‘Orange Sky at Night, Frackers Delight’

Massive flare-offs at Shell’s newly operational PENNSYLVANIA PETROCHEMICALS COMPLEX is a sure sign that things are well underway, converting shale gas ethane into little plastic nurdles. What the company calls “full production” won’t occur until some point next year, all while their air permit is finalized with the PA DEP.

Anya Litvak reports on this most recent flaring event in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Shell Polymers Monaca posted on its Facebook page that “an issue with our steam generator” prompted the company to activate its ground flare system — a series of flares encased in a metal structure that looks like a sports stadium. The flares are used to relieve pressure in the malfunctioning piece of equipment by burning off whatever is meant to flow through it.
Curtis Thomas, a spokesman for Shell, did not say what specifically was being burned off, other than that it’s hydrocarbons. Residents nearby posted photos of the flame and its eerie halo in the sky and wondered why there are already system glitches so soon after the plant’s startup.”

By Anya Litvak | “Steam generator glitch in Shell’s chemical plant returns orange glow to Beaver County sky” | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | November 29, 2022
CreateLab videos here and here.
KDKA-TV news report and video here.
On the other end of the ethane chain, Washington County residents were treated to years of major black smoke flaring events, ones the industry dumbs-down by merely calling them “upsets.” The MarkWest Houston PA gas plant had repeated problems getting their “de-ethanizer” working properly.
MarkWest Houston, PA gas plant complaints and enforcement:

US EPA: MarkWest Clean Air Act Settlement Information Sheet

Leigh Hopper writes in the University of Southern California USC News:

More than a half-million Americans are exposed to oil and gas “flaring” events — the burning off of excess natural gas at production sites — resulting in potentially serious health risks, according to new research from USC and UCLA.
“There is growing evidence linking residence near unconventional oil and gas operations with negative health impacts for nearby residents, including impacts on fetal growth and preterm birth,” said Lara Cushing, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and co-lead of the study. “This includes our recent finding that living within about 3 miles of flaring is associated with increased risk of preterm birth.”

By Leigh Hopper | “Health risk? More than 500,000 Americans live within 3 miles of natural gas flares” | USC News | March 11, 2021
While this latest Shell flaring event garnered more attention, it wasn’t the first:

LTE – Matt Mehalik: A wrong turn for Southwest Pennsylvania
December 11, 2022 – Southwestern Pennsylvania could have a brighter and healthier future — if only our state and region made better economic investments. After all, you get what you pay for.

Instead, the region is on a path to a dead-end by pursuing a futile, harmful fossil-fuel based economic strategy. Just last month, Shell’s massive polyethylene resin plant began production near Pittsburgh and is already proving to be a threat to the area.

What’s worse, Pennsylvania taxpayers are bankrolling it. Pennsylvania granted Shell $1.65 billion in state tax credits in 2016, one of the largest tax incentives in state history. In addition, in November the state legislature and governor passed and signed a bill that provides over $2 billion in subsidies over 20 years for natural gas, hydrogen and petrochemical industries — with less than a half-day’s notice and no public hearings.

Additionally, the Department of Energy is looking to provide $8 billion additional federal subsidies for fossil-based hydrogen hubs. Despite alternative strategies for accelerating decarbonization and promoting inclusive economic growth, our region’s leadership doubled down on a call for fossil fuel subsidies, as detailed in “Our Region’s Energy Future” by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development earlier this year.

The Shell subsidy alone would be enough to cover a payroll of $95,000 per year over 25 years for the 400-600 permanent employees the plant was expected to employ. Shell stated that at peak construction, the site employed more than 8,500 workers. However, these temporary jobs mostly went to construction workers from other states, and have dropped now that the plant is open.

Why should taxpayers continue to subsidize a mature industry that does not deliver jobs and prosperity widely to our communities, and that also locks in harmful air, water and climate pollution?

The Pittsburgh region still suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the country. Allegheny and Beaver County for example, have elevated cancer risks and rates of asthma, heart disease and early deaths. Pennsylvania as a whole has the greatest number of excess deaths due to exposure to fine particle air pollution from fossil fuel sources per person in the country. And half of the region’s pollution still comes from industrial plants.

Emissions from the new Shell plant will add to the already-devastating concentration of pollutants in our air, and undermine the country’s progress on meeting national climate goals. The Shell plant in Beaver County would be the second highest hazardous air polluter in the state, and the 20th most polluting in the country.

The Shell plant is permitted to emit 522 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and 30.5 tons of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) per year. These chemicals are, according to the USEPA, known to “cause cancer and other serious health impacts.” VOCs for example, are also known to be damaging to lung tissue. The 159 tons of fine particles the plant will release per year will further contribute to respiratory and cardiac diseases in the region.

The people of Southwestern Pennsylvania should feel confident that the air we breathe won’t make us sick. We have the right to live and work in clean, safe and healthy environments. Why are we subsidizing the opposite of this vision, particularly when it undermines national climate goals as well?

