Shell stated that water will be withdrawn from Raccoon Creek and the Ohio River in West Virginia. The specific locations are listed in the PAG-10 permit, submitted to the DEP in July. Drawings of the discharges are included in Attachment O.

Wetlands and Streams

  • B5 A3 W4 The DEP asked Shell to identify the presence of wetlands within the project area that are identified by the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) data system, and provide data on how they may be impacted by the proposed pipeline.  Shell identified one NWI wetland in Beaver County, but did not delineate or provide information on it, due to safety concerns (it’s on a steep cliff). This wetland will be crossed via HDD (horizontal directional drill). In Allegheny County, there is an NWI wetland that Shell also did not provide data on. This wetland was not initially evident, and when staff returned to survey it, the property owner did not let them access the site because they did not want a pipeline on their property. According to Shell, this NWI wetland is not within the “Project’s Limit of Disturbance.” In Washington County, Shell stated that “all of the NWI-mapped wetlands that were determined not to be wetlands have been accounted for in Washington County. These NWI wetlands were all located in an area that had been previously strip-mined and due to mining activities, those wetlands are no longer there. Data were taken for these areas and included… separately as Attachment D.” Also in Washington County is an NWI wetland located above the Panhandle Trail, which Shell determined to be outside of the study area and therefore did not collect data on it. This wetland is not on the map, but Shell did provide this image of it.
  • B6 A4 W5 The DEP requested that Shell match off-line wetland data with sampling point locations from study area maps. In response, Shell placed offline data sheets in the order that they are in Table 3 in the Wetlands Delineation Report and in Table 4 in the Watercourse Delineation Report.
  • B7 A5 W6 Shell needed to discuss the types and conditions of riverine resources that the project impacts. Specifically, how the conditions of these resources relate to their hydrological functions, biogeochemical functions, and habitat attributes. These are discussed under question 7 for Beaver County, question 5 for Allegheny County, and question 6 for Washington County.
  • B8 A6 W7 Shell needed to discuss the types and conditions of wetlands that the project impacts. Specifically, how the conditions of these wetlands contribute to their hydrological functions, biogeochemical functions, and habitat attributes. Shell also needed to discuss impacts to wetlands that will be temporarily impacted, as it previously only discussed wetlands facing permanent impacts. These are discussed under question 8 for Beaver County, question 6 for Allegheny County, and question 7 for Washington County.
  • B9 A7 W8 The DEP asked Shell to evaluate the impact of open cut installation on wetlands with perched water tables and/or confining layers. Perched water tables have an impermeable confining layer (such as clay) between them and the main water table below. If open cut methods are used, the confining layer is destroyed and this water table will be lost. In Beaver County, Shell identified one wetland (W-PA-170222-MRK-002) will be open cut. If it is perched, Shell states it will replace the confining layer “along the same horizon during pipeline backfilling, and then [compact the layer] so that hydrology may be maintained.” Shell will also put trench plugs “on either side of the wetland on the ROW to prevent water from migrating out on the sides.” In Allegheny County, there are three wetlands potentially on perched water tables that will be open cut: W-PA-160401-MRK-006, W-PA-161220-MRK-001, and W-PA-161220-MRK-002.In Washington County, there are three wetlands potentially on perched water tables that will be open cut: W-PA-160407-JLK-002, W-PA-151203-MRK-005, and W-PA-151203-MRK-006.
