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Future of Fracking

Fracking’s Next Boom? Petrochemical Plants Fuel Debate Over Jobs, Pollution



Shadyside weathered coal’s decline, now the rise of gas fracking brings major changes. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

More than 100 people braved freezing temperatures to both listen and have their say in front of Ohio environmental officials at a recent hearing in Belmont County, Ohio. For the three dozen or so people who testified, the stakes were high.

The hearing at Shadyside High School focused on a nearly 300-page, densely technical, draft air quality permit. The permit is one more step towards a massive, multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant proposed for the banks of the Ohio River just a few miles away from the auditorium.

Like many at the hearing, Glenn Giffin, president of IBEW Local 141 in Wheeling, West Virginia, used his three minutes to voice a position not merely on the permit at hand, but what this facility could mean for the region.

“It is a project such as this that will revitalize the Ohio Valley,” he said.

Giffin and other supporters see a potential economic boom in the plant, called an ethane “cracker.” Its natural gas furnaces literally crack apart ethane — which is brought up during natural gas fracking — into smaller molecules used in plastics and chemical manufacturing.

But Belmont County resident Jill Hunkler sees this plant as the beginning of something else: an environmental nightmare.

“We want better options than a massive petrochemical plant,” Hunkler told the audience.

Officially, the hearing was about a permit. But everyone gathered understood that much more is at stake. The growing abundance of natural gas could fuel a new petrochemical industry in the upper Ohio Valley, with all the economic gains and environmental risks that might bring. The decision on the cracker plant permit presents a crossroads moment for those who live here.

Cracker Background

A few years ago, Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical began scouting the Ohio Valley for a location to place a cracker plant.

JobsOhio, a private economic development corporation created by Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) in 2011 to help woo jobs to the state, worked closely with the company. Matt Cybulski, sector director of energy and chemicals for JobsOhio, said the group helped PTTG select the Belmont County location and put together an incentive package. That included remediation on the site of FirstEnergy’s old R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant that once stood at the proposed cracker’s location.

An ethane cracker plant in Thailand, home to PTT Global Chemical. Photo: Courtesy PTTGCA

Cybulski said incentives offered by JobsOhio did not use state tax dollars, but there are tax credits that “can and often are offered to projects like this.”

He and many other state and county officials argue the PTTG project would create jobs.

“Once the plant is built, you have hundreds of good paying jobs that are operating the plant,” Cybulski said. “So, we see this as a long term economic benefit for the local community and the region.”

School district officials have said property taxes paid by the company could bolster local schools.

This year, it was announced that PTTG had partnered with South Korea’s Daelim Industrial Co. on the project and had purchased 500 acres of land in Dilles Bottom, just a few miles from both Shadyside, Ohio, and Moundsville, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River.

A few homes, an apartment complex, a graveyard and a long-shuttered post office dot the unincorporated hamlet of Dilles Bottom.

PTTG’s project is not the first cracker in the region. About 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Shell’s massive Monaca plant is already under construction. The massive petrochemical plant will produce 1.6 million tons of ethylene each year and permanently employ about 600 workers when done, according to the company.

Gas-Powered Growth

If built, the cracker plant in Belmont County could have far-reaching impacts for the entire Ohio Valley, according to energy analysts.

“It’s going to create some real momentum,” said Taylor Robinson, president of PLG Consulting. “There’s going to be some other large petchem companies that will follow suit.”

With that momentum will also come additional infrastructure.

“You’re going to need to have enough wells producing the gas,” Robinson said. “Then you’re going to have to have more gas processing facilities that will separate the ethane out. And then you need storage. Of course you need pipelines between all these things. It’s a complex supply chain that needs to be built for 40 years.”

A cracker plant converts natural gas constituents into manufacturing products. Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Ohio Valley is a prime candidate for petrochemical production because of its geology. The Marcellus and Utica shale formations are loaded not only with methane, the primary component of natural gas, but with more complex hydrocarbons like ethane, propane and butane. In the industry this is referred to as “wet,” and the gas being extracted so readily from the region is often referred to as “wet gas.”

While natural gas is desirable for power generation, the natural gas liquids, or NGL, are separated from their cousin methane to become valuable feed stocks for other industries.

According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Energy report, U.S. NGL production in the region is projected to increase over 700 percent in the 10 years from 2013 to 2023. The report adds, that while the region has made “significant investments” in NGL infrastructure to capitalize on the natural gas boom, more can be done.

“New investments to take advantage of the NGL resources in the region have been identified by industry, and forecasts for production over the decades to come highlight the opportunity for additional investments across the NGL supply chain,” the report states.

One investment is in cracker plants.