The plant is estimated to release 2.2 million tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions per year: That’s the equivalent of the emissions from 474,000 passenger vehicles, which is more than half the number of vehicles registered in Allegheny County. The plant will also produce plastic resins that will be used to manufacture more single-use plastic goods in a world that already has too much plastic. Today, 36% of plastic production goes toward single-use plastics, specifically plastic packaging.

These are not investments we should be making or celebrating in a region that shows so much promise in going beyond the fossil fuel economy. Further, they are not a proven way to secure long-term jobs or economic growth. Studies show that wind and solar manufacturing would employ more people than comparable investments in oil and gas: More than 15,000 jobs for the same investment that is producing only a few hundred jobs at the Beaver County plant.

Our neighbors in New York State understand this. According to New York’s “Clean Energy Investment Report 2022,” New York added over 24,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector between 2015 and 2021. That’s a growth of 17% after the governor announced a $1.5 bllion investment in clean energy.

New York is continuing these fossil-free investments, and the growth is accelerating. These are not temporary jobs; rather, they are being built on a solid foundation because they are not based on extracting resources that will someday run out, and because they align with the health, climate and overall well-being needs of communities. They are long-term investments, not short-term stopgaps.

Community organizations in the region understand this. Reimagine Beaver County released a vision in 2019 that outlined a more economically viable future than petrochemicals, one made possible by investing in four major sectors of economic development: energy innovation, green chemistry and manufacturing, sustainable agriculture, and riverfront recreation and tourism.

Just think of where our region would be if we had embraced this vision, instead of propping up petrochemicals and fossil fuels.

That’s why the Breathe Project calls for imagining a brighter, healthier and more prosperous future than the one promised by fossil fuels and petrochemicals. This includes building a new workforce with diverse jobs in solar, wind and other clean technologies that will include everyone from blue-collar workers to high-tech researchers. It also includes transitioning to electric cars, buses and trucks; improving bicycle lanes; and providing more public transportation options.

While our policymakers continue to fail us, we’re glad that other leaders have stepped in. We recently appreciated a huge boost from Mike Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Beyond Petrochemicals campaign that will invest $85 million in new funding for local advocacy groups in these efforts.

As someone who grew up in the Monongahela Valley, I am ready to see economic and environmental optimism for our region, based on a different vision that recognizes that fossil-fuel based industries are not in Pittsburgh’s best interests, now and into the future. It is time to go in a different direction. Stop throwing good money after bad investments. Stop subsidizing a mature, private industry that casts burdens on our communities while allowing a narrow few to reap large profits at our expense.

Our economic future should not, and will not, be hitched to subsidizing new uses for dirty materials like petrochemicals. We can have healthy people, healthy workers, a healthy economy and a healthy environment. We deserve a bright future.

Matt Mehalik is Executive Director of the Breathe Collaborative and its communication platform, the Breathe Project.

Act 108 & the Rising Cost of PA’s Petrochemical Subsidies
December 1, 2022 – With Act 108 the General Assembly has decided to spend more than a billion dollars of public money to help petrochemical manufacturers buy high-priced gas after repeatedly rejecting a severance tax on gas and the billions of revenue that it would bring, partly on the grounds that untaxed gas would fuel a “manufacturing renaissance.” We need the legislature to pass energy policies that most  Pennsylvanians actually want – policies that bring economic development and jobs through a transition to renewable energy.

Process compressor shutdown causes smoke to pour from Shell cracker plant
September 19, 2022 – PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — You may have seen the smoke pouring out of the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County over the weekend. It was because of a process compressor shutdown. The company says actions were taken to eliminate the smoke as soon as possible. It’s now working to find out what caused the interruption.

Singapore’s Shell issues petchem supply cut after flare
November 2, 2021 – Singapore-based petrochemical producer Shell experienced flaring at its Pulau Bukom’s cracker on 1 November because of technical issues and has notified some ethylene and propylene buyers of a reduction in supplies. It cannot be confirmed if the cracker is shut, but market participants said that the cracker is now off line and this will last for a week.

Lawsuit claims EPA’s rules for industry flares are obsolete, could be underestimating air pollution
October 31, 2020 – A collection of environmental groups based in Washington, D.C., Texas and elsewhere has asked a federal judge to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revisit rules that control the operation of industrial flares at chemical plants, natural gas processing plants, landfills and other sites. The D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project and nine other groups allege in a new lawsuit, however, that the flares are being operated under outdated rules from the 1980s and early 1990s that result in the flares being run less efficiently than predicted. As a result, much more pollution is being sent into the air and onto fence-line communities than predicted, they claim.

Flaring at Sasol routine part of startup
August 7, 2019 – WESTLAKE, La. (KPLC) – The ground flare at Sasol’s Lake Charles West plant is quite a spectacle to behold. Company and DEQ officials confirm that the current intermittent flaring is routine related to startup of the Ethane Cracker.

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