  • A11 The DEP asked Shell to evaluate if any wetlands can be classified as “exceptional value” due to their proximity to nesting areas of the northern harrier (a threatened species in Pennsylvania). Wetlands are exceptional value if they serve as habitat for threatened or endangered species, or if they are hydrologically connected to or located within 0.5 miles of wetlands that maintain habitat for the species in the wetland. Shell determined that there are six wetlands that could be nesting areas for northern harriers, and therefore are exceptional value (W-PA-170207-MRK-002, W-PA-161205-WRA-001, W-PA-170207-MRK-003, W-PA-170207-MRK-001, W-PA-170113-MRK-008, W-PA-170113-MRK-001). Three of these wetlands are within the project’s LOD (W-PA-170207-MRK-002, W-PA-161205-WRA-001, W-PA-170207-MRK-003).
  • B13 A10 W11 The DEP asked Shell to evaluate whether the proposed Falcon Pipeline will impact wetlands that are of “exceptional value” based on their proximity to public water systems. Wetlands can be considered “exceptional value” if they are located along public or private drinking water supplies (surface or ground water), and help maintain the quality or quantity of the supply. Shell stated that the (potentially man made) ponds near public water supply A could be considered exceptional value, however, they are located outside of the project’s study area and were not delineated, therefore Shell does not have information on them or their impact to this well. There were no other wetlands Shell considered to be exceptional value based on their proximity to public water systems.
  • B21 There were two protected plant species- harbinger of spring (PA threatened) and purple rocket (PA endangered)- located within the Raccoon Creek floodplain. The DEP asked Shell to evaluate whether there are wetlands in the project area that should be considered “exceptional value” due to their proximity to these species. Wetlands are considered “exceptional value” if they serve as habitat for a threatened or endangered plant or animal species. They are also exceptional value if they are hydrologically connected to or located within 0.5 miles of wetlands that maintain the habitat of the species. There are six wetlands near populations of these plant populations: W-PA-151014-MRK-001, W-PA-151013-MRK-002, -003, and -004, W-PA-170407-JLK-001, W-PA151013-MRK-001. However, Shell stated that the harbinger of spring is not dependent on wetland habitat for survival and the species is considered an upland plant species (because it is not listed on Eastern Mountains and Piedmont List or on the National Wetland Plant List).  Purple rocket is listed as a “Facultative Wetland Plant” (FACW) on both lists. However, Shell stated that, “although it is a FACW, this plant is not one that occurs in wetlands,” and the population of purple rocket was found in an upland, disturbed area. Therefore, Shell determined that none of these wetlands are considered exceptional value.
  • B23 A21 W21 Shell needs to assess cumulative impacts to wetlands from the proposed pipeline and other existing projects and potential future projects. These are discussed in the Cumulative Impact Assessment document, Sections 4.1 and 4.2, and Tables B1 and B2.
  • B24 A22 W22 Shell needed to provide an explanation of how it will restore wetlands and streams disturbed during construction. The explanation needed to include information on seed mixes, shrubs, and trees that will restore stream banks and riparian areas.
  • B26 A24 W24 Shell needed to provide a table that lists, describes, and quantifies permanent impacts to wetlands and watercourses. Shell stated that there are no permanent fills associated with the project, but there will be permanent conversion impacts to the following wetlands. They total 10,862 ft2 or 0.25 acres in Beaver County, 5,166 ft2 (0.12 acres) in Allegheny County, and 4971 ft2 (0.11 acres) in Washington County. (W-PA-151013-JLK-005, W-PA-161202-MRK-001, W-PA-160404-MRK-001, W-PA-160412-CBA-004, W-PA-160412-CBA-001, W-PA-161205-WRA-003, W-PA-160401-MRK-005, W-PA-170213-JLK-003, W-PA-160406-MRK-001, W-PA-170413-RCL-005, W-PA-170214-CBA-005.)
  • B27 A25 W25 Shell needed to provide more information on the Neshannock Creek Restoration site, including a master restoration plan for the entire site. This mitigation is required to offset conversion impacts to wetlands along the pipeline route. The plan for the site is documented here.
  • B28 A26 W26 Shell needed to provide the location and resource crossing number for the HDDs in PA. They are listed in these tables:

