If a world-scale petrochemical hub is developed in SW Pennsylvania, anchored by the massive Shell Ethane Cracker currently under construction, it will recommit our nation’s manufacturing and energy infrastructure to a new generation of dirty production with devastating climate change consequences.
Considering the recent attention that Pittsburgh has gathered with respect to climate change and the Paris Climate Agreement, here are a list of ideas and references to consider when connecting the consequences of regional petrochemical development to global climate change. (Caveat: Please double-check references for proper links and interpretation before reporting them along to others, and let me know if you find any errors!)
- Pittsburgh Business Times reports that the facility’s permit will allow it to emit 2.25 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year. That’s roughly equivalent to the CO2 emissions from 200,000 homes (reference) or an additional 430,000 cars on the road (via EPA calculator). That is more than 1/3 of the CO2 emitted by ALL Sources within the City of Pittsburgh (reference). It takes roughly 15 percent of all of Pennsylvania’s forest coverage to mitigate this amount of CO2 (via EPA calculator and reference). The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that the average coal plant emits 3.5 million tons of CO2 per year (reference).
- A 2018 NASA-led study highlights the significant role that the natural gas/fracking industry plays in increased global methane levels. According to a related article in ThinkProgress, “Significantly, the authors point out that the huge rise in fossil fuel methane emissions “found here is substantially larger than in previous literature.” In short, the recent jump in methane emissions from oil and gas production appears to be a whole lot bigger than we previously thought.” The article goes on to report, “Indeed, the researchers found that some 17 teragrams of the 25 teragram annual increase is from fossil fuel production, 12 is from wetlands or rice farming, while fires are decreasing emissions by 4 teragrams (17 + 12 – 4 = 25).”
- Joe Romm reports, “even a very low [methane] leakage rate wipes out the climate benefit of fracking.” He references this study for that assessment. And a study quoted recently by the Independent (article link) found that, “if just three per cent of the gas, which is mostly methane, leaked into the atmosphere, then a gas plant would become a bigger source of greenhouse gases than a coal one.” The same study also found that, “even when supply chain leak estimates of 1.7 per cent were taken into account, “the climate benefit of using natural gas for electricity generation is not compromised”” BUT “the study also found: “Average methane emission rates were larger than facility-reported estimates by factors of 21 to 120 (at natural gas power plants) and 11 to 90 (at refineries).”” So we can see that methane rates are potentially much higher than previously reported, tipping the climate balance strongly against natural gas.
- George Monbiot reports in The Guardian that a report by Oil Change International’s shows that, “burning the oil, gas and coal in the fields and mines that is already either in production or being developed, is likely to take the global temperature rise beyond 2C. And even if all coal mining were to be shut down today, the oil and gas lined up so far would take it past 1.5C. The notion that we can open any new reserves, whether by fracking for gas, drilling for oil or digging for coal, without scuppering the Paris commitments is simply untenable. This is not an extreme precautionary case. Quite the opposite, in fact: the report uses the hazard assessment adopted by the United Nations. This means a 66% chance of preventing 2C of global warming and a 50% chance of preventing 1.5C – an assumption of risk that in any other field would be regarded as reckless.”
- Furthermore, Climate Change News reports on a study by Oxford researchers, stating that “2017 is the last year energy companies can build new coal, oil, or gas-fired power plants,” and “To have a 50% chance of avoiding dangerous temperatures new fossil fuel investments needs to be put on hold from next year.”
- Who in their right mind wants to tempt fate by resting the future of civilization on chances of 50% or 66%?
- The petrochemical is working to build a massive array of pipelines to move the natural gas and ethane all around the region. The Falcon ethane pipeline is the notable local pipeline project related to the Shell Cracker, but many other major pipeline projects have been approved to make use of the Marcellus and Utica shale gas, according to NPR in this report. The article quotes Robert Howarth, biology professor at Cornell University, who says, “The buildout of pipelines is a true climate disaster.” The NPR article adds that he “estimates that methane emissions produced by shale gas from wellhead to delivery could add up to a 12-percent leak rate — causing substantially more warming in the short term than coal. Howarth sees the rapid rise in gas development as a contributor to the recent spike in global temperatures, including record-breaking heat waves in 2015 and 2016.”