The Ohio Valley is ethane-rich, and most plastics and chemicals manufacturers are located in the Midwest. Traditionally, the bulk of the nation’s cracker plants are located on the Gulf Coast.

If Midwestern plastics and chemical manufacturing plants could source ethylene from the Ohio Valley that could reduce cost in an already competitive market, according to Robinson.

Infrastructure Needs

Even if the PTTG project is approved, challenges remain, namely that the Ohio Valley would need to develop more underground storage.

“That is extremely important when you start adding multiple crackers, because as you can imagine, there’s several steps to get the ethane to the plants,” Robinson said. “You need storage along the way, and those storage caverns are a key enabler to have enough flexibility to keep these crackers running 24/7, 365.”

Some storage capacity is under development in the region.

Energy Storage Ventures LLC. is developing the Mountaineer NGL Storage project. When completed, the project would store 2 million barrels of ethane, butane and propane in four underground salt caverns on a 200 acre site, about one mile north of Clarington, Ohio, on the Ohio River.

Another high-profile public-private NGL storage project is also in the works. The Appalachia Storage and Trading Hub cleared its first major hurdle earlier this year, when it got approval for the first of two phases for a $1.9 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan.

China’s largest partially state-owned energy company, China Energy, has pledged an additional $84 billion investment in the region to facilitate the development of a petrochemical industry. The company signed a nonbinding agreement, known as a Memorandum of Understanding, with West Virginia state officials to build a series of facilities that would process natural gas liquids and byproducts. But the escalating trade dispute with China appears to have temporarily slowed progress.

‘Cancer Alley’ 2.0

For a growing number of people, this petrochemical future is not one they want for their communities.

Hours before the Ohio EPA air permit hearing, Martins Ferry resident Barbara Mew was powering through biting cold temperatures and snow flurries to go door-to-door in a neighborhood of Moundsville sharing information about the proposed project.

“I think I’ve pushed through to the other side,” she says laughing. “It’s not cold anymore.”

Environmental groups posted signs in Shadyside, Ohio. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

She worries about what types of pollution the huge plant will emit into the air and water. The draft air permit before Ohio EPA estimates the cracker will release almost 400 tons of volatile organic compounds each year. The plant would also produce the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of putting about 365,000 cars on the road.

“It’s just it’s an environmental nightmare from top to bottom,” Mew said. “There are really no upsides to it.”

Opponents to the plant expressed concerns at the Ohio EPA hearing that the proposed air permit does not do enough to protect public health, despite assurances from agency officials that the plant would install top-of-the-line technologies to limit emissions.

According to the permit, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions will be continuously monitored, but other pollutants will only be tested intermittently. Many people expressed concerns that PTTG is not required to do fence line monitoring, or to actively track what is being emitted from the plant. They are also concerned that the one air quality monitor that is installed in the county would not be sufficient to alert local communities of any pollution above permitted levels.

Many asked for a health impact assessment to determine the potential public health effects of the facility and for Ohio EPA to conduct a cumulative assessment of air emissions that would account for future natural gas industry infrastructure spurred by the PTTG plant.

Ohio EPA hearing officer Kristopher Weiss said the agency’s jurisdiction is fairly narrow and requires the agency to take action on permits within a set period of time. If the PTTG plant goes into operation and spurs additional developments, he said Ohio EPA would evaluate each new project on an individual basis.

“If PTT were to get its permit, and then other ancillary business were to come in, if those businesses need permits they would apply for whatever permits they might need and the agency would take the action they are required to take,” he said.

Lea Harper, managing director of the nonprofit Freshwater Accountability Group, which organized the canvassing effort, said the volunteers knocked on hundreds of doors and found most people have concerns. A big one is that the Ohio Valley could turn into the next “cancer alley.” The term refers to the huge and heavily polluted belt of chemical manufacturing facilities in Louisiana.

“I don’t understand why fossil fuel extraction, why that’s the only kinds of jobs this area is offered,” she said. “We want jobs that won’t kill us.”

The possible site of Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical’s ethane cracker plant along the Ohio River, as seen from Moundsville, West Virginia. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Cumulative Effects

Retired public health practitioner Susan Brown sat in Van Dyne’s, a diner located on the outskirts of Shadyside known for its all-you-can-eat spaghetti. She says she worries about what will happen to her community.

“The fracking plant came in. Then we’re talking about the cracker plant. They’re talking about the underground tanks,” she said, sipping an unsweetened tea. She’s concerned that her town is approaching a point where it will be “an area that nobody wants to live.”

Brown says most people she talks to about the cracker plant feel like it’s a done deal. Still, she says it’s important to speak out.

A public hearing regarding the plant’s water permit hosted by Ohio EPA is scheduled for Wednesday, December 12, at Shadyside High School.