Allegheny County:Table of Resources Falcon Pipeline Crosses by HDD in Allegheny County

Washington County:

Beaver County:

Table of water resources the Falcon pipeline crosses by HDD

2. Stormwater control

  • B3 A1 W1 Shell indicated that the project was in a floodplain project by the Commonwealth, a political subdivision of the commonwealth or a public utility. The DEP asked for an identification of this floodplain project, to which Shell responded that it misunderstood the question and the pipeline will not go through a floodplain project by one of these entities, but rather a floodway. The pipeline will pass many floodways, which are listed in Table 1 in separate documents for Beaver County, Allegheny County, and Washington County.
  • W3 The DEP requested that Shell provide an analysis of impact to Act 167 plans. Act 167 requires counties to create stormwater management plans and municipalities to adopt ordinances to regulate development in accordance with these plans. The pipeline route occurs in areas with Act 167 plans in Chartiers Township, Mount Pleasant Township, and Robinson Township.

3. Public health and safety

  • B1 The proposed pipeline does not meet the provisions of a zoning ordinance or have zoning approval in a particular area. Specifically, in Independence Township, the pipeline is within setback distances of places of congregation and/or of residences. One example is the Beaver County Conservation District, considered a place of congregation. Shell responded to this deficiency, saying it is working with Independence Township to obtain necessary approvals, and the township will “officially remove the pipeline ordinance from their records and no variances or permits will be required.”
  • B10 A8 W9 The DEP requested that Shell evaluate and discuss how the pipeline may impact public water systems that are within 1 mile of the pipeline route. Shell located 12 sites within a mile, most of which are ground water wells. One site is the Ambridge Water Authority, which provides drinking water for an estimated 30,000 people. Shell stated that impacts “might include an Inadvertent Return (IR) causing a bentonite slurry mix to enter the supply, which might contaminate the supply for any wells that are located near an HDD site or construction equipment.” Shell stated that all wells are a minimum of 1000 feet outside construction zones and built in thick bedrock which will minimize threat on contamination. The sites within 1 mile include:
    • Youthtowne Barn
    • Beaver County Conservation District
    • Independence Elementary School
    • Independence Volunteer Fire Department
    • McConnell’s Farm and Market, Inc
    • Ambridge Water Authority- Independence Township
    • Ambridge Water Authority- Raccoon Township
    • Hookstown Free Methodist Church
    • Hookstown Fair
    • Hookstown Grange
    • South Side Memorial Post 952
    • Jack’s Diner
    • NOVA Chemical, Inc
  • B11 A9 W10 The DEP asked Shell to discuss efforts to avoid/minimize impacts to the above public water systems, and suggested that efforts “might include, but are not limited to, considering alternative locations, routings or design for the proposed pipeline; providing provisions for shut-off in the event of break or rupture; etc.” Shell stated that the route avoids direct impacts to groundwater wells and surface water intake. Shell will provide water buffalos if wells are contaminated, and drill new wells if necessary. There are mainline valves approximately 7 to 7.5 miles apart that can automatically shut off the flow of ethane. There will also be staff living within the project area that can quickly respond to issues.
  • B12 The pipeline crosses headwaters of the Ambridge Reservoir and the Reservoir’s raw water service pipeline, which supplies water to 30,000 residents. The DEP noted significant public concern regarding this crossing, and asked Shell to evaluate and discuss the pipeline’s potential to affect the Reservoir and public water supply service. The DEP also asked Shell to elaborate on efforts to avoid/minimize impacts, and what measures will be implemented to mitigate any unavoidable impacts. In response, Shell stated the pipeline will cross the raw water line via an HDD  31 feet below the line. Shell explained that the water service line is made of pre-stressed concrete, which cannot be retrofitted in the field if a break occurs. It can take six weeks for pipe joints to be made and delivered from Ohio if there is a rupture. Shell stated it will supply extra pipe joints so the Ambridge Water Authority can have pieces on deck in case of a break. Shell also outlined the protective coatings and design of the HDD portion of the pipeline that will cross the water line, and said valves that can shut off the pipeline are located 2.4 miles from one side of the water line and 3.5 on the other.
  • A17 W17 The DEP asked Shell to consider the proposed pipeline’s effect on the Montour Trail, a multi-use, recreational trail, and to consider re-routes that would avoid impacts to the Trail. Shell determined that routing around the trail is not feasible. Shell will use conventional bore or HDD methods. If the trail needs to be temporarily closed during construction, operation, or maintenance, Shell will notify the trail owner and provide alternate temporary access for trail users. Shell will also cross the Panhandle Trail by HDD. The entrance and exit sights of the bore will not be on the trail’s property. Shell has “unlimited ingress and egress over Owners property” for inspections, repair and maintenance of the pipeline, and in case of emergency situations.
  • B29 A27 W27 Shell needed to revise the “Shell Pipeline HDD Procedure” to include HDD site feasibility analysis, inadvertent return risk assessment, water supply protection, agency contact information, etc. Shell’s response is included in the document, Inadvertent Returns from HDD: Assessment, Preparedness, Prevention and Response Plan.
  • B30 A28 W28 Shell needed to include a preboring geologic evaluation to determine if drinking water supplies will be impacted around boring locations. Shell also needed to discuss how it will verify that drinking water sources and aquifers are protected and what measures will be taken in the event that they are impacted. Shell’s response is included as Appendix C to this document.

