Fracking and Petrochemicals
Learn more about plans for a petrochemical buildout in Southwest Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
From air and water pollution to plastic in our bloodstream — fracking and petrochemicals threatens human health and our environment.
the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into
subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc., so as to force open
existing fissures and extract oil or gas.
Fracking or Hydraulic Fracturing is the process of drilling deep into the earth using millions of gallons of water, sand, and a proprietary mixture of chemicals to blast through shale rock and release the gas inside. The process can be conducted vertically or horizontally at distances of up to four miles.
Nearly 2 million oil and gas wells have been fracked in the United States, with nearly 20 million Americans living with one mile of a well pad.In Pennsylvania, there are about 11,000 wells and over 2 million people living within 1 kilometer of a well pad.
The Shell petrochemical plant in Potter Township will require more than 1000 new wells a year to supply feedstock for plastic manufacturing.
FROM LOCAL NATURAL GAS TO GLOBAL PLASTIC
Deep beneath the rolling hills and valleys of southwestern Pennsylvania and throughout much of the Appalachian Basin lies the Marcellus Shale and the deeper Utica Shale formations. The natural gas wedged between this rock is comprised of two types: wet gas and dry gas. Dry gas is the type used for cooking and heating homes. Wet gas contains heavier components such as ethane and butane, the building blocks of petrochemicals and plastic.
About 99% of plastic is made with crude oil or natural gas, with a long and complex process that carries risks at every phase.
GET THE FACTS ON FRACKING
Oil & Gas Activity in Pennsylvania
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A TedEd Video on How Fracking Works.
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Explore each stage of unconventional oil and gas drilling.
INDUSTRIAL STAGES IN THE PETROCHEMICAL PROCESS
Seismic testing is often one of the first steps conducted by the gas industry to collect information on the land they want to drill in the Marcellus or Utica shale formations. This includes the thickness, depth and other information to determine well pad placement and drilling direction for horizontal wells. Seismic testing presents a risk for earthquakes and structural damage, especially in more residential areas.
The footprint of a gas operation can range from a 3-acre well pad to a 10-acre “superpad” that can allow over 40 wells to be drilled. A well pad site endures much preparation before drilling occurs, including tree clearing and excavation. Well pad sites also include the drilling rig, roads, tanks, storage ponds, and other equipment.
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Well Pad Violations in PA.
Water injected into the shale rock returns to the surface during fracking operations. This salinated water is a mix of brine, mercury, arsenic, lead, benzene and radioactive material such as radium, thorium, and uranium. Some of the flowback stays in the ground and the rest is sometimes recycled for additional fracking or treated and discharged to surface waters, stored in open air pits or injected in deep wells. All disposal options carry risks of water contamination. Deep well injection has caused earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma, and other locations and has unknown risks to water resources.
More than 5 pipelines will run through Southwestern PA and east to Marcus Hook near Philadelphia and west to Ohio and Canada, connecting well pads to industrial facilities including the Shell Petrochemical Plant and cryogenic operations.
There are several types of natural gas pipelines:
Production Pipelines are the pipes and equipment located near the wellhead which are used to prepare the gas for transportation.
Gathering Pipelines are the pipelines that transport natural gas from well pad/production site to a central facility for refinement or to transmission lines.
Transmission Pipelines are the larger diameter pipelines (12-36 in.) that transport gas long distances at high pressures (between 200-1500 psi).
Distribution Pipelines are the smaller diameter (2-12 in.) network of pipelines that move natural gas at lower pressures to individual homes and businesses.
The pipeline network in the United States spans over 3 million miles. Visit fractracker.org more information on pipelines.
See step-by-step pipeline construction.
See Pipeline Maps of SWPA, Ohio and West Virginia
Pipeline “pigs” are maintenance tools that ensure the pipeline is running smoothly without disrupting oil and gas flow. Pipeline pigs can help clear the lines of debris and build-up and examine the lines from the inside. Pigging operations are also known to emit dangerous pollution, particularly when the pressure is set at higher levels at the time of venting or flaring.
Additional information on pollution concerns associated with pigging operations may be found in the April 2018 federal lawsuit settlement with MarkWest.
A compressor station (also called a pumping station), part of natural
gas infrastructure, increases the pressure of gas by reducing its volume to push gas through the pipeline. Frequent elevation changes and a greater number of gas wells require more compressor stations along the pipeline route.
A cryogenic processing plant separates natural gas liquids (NGLs) such as ethane from natural gas by chilling the gas to around 120-degrees Fahrenheit. This rapid temperature drop condenses ethane and other hydrocarbons in the gas stream, while maintaining methane in gaseous form. This process allows for the recovery of about 90 to 95 percent of the ethane originally in the gas stream. The ethane and other NGLs are then shipped to market and often used in refineries and petrochemical plants for fuel.
An ethane cracker plant is a large industrial facility that takes ethane and processes, or “cracks” it into ethylene. It heats the ethane up so hot that it breaks apart the molecular bonds holding it together. Ethylene is the root chemical and building block for plastics, resins, adhesives and other chemicals. Shell Chemical Appalachia has plans to build a multi-billion-dollar petrochemical plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania which would produce 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene pellets each year.
Once the polyethylene product has been created at the petrochemical “cracker” plant, it is then shipped by train or truck to plastics or other chemical manufacturing facilities around the world. Through additional processing, the polyethylene building block can be transformed into a variety of products, including mattresses, bath and shower stalls, glues, jet engine blades, plywood, electrical appliances, packaging, water bottles, car bumpers and floor coverings.
For more than 50 years, global plastic production and consumption has continued to rise, but very little is actually recycled or reused. In the United States, less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled. Most plastic becomes waste, and every year millions of tons of plastic end up in our oceans.
The Marine Conservancy estimates decomposition rates of most plastic debris found on coasts are:
Foamed plastic cups: 50 years
Plastic beverage holder: 400 years
Disposable diapers: 450 years
Plastic bottle: 450 years
Fishing line: 600 years
Learn About the Production, Use, and Fate of all plastics ever made.
Learn More about Microplastics research: from Sink to Source
HEALTH EFFECTS OF FRACKING
Despite the strong efforts of gas and petrochemical industries to keep the environmental and public health risks in the dark, we are learning more about these industries every day, including their effect on air, water, soil, and human health. You can find more reports and articles on fracking and petrochemicals in the Breathe Project Database or News Section.