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Future of Fracking

Court to Big Fracking Company: Trespassing Still Exists — Even For You



In a key property rights decision, two West Virginia residents scored a rare victory from the state Supreme Court.

Seven years ago this month, Beth Crowder and David Wentz told natural gas giant EQT Corp. that it did not have permission to come onto their West Virginia farm to drill for the natural gas beneath neighboring properties.

EQT had a lease that entitled the company to the gas directly beneath their farm, but it also wanted to use a new, 20-acre well pad to gather gas from 3,000 acres of adjacent or nearby leases.

The company ignored their warnings. It built roads and drilled a well, and it put in horizontal pipes stretching for miles in all directions.

Crowder and Wentz sued — and they’ve been fighting EQT in court ever since. On Wednesday, the West Virginia Supreme Court ended the matter with a surprisingly straightforward and unanimous conclusion: Going onto someone else’s land without their permission is trespassing.

Gas and other mineral companies must obtain permission from surface owners in order to use their land to reach reserves under other properties, Justice John Hutchison wrote for the court.

“The right must be expressly obtained, addressed, or reserved in the parties’ deeds, leases, or other writings,” he wrote.

Attorney Dave McMahon, who represented Crowder and Wentz, broke the news to them by phone.

“The short answer is, we won. And we won big time,” he said.

On the other end of the line in Doddridge County, Crowder and Wentz shouted and laughed.

“I think I’m feeling kind of numb,” Crowder said. “I’ve been used to being in limbo forever.”

Kristina Whiteaker, another lawyer for Crowder and Wentz, told them, “You guys really made some good law for the whole state.”

EQT said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon that the company was “disappointed in the court’s ruling” but didn’t “expect the decision to have a significant impact on our operations in West Virginia.”

“We intend to maintain cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships with our customers, our partners, and residents in the regions where we do business,” EQT said.

The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, an industry trade association, said it is analyzing the ruling to determine how it may impact its member companies.

In a statement, Charlie Burd, the executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said the industry group would have preferred a ruling that encouraged horizontal drilling, but planned to comply with it.

“IOGAWV members like to have good relationships with property owners,” Burd said.

Crowder and Wentz’s saga was chronicled last year by the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, in an investigation that detailed how the natural gas industry had gained an upper hand on the state’s residents.

David Wentz looks out from a hill above his property at a EQT gas well site. (Raymond Thompson Jr., special to ProPublica)

The 22-page court ruling Wednesday represents a rare victory for residents in a state where economics and politics are increasingly controlled by the natural gas business after decades of domination by the coal industry. Making it more gratifying for Crowder and Wentz, the court that ruled in their favor has been under the microscope because of connections to the gas industry.

Much of the land in mineral-producing parts of West Virginia has split ownership. Someone might own the surface land, while someone else owns the coal, oil or gas underneath. Gas is generally produced under leases, in which gas owners or their ancestors granted a production company the right to drill. But often, the leases are so old the current owners didn’t sign them, and certainly the advanced types of gas-production techniques used today were not anticipated.

Compounding the matter, gas producers now use a process called hydraulic fracturing, which pumps huge amounts of water and chemicals underground to loosen up gas reserves, and drill extensive horizontal holes to suck in gas from much wider areas. They bring in fleets of heavy trucks and install tanks and pipelines. The entire process has brought an influx of vibrations, noise and traffic. Though bills have been introduced year after year that are designed to mitigate the impacts on residents, West Virginia lawmakers have repeatedly refused to act.

Crowder and Wentz moved to their 300-acre farm on Brush Run in 1975, part of the “back-to-the-land” movement, seeking to live simply and be left alone. They divorced in 2005 and split the land, but both still live there on separate tracts.

There had been small gas wells on the property for years, but they were nothing like the noise, traffic and disturbance that EQT brought with it when it drilled nine new wells that would take in gas through nearly 10 miles of underground bores.

In February 2016, a local judge ruled that EQT had trespassed, and in September 2017, a jury awarded Crowder and Wentz about $200,000 in damages. EQT appealed.

The case is one of two major gas property-rights and drilling cases this term in which the industry is pressing for rulings that support its current method and scope of operations.

In the other case heard before the West Virginia Supreme Court in January, Harrison County residents said Antero Resources’ operations were creating a nuisance. A ruling on that hasn’t been issued yet.

At the heart of these cases is the fact that, economically and technologically, gas production today is all about what industry officials call “laterals.” These horizontal holes are drilled out in all directions from a vertical well. They can pull in natural gas from several miles away.

David Wentz and Beth Crowder examine an old gas well on Crowder’s property in December.(Raymond Thompson Jr., special to ProPublica)

Industry officials say horizontal drilling allows them to minimize environmental impacts by building one well pad for multiple wells. But in doing so, it has magnified the impact for those residents who happen to live near — or on — the tracts chosen for those pads.