4. Conservation

  • B19 A18 W18 19A 19W – There are many areas important for the region’s biodiversity and natural heritage that the proposed pipeline passes near or through. The DEP asked Shell to evaluate impacts to these areas. Information on them is available from the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program. They include:
    • Ambridge Reservoir Valleys Natural Heritage Area
    • Lower Raccoon Creek Natural Heritage Area
    • Raccoon Creek Valley and Wildflower Reserve Natural Heritage Area
    • Raccoon Creek Floodplain Biologically Diverse Area
    • Raccoon Creek Landscape Conservation Area
    • Clinton Wetlands Biologically Diverse Area
    • Raccoon Creek Landscape Conservation Area
    • Raccoon Creek Valley & State Park Important Bird Area – Regarding the Important Bird Area, Shell stated that 23 miles of the pipeline is located within this area. Shell has not been able to get in contact with the National Audobon SW PA office. Shell added that the only waterbody large enough in the project area to support the documented waterfowl is the open water at Beaver County Conservation District. Shell stated that “an outlet has been installed at the far end of the lake to restore it to more of a wetland and less of a lake, as it was originally designed.Raccoon Creek Valley is also a passageway for migratory birds, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Shell stated that less than 2% of this Important Bird Area will be permanently impacted by pipeline construction and installation.

5. Alternative locations

  • B17 A15 W15 The DEP asked Shell to revise its current alternatives and provide a more detailed “analysis of the alternative locations and routes that were considered to avoid or minimize adverse environmental impacts.” The alternatives are discussed in Section 9 of Shell’s Comprehensive Environmental Assessment.
  • B18 16A 16W According to the DEP, “18.5 of the 45 miles (41%) of the proposed pipeline are parallel to or adjacent to existing right-of-ways (ROWs).” The DEP asked Shell to see if there are additional opportunities to build the pipeline within existing ROWs, with the hope of reducing environmental impacts. In response, Shell discussed the additional ROWs that were considered (along Mariner West) but ultimately rejected. Shell discusses these routes more in Section 9.1 of the Comprehensive Environmental Assessment.
  • B32 A30 W30 The DEP asked Shell to discuss the feasibility of several changes to the proposed pipeline’s route, including avoiding impacts to wetlands, relocating resource crossings, moving valve sites outside of wetlands, moving HDD locations, and evaluating the impact to a coal refuse pile (the pipeline crosses underneath at least one pile via HDD). These reroutes are discussed under question 32 for Beaver County, question 30 for Allegheny County, and question 30 for Washington County.

6. Geological concerns

  • B14 12A 12W The pipeline is located in previously coal mined areas. The DEP asked Shell to provide a map of the pipeline that showed these mining areas, and GIS shape files with this information. Shell’s response is included in the HDD Subsurface Investigation Reports, which includes the following table of the extent of mined areas along the pipeline route:
  • B15 A13 W13 The pipeline is located in coal mined areas, which could be susceptible to subsidence and/or mine water discharge. The DEP requested that Shell revise drawings to show the limits of previously mined areas, depth of cover over the mine workings in areas the proposed pipeline crosses through, and the distance between mine workings and the proposed pipeline. Furthermore, the DEP asked Shell to “evaluate and discuss the potential for a subsidence event compromising the utility line, and the potential to create a mine water discharge.” Shell discusses this in Appendix B of this this document and in the Mining Summary Report. Shell also identifies the following areas as being at risk for coal mine discharge: HOU MM 1.2, HOU MM 8.9 (proposed HDD), HOU MM 12.1, HOU MM 12.95, HOU MM 13.1, HOU MM 13.6, HOU MM 17.4, and HOU MM 17.65 (proposed HDD).
  • B16 A14 14W The DEP requested that Shell include areas where the pipeline will cross active mining permit boundaries. There is one active mining permit boundary that intersects the proposed pipeline, the Rosebud Mine in Beaver County.
  • B31 A29 W29 Shell needed to evaluate the potential for the project to encounter areas underlain by carbonate bedrock and landslide prone areas. Carbonate bedrock is indicative of a karst landscape, meaning an area likely to have underground sinkholes and caves. The DEP also asked Shell to discuss precautionary methods taken during construction in these areas. Shell’s response is included in the Carbonate Rock Analysis and Slope Stability and Investigation Report. The Carbonate Rock Analysis report shows that carbonate bedrock was encountered in 20 out of 40 of the borings taken during the analysis.

7. Documentation

  • B4 The PA DEP asked Shell to describe the structures and activities that occur within junction sites. Shell responded that there will be a Junction Custody Transfer Meter Station at the site, and provided maps of the site.
  • B22 20A 20w The DEP requested that Shell revise their Comprehensive Environmental Assessment to include alternatives, impacts, and mitigation items that were previously included in other sections of their environmental assessment.
  • B25 A23 W23 The DEP asked Shell to provide a copy of the Mitigation Bank Credit Availability Letter from First Pennsylvania Resource, LLC. In response, Shell stated the Letter is no longer needed because “the permanent stream and wetland fills have been removed from this project.”
  • B34 A32 W32 The DEP asked Shell to include a copy of the Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan.
  • B35 A33 W33 Shell needs to include all of the above modifications to the application in the Chapter 103 permit application.

