Fracking and Petrochemicals

Learn more about plans for a petrochemical buildout in Southwest Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Photo Credit: Marcellus Air

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 at least 1000 new wells every three to five years to supply feedstock for plastic manufacturing.



About 99% of all plastic today is made with crude oil or natural gas, with a long and complex process that carries risks at every phase. The Shell ethane cracker has the capacity to produce more than 1.6 million metric tons of plastic or “nurdles” a year. The plastic commodity will be used in U.S. and shipped overseas. (Shale Crescent USA)
Study: “Plastic: The Last Straw for Big Oil?


Oil & Gas Activity in Pennsylvania
Explore FracTracker, a leading resource on oil and gas issues and a trusted asset to the concerned public.
Fracking 101
A TedEd Video on How Fracking Works.
A Virtual Oil and Gas Tour
Check out Break Free from Plastic’s Toxic Tour of Pennsylvania.


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.

Join FracTracker for a Virtual Tour of a Gas Well

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.

Numerous pipelines snake 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.

See step-by-step pipeline construction.

See Pipeline Maps of SWPA, Ohio and West Virginia

Multiple Pipeline Routes through Southwestern PA
Falcon Pipeline Map

Maps Courtesy of Fractracker Alliance

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. The Shell Chemical Appalachia plant in Beaver County plans to go online in 2022 and produce 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene plastic pellets known as nurdles 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


Fighting Petrochemical Industry Buildout

Residents of SWPA are fighting a David vs. Goliath battle against the petrochemical industry in our region and beyond to Ohio and West Virginia. The Appalachian Basin is facing massive growth of this highly polluting fossil fuel industry from the Shell cracker plant in Beaver, Pa., to pipelines, compressor stations, drilling operations, wellpads, a storage hub and truck traffic.  This industry will push our planet over the edge on climate change, making it absolutely impossible to meet Paris Accord Climate Goals. 

Fighting Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Expansion in SWPA

Breathe Project partners are actively fighting the expansion of the petrochemical industry, fracking wells and fossil fuel development that will exacerbate climate change, including Climate Reality Pittsburgh & SWPA, 350 Pittsburgh, Extinction Rebellion, Better Path Coalition and more. A Climate Convergence event is in the planning for June in Harrisburg, Pa.


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