The Independent Oil and Gas Association had warned in a court brief that a ruling against EQT in the case would have “significant negative implications upon future and existing natural gas development in West Virginia.” EQT lawyers made similar warnings at trial.

Joshua Fershee, a West Virginia University law professor who has followed the case, said that the court’s decision won’t stop gas drilling. It will, however, make it more expensive for companies to secure the needed rights.

In concluding the court’s opinion, Hutchison said the justices didn’t aim to “challenge or constrain the drilling methods chosen by the oil and gas industry.”

“The industry has shown that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques are evolving at a rapid pace and are an economical and efficient tool for producing hydrocarbons,” Hutchison wrote. “Our opinion only affirms a classical rule of property jurisprudence: it is trespassing to go on someone’s land without the right to do so.”

Update, June 6, 2019: This story was updated with comment from EQT and the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association.

This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. It was originally published by ProPublica.

Kate Mishkin and Ken Ward Jr. cover the environment, workplace safety and energy, with a focus on coal and natural gas for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Email Kate at and follow her on Twitter at @katemishkin; email Ken at and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.

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Future of Fracking

EPA Declines to Regulate Waste as Ohio Valley Fracking Booms



The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week said it will not strengthen regulations on waste created by oil and gas production, a move that could affect communities across the Ohio Valley where the oil and gas industry is booming in the Appalachian Basin.  

No federal agency fully regulates oil and gas drilling byproducts — which include brine, or salty water laced with chemicals and metals, as well as similarly-contaminated sludge, rock and mud — leaving tracking and handling to states.

EPA’s decision released last week stems from a 2016 lawsuit filed by environmental groups, who had petitioned the agency to make new rules for how it regulates oil and gas waste. When the agency failed to respond, a federal judge required EPA to formally respond by this spring.

The decision reaffirms that states are in charge of regulating the disposal of chemical-laced and often radioactive liquids and solids created by the oil and gas industry.

Environmental advocates decried the move. They argue regulations for both onsite storage of waste and offsite disposal vary widely from state to state.

A 2016 report from the Center for Public Integrity calls the radioactive waste stream from horizontal oil and gas operations “orphan waste” because no single government agency is fully managing it. Each state is left to figure out its own plan. Advocates say EPA rules would create a baseline for how millions of tons of liquid and solid waste should be disposed.

“In a word or a sentence, the Trump administration hung out to dry communities that host oil and gas development,” said Aaron Mintzes with Earthworks, one of the group’s that pursued this issue in court.

Mintzes said a loophole in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a federal law that governs how solid waste should be disposed, allowed EPA in 1988 to classify waste from oil and gas operations as “non-hazardous.” This gives operators wide latitude in how to dispose of it.

For example, some states allow drillers to dispose of wastewater by injecting it back into the ground, but that can lead to pollution and even earthquakes.

In its decision document, EPA acknowledged that the rise of hydraulic fracturing, in which drillers go much deeper and are more likely to bring up waste products with naturally-occurring radioactivity, has changed the composition of waste. Ultimately, however the agency said state programs appear to sufficient.

In its review, the agency looked at state regulations for 28 of the 34 states with oil and gas production and concluded while the scope and specificity of the regulatory programs varied, “the existing state programs incorporate a majority of elements found in federal waste management program programs, which indicates that the scope of the written state regulation is robust.”

However, activists and some regulators worry that inconsistencies in state regulations could mean that waste is being “shopped around” by companies seeking or unsafely reused.

That is what happened in Estill County, Kentucky.

Estill Landfill

In 2016, the Ohio Valley ReSource reported tons of radioactive frack waste was hauled from state to state before being improperly disposed of in a county landfill not designed to hold radioactive material.

The waste was deposited in the Blue Ridge Landfill, which is across the street from the Estill County High School and Estill County Middle School.

In the years since the waste was discovered, the landfill owners have been fined and are required to create a corrective action plan. Officials with the Kentucky Energy and Environmental Cabinet want to keep the waste in place.

The waste contains an unknown amount of radium 226, which has a half life of 1,600 years, but the liner below the landfill where it was dumped is only slated to last 450 years.

Local residents with the group Concerned Citizens of Estill County disagree with the state’s plan and say officials have not been transparent in the process. They have filed a petition with the EEC’s Office of Administrative Hearings seeking a review of the state’s decision.

Mary Comer is a lawyer with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center that is representing the group.

“The uncertainty about the health impacts and how much was really brought in and how hot it is, makes those health concerns even more prevalent and concerning,” Comer said.  

She said the group expects a hearing this summer.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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