Conclusion

As evidenced by the list above, the proposed Falcon Pipeline poses a variety of threats to Pennsylvania’s natural resources, wildlife, and public health – but this deficiencies list is likely not complete. The pipeline also passes through West Virginia and Ohio, and if completed, will likely attract more pipelines to the area. As it feeds Shell’s ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, it is a major step towards the region becoming a hub for plastic manufacturing. Therefore, the public response to the above deficiencies and the decision the DEP makes regarding them will have major implications for the Ohio River Valley’s future.

Of note: The DEP’s letters and Shell’s response to them are available to the public in separate documents for  Allegheny, Beaver, and Washington Counties. 


By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist

Shell Pipeline - Not Quite the Good Neighbor

Shell Pipeline: Not Quite the “Good Neighbor”

In August 2016, Shell Pipeline announced plans to develop the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, a 97-mile pipeline network that will carry more than 107,000 barrels of ethane per day through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, to feed Shell Appalachia’s petrochemical facility currently under construction in Beaver County, PA.

FracTracker has covered the proposed Falcon pipeline extensively in recent months. Our Falcon Public EIA Project explored the project in great detail, revealing the many steps involved in risk assessments and a range of potential impacts to public and environmental health.

This work has helped communities better understand the implications of the Falcon, such as in highlighting how the pipeline threatens drinking water supplies and encroaches on densely populated neighborhoods. Growing public concern has since convinced the DEP to extend public comments on the Falcon until April 15th, as well as to host three public meetings scheduled for early April.

Shell’s response to these events has invariably focused on their intent to build and operate a pipeline that exceeds safety standards, as well as their commitments to being a good neighbor. In this article, we investigate these claims by looking at federal data on safety incidents related to Shell Pipeline.

Contrary to claims, records show that Shell’s safety record is one of the worst in the nation.

The “Good Neighbor” Narrative

Maintaining a reputation as a “good neighbor” is paramount to pipeline companies. Negotiating with landowners, working with regulators, and getting support from implicated communities can hinge on the perception that the pipeline will be built and operated in a responsible manner. This is evident in cases where Shell Pipeline has sold the Falcon in press releases as an example of the company’s commitment to safety in public comments.

Figure 1. Shell flyer

A recent flyer distributed to communities in the path of the Falcon, seen in Figure 1, also emphasizes safety, such as in claims that “Shell Pipeline has a proven track record of operating safely and responsibility and remains committed to engaging with local communities regarding impacts that may arise from its operations.”

Shell reinforced their “good neighbor” policy on several occasions at a recent Shell-sponsored information meeting held in Beaver County, stating that, everywhere they do business, Shell was committed to the reliable delivery of their product. According to project managers speaking at the event, this is achieved through “planning and training with first responders, preventative maintenance for the right-of-way and valves, and through inspections—all in the name of maintaining pipeline integrity.”

Shell Pipeline also recently created an informational website dedicated to the Falcon pipeline to provide details on the project and emphasize its minimal impact. Although, curiously, Shell’s answer to the question “Is the pipeline safe?” is blank.

U.S. Pipeline Incident Data

Every few years FracTracker revisits data on pipeline safety incidents that is maintained by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). In our last national analysis we found that there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion.

These numbers were based on U.S. data from 2010-2016 for natural gas transmission and gathering pipelines, natural gas distribution pipelines, and hazardous liquids pipelines. It is also worth noting that incident data are heavily dependent on voluntary reporting. They also do not account for incidents that were only investigated at the state level.

Shell Pipeline has only a few assets related to transmission, gathering, and distribution lines. Almost all of their pipeline miles transport highly-volatile liquids such as crude oil, refined petroleum products, and hazardous liquids such as ethane. Therefore, to get a more accurate picture of how Shell Pipeline’s safety record stacks up to comparable operators, our analysis focuses exclusively on PHMSA’s hazardous liquids pipeline data. We also expanded our analysis to look at incidents dating back to 2002.

Shell’s Incident Record

In total, PHMSA data show that Shell was responsible for 194 pipeline incidents since 2002. These incidents spilled 59,290 barrels of petrochemical products totaling some $183-million in damages. The below map locates where most of these incidents occurred. Unfortunately, 34 incidents have no location data and so are not visible on the map. The map also shows the location of Shell’s many refineries, transport terminals, and off-shore drilling platforms.