- There is a deep and growing movement to resist the influx of pipeline construction across Pennsylvania. A notable example is Lancaster Against Pipelines working on the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.
- Shell is the 9th largest greenhouse gas emitter since 1988, with 1.7% of the 833 gigatonnes of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, as reported by The Telegraph.
- Renowned climate scientist James Hansen has reported that if we proceed with “continued high fossil fuel emissions” scenario (growing at 2% per year), future generations could face a bill of $535 trillion to cover the costs of removing enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to secure a livable climate. This comes on top of the $1.6 billion tax break given to Shell to build in Pennsylvania.
- Shell’s own 2016 Annual Report states on page 54 that “Policies and regulations designed to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2°C could have a material adverse effect on Shell.” It turns out that “well below 2°C” is essentially the language pulled from the 2015 Paris Climate agreement. Thus, according to Shell, the Paris Climate Agreement works against their own financial best interests.
- Regional political officials in SW Pennsylvania recently signed onto a full-page ad in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to affirm their support of the Paris Agreement in light of Trump’s recent “Pittsburgh not Paris” comments. Ironically, however, at least two of those politicians are on record publicly supporting the Shell Ethane Cracker. Quoting my recent article in the Thomas Merton Center’s New People, “Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald…called the news of the new plant “thrilling.” Senator Jay Costa…called the facility “an excellent step forward.”” Considering the information in this post, I struggle to imagine how you can be FOR the Shell Cracker AND the Paris Agreement at the same time.
- Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has spoken out strongly in favor of the Paris Climate agreement, saying in a press release, “We cannot ignore the scientific evidence and economic significance of climate change and put our economy and population at risk.” That support did not stop him from also praising the Shell Ethane Cracker Plant multiple times, noting,
“This is a big thing for Beaver County, and it is the biggest investment made in Pennsylvania since World War II. This is not just another manufacturing facility we were fortunate enough to land. This could lay the foundation for a whole new industry.”
- Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey has also spoken in favor of the Shell facility while simultaneously supporting the Paris Climate Agreement. He made this statement about the Shell Cracker, “Bringing Shell to Beaver County will mean significant job creation and economic growth for all of southwest Pennsylvania. The new cracker plant in Beaver County will mark Pennsylvania as the country’s natural gas leader – that is why I fought hard to bring the plant to our state.” Speaking out of the other side of his mouth, his full statement on Trump’s withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement reads,
“This is a double-barreled blow to both Pennsylvania jobs and our environment. By pulling out of an agreement to combat climate change, President Trump has put Pennsylvania workers at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for clean energy jobs. Foreign countries will now take the lead in growing an industry that produces jobs with family sustaining incomes. Additionally, pulling out of this climate change agreement will undermine the clean air that every Pennsylvanian has a right to expect. Vulnerable children will be particularly impacted by the lack of action to protect clean air. Without action on climate change, more children will suffer from diseases like asthma and malnutrition. Climate change is a serious challenge which requires action, not retreat.”
- Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s position on the Shell Cracker is more nuanced, per this report by the Pittsburgh Business Times. That said, he has not been an outspoken critic of the Shell Cracker Plant. Meanwhile, Peduto gained worldwide attention with his response to President Trump’s “Pittsburgh not Paris” comment referenced during the announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, as noted in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, which reports, ““We will fall in line with other criteria of the Paris Agreement, and I can assure you that more than 100 other cities across America will do the same,” Mr. Peduto said.” Peduto also has indicated an obligation for proactive support of the Paris Climate Agreement, clearly stating on his website, “Fighting for the Paris accords is my duty.” It is difficult to fight for the Paris accords while remaining silent on the Shell cracker.
