Climate

Petrochemical Factories: The Forgotten Mega-Polluters

CREDIT: AP Photo / David J. Phillip

Total Petrochemicals' refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.

Permits granted to oil, gas and chemical companies in 2014 have set the stage for significant emissions later on, according to a recent report.

The report, published last week by the Environmental Integrity Project, found that over the last year, U.S. companies were granted draft or final permits for the construction or expansion of at least 46 petrochemical facilities. Once these facilities are completed, they’ll collectively emit 55 million tons of greenhouse gases a year — an emissions equivalent of twelve 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Eleven similar applications submitted since January 2014 are still being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, so that emissions count could climb if these applications are also granted permits.

This flurry of applications was due to low fuel prices driven by America’s shale boom, according to the report. Forty-six permits were also granted in 2013, and 13 were granted in 2012.

“These projects have multiplied as industries tap into low cost supplies of shale oil and gas that provide feedstock or fuel for manufacturing or export,” the report’s authors write. “Over the past three years, EPA and state agencies have issued draft or final permits to build or expand 105 oil, gas, or chemical plants that authorize nearly 97 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions yearly.”

According to the report, the chemical industry has shown some of the most drastic growth of any sector during the shale boom. The industry had 22 projects proposed or approved in 2014, projects that include a plant that would convert ethane, a natural gas component, into ethylene, and that in all will emit 27 million tons of greenhouse gases a year. Most of the proposals came from Texas and Louisiana, but states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania were also potential sites for new chemical facilities.

nat gas EIP

CREDIT: Environmental Integrity Project

Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of EIP and one of the report’s authors, said in a statement that the chemical and fertilizer factories need to be held accountable for their emissions.

“The shale gas boom has helped revive U.S. manufacturing, but we need a full and honest accounting of its environmental footprint,” Schaeffer said. “That accounting should include greenhouse gases from petrochemical industries that are taking advantage of lower fuel and feedstock costs.”

There are ways for these facilities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the report points out — methods that have worked effectively for facilities in the past. In Kansas, chemical and refinery company Flint Hills Resources improved efficiency at one of their refineries by not letting their heaters’ exit gas temperatures get higher than 350°F. This policy is estimated to bring the refinery’s emissions down to 200,000 tons below permitted levels.

And the oil and gas industry, too, needs to do a better job of reigning in its emissions. The report highlighted measures taken (as part of a settlement) at BP’s Whiting refinery in Indiana to reduce flaring, measures that are estimated to cut the refinery’s annual emissions by nearly 100,000 tons and will also make the air around the refinery cleaner and safer to breathe. The EPA needs to do more to require companies install affordable, effective pollution controls on new projects, the report states.

“New projects and modifications at major pollution sources are already required to employ the best available technologies to eliminate greenhouse gases as well as ‘conventional’ pollutants like nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, or toxic chemicals like formaldehyde or hexane,” the report’s authors write. “Permit requirements should incorporate cost-effective investments that can reduce all of these pollutants through greater energy efficiency, by minimizing product losses (from leaking tanks or process units), and by reducing reliance on flaring.”