Open the map fullscreen to see more details and tools for exploring the data.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Incidents Relative to Other Operators

PHMSA’s hazardous liquid pipeline data account for more than 350 known pipeline operators. Some operators are fairly small, only maintaining a few miles of pipeline. Others are hard to track subsidiaries of larger companies. However, the big players stand out from the pack — some 20 operators account for more than 60% of all pipeline miles in the U.S., and Shell Pipeline is one of these 20.

Comparing Shell Pipeline to other major operators carrying HVLs, we found that Shell ranks 2nd in the nation in the most incidents-per-mile of maintained pipeline, seen in table 1 below. These numbers are based on the total incidents since 2002 divided by the number of miles maintained by each operator as of 2016 miles. Table 2 breaks Shell’s incidents down by year and number of miles maintained for each of those years.

Table 1: U.S. Pipeline operators ranked by incidents-per-mile

Operator HVL Incidents HVL Pipeline Miles Incidents Per Mile (2016)
Kinder Morgan 387 3,370 0.115
Shell Pipeline 194 3,490 0.056
Chevron 124 2,380 0.051
Sunoco Pipeline 352 6,459 0.049
ExxonMobile 240 5,090 0.048
Colonial Pipeline 244 5,600 0.044
Enbride 258 6,490 0.04
Buckeye Pipeline 231 7,542 0.031
Magellan Pipeline 376 12,928 0.03
Marathan Pipeline 162 5,755 0.029

Table 2: Shell incidents and maintained pipeline miles by year

Year Incidents Pipeline Miles Total Damage Notes
2002 15 no PHMSA data $2,173,704
2003 20 no PHMSA data $3,233,530
2004 25 5,189 $40,344,002 Hurricane Ivan
2005 22 4,830 $62,528,595 Hurricane Katrina & Rita
2006 10 4,967 $11,561,936
2007 5 4,889 $2,217,354
2008 12 5,076 $1,543,288
2009 15 5,063 $11,349,052
2010 9 4,888 $3,401,975
2011 6 4,904 $2,754,750
2012 12 4,503 $17,268,235
2013 4 3,838 $10,058,625
2014 11 3,774 $3,852,006
2015 12 3,630 $4,061,340
2016 6 3,490 $6,875,000
2017 9 no PHMSA data $242,800
2018 1 no PHMSA data $47,000 As of 3/1/18

Cause & Location of Failure

What were the causes of Shell’s pipeline incidents? At Shell’s public informational session, it was said that “in the industry, we know that the biggest issue with pipeline accidents is third party problems – when someone, not us, hits the pipeline.” However, PHMSA data reveal that most of Shell’s incidents issues should have been under the company’s control. For instance, 66% (128) of incidents were due to equipment failure, corrosion, welding failure, structural issues, or incorrect operations (Table 3).

Table 3. Shell Pipeline incidents by cause of failure

Cause Incidents
Equipment Failure 51
Corrosion 37
Natural Forces 35
Incorrect Operation 25
Other 20
Material and/or Weld Failure 15
Excavation Damage 11
Total 194

However, not all of these incidents occurred at one of Shell’s petrochemical facilities. As Table 4 below illustrates, at least 57 incidents occurred somewhere along the pipeline’s right-of-way through public areas or migrated off Shell’s property to impact public spaces. These numbers may be higher as 47 incidents have no mention of the property where incidents occurred.

Table 4. Shell Pipeline incidents by location of failure

Location Incidents
Contained on Operator Property 88
Pipeline Right-of-Way 54
Unknwon 47
Originated on Operator Property, Migrated off Property 3
Contained on Operator-Controlled Right-of-Way 2
Total 194

On several occasions, Shell has claimed that the Falcon will be safely “unseen and out of mind” beneath at least 4ft of ground cover. However, even when this standard is exceeded, PHMSA data revealed that at least a third of Shell’s incidents occurred beneath 4ft or more of soil.

Many of the aboveground incidents occurred at sites like pumping stations and shut-off valves. For instance, a 2016 ethylene spill in Louisiana was caused by lightning striking a pumping station, leading to pump failure and an eventual fire. In numerous incidents, valves failed due to water seeping into systems from frozen pipes, or large rain events overflowing facility sump pumps. Table 5 below breaks these incidents down by the kind of commodity involved in each case.

