Plastics! The 1970’s movie, “The Graduate,” talked about the business prospect and the future of plastics. Did anyone at that point in time have any idea how much our use of plastics would grow? Plastics have contributed to the convenience of our lives while also adding to a major pollution problem. Walk through a grocery store and it is incredible how many products are packaged in plastics.
Not all plastics can be recycled and not all communities take all types of plastics to be recycled. As such, the trash problem grows and grows. Much of this plastic trash ends up in the marine environment and now turning into micro and nano plastics entering the food chain. But do enough people know or understand the climate aspect of the continued use of plastics?
While the oil patch has been involved in petrochemicals for years, the expansion of plastics production could present a major problem going forward. Shell Oil has under construction a massive cracking facility in western Pennsylvania. Cracking is the process that turns wet gas derived from unconventional fracked wells into a feedstock for plastic pellet production. The pellets are then turned into anything made from plastic these days. ExxonMobil for years has been debating a plant across the river in Belmont, Ohio, for the same purpose. Several other chemical companies have announced plans in the Ohio River Valley for similar facilities. Shell has proposed a pipeline called ASH, the Appalachian Storage Hub, to collect this wet gas from different areas in the Marcellus and Utica shale formation to be used as a feedstock for plastic production. Down in Cancer Alley in Louisiana, expansion is occurring there with Formosa taking over a sugarcane field to construct a cracking facility as was reported on NBC National News.
This is where the climate consequences of continued use of plastics comes into play. There has been a number floated around that I have never seen anybody debate or shoot down, that it takes 1,000 new unconventional gas wells to supply one of these new cracking facilities. This will lead to the expansion of fracking in different areas, not only in the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale formations the area I am most familiar with and where most of my data comes from, but also in the Permian Basin in order to supply the new facilities along the Gulf Coast. Increased fracking leads to increased methane production and increased contamination in groundwater. In the case of the Formosa facility in Louisiana, a decrease in the productivity of agricultural lands. More health problems within communities living near these facilities will be experienced both from the fracked wells and also emissions near and downwind of these cracking facilities as they will be releasing a good bit of pollutants into the air, and more greenhouse gas emissions.
Many environmental groups have claimed success in trying to reduce methane emissions associated with fracked wells, however these efforts mostly rely on the local regulating bodies and in the case of Pennsylvania I can speak firsthand that PA Department of Environmental Protection will turn the other cheek and design regulations that will benefit the extractive industries. There is bipartisan support for these facilities as it is a job’s issue and many of these areas are economically depressed. But, will those citizens reap the economic benefits of these facilities? History shows probably not.
What does the future of 1,000 new fracked gas wells mean for the environment? In 2018, at the Energy Information Administration’s energy conference in Washington, DC, Warren Wilczewski from the Office of Petroleum, Natural Gas & Biofuels Analysis did a presentation showing where the Appalachian region, including the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, has accounted for 65% of the increases in natural gas production since 2012. From that, natural gas liquids and primarily ethane grew six fold in Appalachia. Ethane is a primary feedstock for the cracking facilities. The EIA data is showing that by 2050 natural gas production of liquids, primarily ethane, will grow from about 0.6 million barrels a day around 2018 to close to 2 million barrels a day by 2050, representing a substantial increase.
The current wells in Pennsylvania alone, according to the Environmental Defense Fund in 2018 generated 2.9 billion gallons of fracking fluid that had to be treated along with 1,442,465 tons of solid waste. This represented 520,000 tons of methane emissions in 2018 from Pennsylvania alone, which represented a 30% increase in greenhouse gas emissions from that state. Along with the pollutants mentioned above, benzene, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, Ethel benzene, Formaldehyde, SOX, NOX and volatile organic compounds are released in significant quantities from the wells and fluids used in the fracking process. This is just in Pennsylvania alone and does not include Ohio, West Virginia, or any wells in the Permian Basin in the southwest. Adding 1,000 wells for just one cracking facility would jack these numbers up enormously. According to some data from PA, on a per well average, there are 6,314 barrels of liquid waste generated and 314 tons of solid waste generated per well with accompanying methane emissions. This is based on 2019 data. The number of wells increases and decreases annually based on many factors, but the cumulative number of wells continues to increase. At the end of 2019 in Pennsylvania alone, there were 12,293 wells in production. As such, with multiple cracking facilities coming online with thousands of new wells having to be drilled, the emissions potential for greenhouse gases is substantial.
Along with this increase in wet gas production, there will be a corresponding increase in dry gas production. According to data from the Natural Resource Defense Council, 18 GW of new gas-fired electricity has been permitted or is waiting to be permitted, with some of it already online, in Pennsylvania alone. Once these natural gas facilities get established, we are plugged into them for 20 to 30 years or more. Does this make sense as we try to de-carbonize the utility sector?
What I have mentioned above are the primary sources of greenhouse gases associated with fracking. There are many secondary sources that would include: transporting by rail these gases to a liquified natural gas (LNG) facility that is planned in Pennsylvania; any flaring or methane leaks from wells; all these secretive chemicals used in fracking that possibly contain some greenhouse gases and definitely volatile organic compounds; truck traffic transporting fracking fluids to and from these sites; construction equipment, transporting the drilling equipment to and from these sites, as well as emissions from pipeline construction. There has to be a lot of that going on to gather all this gas for transport and distribution to end-use markets. The Shell facility in Pennsylvania mentioned earlier will have its own rail facility for more than 3,000 railcars to transport the plastic pellets manufactured to end-use facilities.
I referenced earlier the amount of liquid waste that had to be treated. People that know anything about fracking know that the fracking fluids, especially after they come out of the well, are pretty nasty stuff. How effectively is this waste treated and/or recycled? Stories abound where some drillers have just dumped their load into waterways or on roads for dust control. One fact that is not widely recognized is the radioactive qualities of the fracking fluid or brine after it is brought up out of the well. According to a Rolling Stone article, samples were taken from brine from an injection well and tested for radium 226 and radium 228. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 picocuries per liter or 120 combined for each. Four samples that were tested for these isotopes showed levels exceeding 3,500 picocuries per liter, and one was more than 8,500 picocuries per liter—thus exposing workers and communities to high levels of radioactivity over time.
While there are environmental impacts, many directly related to climate change, there are also socioeconomic impacts, and I would suggest reading the book called Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold. This book has won critical acclaim. Eliza documents the health impacts of one family in particular and of a community in general who live near a fracking pond. Numerous VOCs evaporate from these holding ponds annually.
So, the next time you buy something at the grocery store or any store, and it comes in plastic or is made from plastic, try to think about where this plastic started from, how you are using it, and where it will eventually end up and do you have any alternatives.
—Bill Hopwood, supporter of the Natural Resources Council of Maine