Fracking & Petrochemicals

Credit: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2021.

From air and water pollution to plastic in our bloodstream — fracking and petrochemicals threatens human health and our environment.

Eyes on Shell

What you see, hear, smell and feel could be very important signs of problems. Residents are coming together to monitor the impacts of Shell’s plastic plant on our air, water, light and noise levels, and taking action by reporting incidents including fluid spills, fire or flaring events, or strong chemical smells.

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Carbon Capture

The newfound popularity of hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is alarming. Both have been touted as a clean energy source that can be used for heating, power, and transportation. In reality, hydrogen and carbon capture are false climate solutions promulgated by the oil and gas industry.

The proposed Ohio River Valley Hydrogen Hub is a risky proposition that would drive up utility bills, create few new jobs, ineffectively reduce emissions, and block better, less costly climate solutions like renewable energy development and energy efficiency retrofits.

diagram of CO2 cycle
A methane molecule diagram

Hydrogen Production

Most hydrogen production requires methane, a natural gas that is fracked and then converted into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. CCS is expensive, unreliable, and not yet technically feasible at a large scale.

Key Takeaways

Blue vs Green Hydrogen

Blue Hydrogen

From natural gas with carbon capture and storage.

Carbon dioxide captured and sequestered produces “blue hydrogen.” Blue hydrogen is hydrogen produced from natural gas using methane. Although methane does not last in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it is much more potent as a greenhouse gas. Climate scientists have concluded that this so-called “clean alternative” has a 20% larger carbon footprint than natural gas and coal when used for heat. New research even suggests that producing blue hydrogen could actually be worse than burning coal.

Green Hydrogen

From water using zero-carbon electricty.

Green hydrogen, or hydrogen produced using water and electrolysis powered by renewable energy, may play a limited role in powering cement, steel, niche manufacturing, and heavy transport by sea and air. However, it is not yet market-ready; and most conversations about hydrogen refer to blue hydrogen.

From Local Natural Gas To Global Plastic

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)

Understand the Science of Fracking & Petrochemicals

Industrial Stages in the Petrochemical Process

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Gaia Frackpad view from above
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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man with hard hat looking at device in field
Photo Credit: Louis B. Ruediger, Tribune-Review

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.

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fracking pad view from above
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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water plant view from above
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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excavator laying pipe into ground near forest
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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
pipeline map of Pennsylvania, ohio, and West Virginia
Maps Courtesy of Fractracker Alliance
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piping on construction site forest ground
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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compressor station view from above
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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gas plant view from above
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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Cracker Plant in Beaver view from above
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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Processing Plant view from above
Photo Credit: FracTracker

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.

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plastic pollution on water's surface
Photo Credit: Getty Images

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