Table 5. Shell Pipeline incidents by commodity spill volumes

Commodity Barrels
Crude Oil 51,743
Highly Volatile Liquids 6,066
Gas/Diesel/Fuel 1,156
Petroleum Products 325
Total 59,290

Impacts & Costs

None of Shell’s incidents resulted in fatalities, injuries, or major explosions. However, there is evidence of significant environmental and community impacts. Of 150 incidents that included such data, 76 resulted in soil contamination and 38 resulted in water contamination issues. Furthermore, 78 incidents occurred in high consequence areas (HCAs)—locations along the pipeline that were identified during construction as having sensitive environmental habitats, drinking water resources, or densely populated areas.

Table 6 below shows the costs of the 194 incidents. These numbers are somewhat deceiving as the “Public (other)” category includes such things as inspections, environmental cleanup, and disposal of contaminated soil. Thus, the costs incurred by private citizens and public services totaled more than $80-million.

Table 6. Costs of damage from Shell Pipeline incidents

Private Property Emergency Response Environmental Cleanup Public (other) Damage to Operator Total Cost
$266,575 $62,134,861 $11,024,900 $7,308,000 $102,778,856 $183,513,192

A number of significant incidents are worth mention. For instance, in 2013, a Shell pipeline rupture led to as much as 30,000 gallons of crude oil spilling into a waterway near Houston, Texas, that connects to the Gulf of Mexico. Shell’s initial position was that no rupture or spill had occurred, but this was later found not to be the case after investigations by the U.S. Coast Guard. The image at the top of this page depicts Shell’s cleanup efforts in the waterway.

Another incident found that a Shell crude oil pipeline ruptured twice in less than a year in the San Joaquin Valley, CA. Investigations found that the ruptures were due to “fatigue cracks” that led to 60,000 gallons of oil spilling into grasslands, resulting in more than $6 million in environmental damage and emergency response costs. Concerns raised by the State Fire Marshal’s Pipeline Safety Division following the second spill in 2016 forced Shell to replace a 12-mile stretch of the problematic pipeline, as seen in the image above.

Conclusion

These findings suggest that while Shell is obligated to stress safety to sell the Falcon pipeline to the public, people should take Shell’s “good neighbor” narrative with a degree of skepticism. The numbers presented by PHMSA’s pipeline incident data significantly undermine Shell’s claim of having a proven track record as a safe and responsible operator. In fact, Shell ranks near the top of all US operators for incidents per HVL pipeline mile maintained, as well as damage totals.

There are inherent gaps in our analysis based on data inadequacies worth noting. Incidents dealt with at the state level may not make their way into PHMSA’s data, nor would problems that are not voluntary reported by pipeline operators. Issues similar to what the state of Pennsylvania has experienced with Sunoco Pipeline’s Mariner East 2, where horizontal drilling mishaps have contaminated dozens of streams and private drinking water wells, would likely not be reflected in PHMSA’s data unless those incidents resulted in federal interventions.

Based on the available data, however, most of Shell’s pipelines support one of the company’s many refining and storage facilities, primarily located in California and the Gulf states of Texas and Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, these areas are also where we see dense clusters of pipeline incidents attributed to Shell. In addition, many of Shell’s incidents appear to be the result of inadequate maintenance and improper operations, and less so due to factors beyond their control.

As Shell’s footprint in the Appalachian region expands, their safety history suggests we could see the same proliferation of pipeline incidents in this area over time, as well.

NOTE: This article was amended on 4/9/18 to include table 2.

Header image credit: AFP Photo / Joe Raedle

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

The Falcon: Methods, Mapping, & Analysis

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

FracTracker began monitoring Falcon’s construction plans in December 2016, when we discovered a significant cache of publicly visible GIS data related to the pipeline. At that time, FracTracker was looking at ways to get involved in the public discussion about Shell’s ethane cracker and felt we could contribute our expertise with mapping pipelines. Below we describe the methods we used to access and worked with this project’s data.

Finding the Data

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Finding GIS data for pipeline projects is notoriously difficult but, as most research goes these days, we started with a simple Google search to see what was out there, using basic keywords, such as “Falcon” (the name of the pipeline), “ethane” (the substance being transported), “pipeline” (the topic under discussion), and “ArcGIS” (a commonly used mapping software).

In addition to news stories on the pipeline’s development, Google returned search results that included links to GIS data that included “Shell” and “Falcon” in their names. The data was located in folders labeled “HOUGEO,” presumably the project code name, as seen in the screenshot below. All of these links were accessed via Google and did not require a password or any other authentication to view their contents.

Shell’s data on the Falcon remained publicly available at this link up to the time of the Falcon Public EIA Project‘s release. However, this data is now password protected by AECOM.

