Pennsylvania’s shale boom has drill rigs popping up all over rural parts of the state. Pipeline projects, truck traffic, and hotel construction has followed. Now, industry plans to build large-scale natural gas processing plants. State officials hope to create jobs. Industry wants a larger industrial infrastructure to develop the state’s shale gas reserves. Environmentalists wonder how those projects may impact air quality.
On the western side of the state, in Beaver County, Shell wants to build an ethane cracker. On the other side, close to Philadelphia, the Corbett Administration is promoting the conversion of former oil refineries into natural gas processing plants. And Governor Corbett recently cheered as the Brazilian company Braskem purchased a shuttered natural gas splitter in Delaware County.
“Between here and the western part of the state, in ten to 15 years,” said Corbett, “Pennsylvania is returning to a manufacturing state. And that’s where we want to go.”
Applause rose from the crowd of factory workers, local politicians, and industry representatives.
Employment estimates for the proposed Beaver County cracker include 10,000 construction jobs, and 400 to 600 permanent jobs. As for the Philadelphia area refineries, the goal is to primarily save jobs.
With the crude oil refinery closures, hundreds of Delaware Valley residents have lost jobs in the last year.
So what do these natural gas crackers and splitters do? In a nutshell, they take natural gas by-products and turn them into the essential ingredients for plastics – things like ethylene and polypropylene. And those little polypropylene pellets get turned into the plastic bags we use to carry groceries.
Shell says the ethane cracker planned for Beaver County will produce more than a million tons of ethylene a year.
And with that comes potentially unhealthy, or carcinogenic levels of air emissions like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, benzene and volatile organic compounds. David Hartley is with the Clean Air Council.
“Basically what that means is lots of increased ground level ozone and particulate matter,” says Hartley.
Hartley says Shell’s cracker emissions could rank up there with a large 500 megawatt coal burning power plant.
You can look at the environmental impact of these plants in two ways. One is what happens to the immediate neighbors, and the other is what happens to those living downwind. Much of Philadelphia’s ozone problem comes from western Pennsylvania’s coal burning plants. But the Clean Air Councils’ Hartley says those living nearby could experience more respiratory problems like asthma.
Down in Texas, folks have decades of experience living with natural gas plants. The Houston area alone has about half a dozen. Mathew Tejeda is the executive director of the Air Alliance of Houston.
“The big thing with these plants is there is a lot of flaring,” says Tejeda. “Because basically what you are doing is you’re taking certain streams of hydrocarbons, heating them up to very high temperatures in order to split different molecules off of that hydrocarbon chain.”
And if things go wrong within that hot bubbling cauldron of fossil fuels, Tejada says everything needs to shut down, and the gas gets sent up a 200 foot pipe, and flared.
“It is literally like a jet engine at the top of this pipe that tries to burn up all of these chemicals instead of just venting them into the atmosphere.”
Tejada says this flaring can quickly create a massive cloud of ozone.
“You can see it clearly because it produces an enormous flame at the top of their flare because they are evacuating a lot of product in a very short period of time.”
And the flares don’t always work very well when it comes to burning off harmful emissions. Neil Carman is the clean air program director for the Sierra Club in Texas. Carman also worked for ten years inspecting these plants for the state of Texas. Carman says the large flares can produce smoke clouds full of fine particulate matter that when breathed in, are tiny enough to go directly into little sacs in the lungs called alveoli. Then carcinogenic chemicals within these microscopic particles get sent directly to a person’s blood supply.
“It’s like injecting someone with cancer,” says Carman.
Carman says the companies are not required to monitor the emissions coming off of the flares.
“Flares are bad devises,” he says. ”And they’re not required to measure emissions if they fail.”
Carman says one option is to install a flare gas recovery system, which would reduce the emissions. But that could cost upwards of $15 million dollars.
Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Environmental Protection Michael Krancer says he’s not that worried about emissions from these plants. He says the large corporations backing these projects use the most up-to-date technology, and comply with environmental regulations.
“All the times the companies apply for these permits they know exactly what they have to do and what those requirements are, we certainly don’t have to educate them.”
Something the Beaver County site, and the area around the Philadelphia refineries have in common is they already have really bad air quality. Both areas are considered in “nonattainment” when it comes to federal health standards for fine particulate matter and ozone. That means the companies will need to construct the highest quality technology available. And most likely, offset the impact of their pollution by paying other nearby plants to pollute less.