- Outright opposition to the plant is relatively quiet considering its climate implications and the overwhelming local support for the Paris Agreement. It seems that the power of the petrochemical industry in the region has done a good job of suppressing outright dissent–a bad sign for climate change AND our democracy.
- The Shell Ethane Cracker is not the only ethane cracker in play in SW Pennsylvania. According to a report by Food and Water Watch, there are at least four additional ethane crackers under consideration in the region, with rumors of even more.
- The Sierra Club has released a study that mentions the 2014 Annual Energy Outlook by the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The Sierra Club notes that
The EIA report projects that annual natural gas production will increase 56 percent by 2040 to 37.6 trillion cubic feet, equating to over 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, nearly a third of the nation’s total carbon dioxide emissions. A continued reliance on fracked oil and gas depresses the market for clean energy and harms public health and the environment.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists revealed in 2015 that the American Petroleum Institute, of which Shell is a member, worked to deceive the public on the issue of climate change over a span of “nearly three decades.” One document uncovered in the report noted that “Victory Will B Achieved When… Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.” The Kyoto treaty on climate change, as reported by Wikipedia, states that “The ultimate objective of the UNFCCC is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would stop dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”” I read the Paris Climate Agreement as arguably weaker than the language in the Kyoto Agreement, since it is unclear whether “less than 2C” will stop such interference. All this to say, when politicians claim that our calls for climate policy in line with the science are “unrealistic,” that counts as a ‘victory’ for Shell via a direct misinformation campaign carried out by Shell’s representatives in the American Petroleum Institute.
- Based on the above information, I believe that the only reasonable response for climate advocates is to push for an outright ban on fracking in Pennsylvania and eventually the entire United States. I do not see any reasonable pathway to a climate suitable for organized civilization as we know it without such a ban.
- Forbes reports that France’s foreign affairs minister, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said, “One of our main demands is that any country who signs a trade agreement with EU should implement the Paris Agreement on the ground.” And Forbes continued by noting, “the position was later given further backing by the EU’s trade chief, Cecilia Malmstrom.” It is apparent to me that building a massive new petrochemical hub based on fracked natural gas is driving full speed away from the Paris Climate Agreement. It is literally doubling down on a fossil-fueled future, complete with massive CO2 emissions and methane leakage. I expected to see international climate-induced pressure against this petrochemical hub build during the 2020’s, but was shocked to bear witness to such threats from the EU as early as February of 2018. It seems entirely plausible that we could invest billions of dollars to prepare for an industrial future that is intolerable to the global community. Our envisioned petrochemical hub may cause a diplomatic strife at best and at worst, potential exclusion of the U.S. from global trade agreements (or related trade penalties). Such strong international pressure could even force U.S. industries to prematurely back away from their petrochemical investments, cratering all portions of our economy dependent on that industry. It is worth noting that our local steel industry suffered a catastrophic collapse during the 70’s and 80’s that still reverberates in the region’s cultural narrative. Will we be forced to shutter our shiny new petrochemical hub infrastructure well before its designed end-of-life? And if it is not prematurely shuttered, will we force our children (once trained to be petrochemical workers) into the untenable position of having to decide between their livelihood and their morality? We have had our share of catastrophic industrial implosions. We do not need to set ourselves up for an entirely predictable second round.
- If you thought that coal is irrefutably worse than natural gas on the scale of local non-climate pollution, consider that the Shell Ethane Cracker will release more volatile organic compound (VOC) pollution than the massive Clairton Cokeworks, and that Allegheny County is already among the top 2% of counties for cancer from air pollution. We already are cancer alley. And be sure to check out this Public Herald report revealing worrying trends of complaints and suppression of those complaints against the fracking industry in Pennsylvania:
“After a three-year investigation in Pennsylvania, Public Herald has uncovered evidence of widespread and systemic impacts related to “fracking,” a controversial oil and gas technology…Ending over a decade of suppression by the state, this evidence is now available to the public for the first time.”
You can find much more information about the other consequences of the Shell Ethane Cracker project (like air and water pollution) at https://nopetropa.com .
[This article was edited on 8/30/18]