Google search results related to Falcon pipeline data

Viewing the Data

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The HOUGEO folder is part of a larger database maintained by AECOM, an engineering firm presumably contracted to prepare the Falcon pipeline construction plan. Data on a few other projects were also visible, such as maps of the Honolulu highway system and a sewer works in Greenville, NC. While these projects were not of interest to us, our assessment is that this publicly accessible server is used to share GIS projects with entities outside the company.

Within the HOUGEO folder is a set of 28 ArcGIS map folders, under which are hundreds of different GIS data layers pertaining to the Falcon pipeline. These maps could all be opened simply by clicking on the “ArcGIS Online map viewer” link at the top of each page. Alternatively, one can click on the “View in: Google Earth” link to view the data in Google Earth or click on the “View in: ArcMap” link to view the data in the desktop version of the ArcGIS software application. No passwords or credentials are required to access any of these folders or files.

As seen in the screenshot below, the maps were organized topically, roughly corresponding to the various components that would need to be addressed in an EIA. The “Pipeline” folder showed the route of the Falcon, its pumping stations, and work areas. “Environmental” contained data on things like water crossings and species of concern. “ClassLocations” maps the locations of building structures in proximity to the Falcon.

The HOUGEO GIS folders organized by topic

 

Archiving the Data

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After viewing the Falcon GIS files and assessing them for relevancy, FracTracker went about archiving the data we felt was most useful for our assessing the project. The HOUGEO maps are hosted on a web server meant for viewing GIS maps and their data, either on ArcOnline, Google Earth, or ArcMap. The GIS data could not be edited in these formats. However, viewing the data allowed us to manually recreate most of the data.

For lines (e.g. the pipeline route and access roads), points (e.g. shutoff valves and shut-off valves), and certain polygons (e.g. areas of landslide risk and construction workspaces), we archived the data by manually recreating new maps. Using ArcGIS Desktop software, we created a new blank layer and manually inputted the relevant data points from the Falcon maps. This new layer was then saved locally so we could do more analysis and make our own independent maps incorporating the Falcon data. In some cases, we also archived layers by manually extracting data from data tables underlying the map features. These tables are made visible on the HOUGEO maps simply by clicking the “data table” link provided with each map layer.

Other layers were archived using screen captures of the data tables visible in the HOEGEO ArcOnline maps. For instance, the table below shows which parcels along the route had executed easements. We filtered the table in ArcGIS Online to only show the parcel ID, survey status, and easement status. Screen captures of these tables were saved as PDFs on our desktop, then converted to text using optical character recognition (OCR), and the data brought into Microsoft Excel. We then recreated the map layer by matching the parcel IDs in our newly archived spreadsheet to parcel IDs obtained from property GIS shapefiles that FracTracker purchased from county deeds offices.

Transparency & Caveats

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FracTracker strives to maintain transparency in all of its work so the public understands how we obtain, analyze, and map data. A good deal of the data found in the HOUGEO folders are available through other sources, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Census, as well as numerous state and county level agencies. When possible, we opted to go to these original sources in order to minimize our reliance on the HOUGEO data. We also felt it was important to ensure that the data we used was as accurate and up-to-date as possible.

For instance, instead of manually retracing all the boundaries for properties with executed easements for the Falcon’s right-of-way, we simply purchased parcel shapefiles from county deeds and records offices and manually identified properties of interest. To read more on how each data layer was made, open any of our Falcon maps in full-screen mode and click the “Details” tab in the top left corner of the page.

Finally, some caveats. While we attempted to be as accurate as possible in our methods, there are aspects of our maps where a line, point, or polygon may deviate slightly in shape or location from the HOUGEO maps. This is the inherent downside of having to manually recreate GIS data. In other cases, we spent many hours correcting errors found in the HOUGEO datasets (such as incorrect parcel IDs) in order to get different datasets to properly match up.

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FracTracker also obtained copies of Shell’s permit applications in January by conducting a file review at the PA DEP offices. While these applications — consisting of thousands of pages — only pertain to the areas in Pennsylvania where the Falcon will be built, we were surprised by the accuracy of our analysis when compared with these documents. However, it is important to note that the maps and analysis presented in the Falcon Public EIA Project should be viewed with potential errors in mind.

* * *

Related Articles

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. 

Jobs Impact of Cracker Facility Likely Exaggerated

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

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

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

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

Too bad it is isn’t very realistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethylene Cracker Would Contribute Jobs, Air Pollution

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

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

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


Norco, LA as seen from Google Earth

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

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


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

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