Last month, a top Trump administration official stood before a group of West Virginia lawmakers in Charleston, ready to promote the U.S. Department of Energy’s latest proposal: a network of storage facilities, processing plants and pipelines, called the Appalachian Storage Hub.
“We are on the edge of an Appalachian chemical renaissance that scarcely could have been imagined a decade ago,” said Steven Winberg, assistant U.S. secretary for fossil energy.
But about three hours north of Charleston, people who live in Belmont County, Ohio, say they’re worried about the cracker plant being proposed in their backyard — one of the first projects in a network of proposed infrastructure Winberg referred to as a “hub.”
“It’s kind of a piecemeal approach where it’s a little bit at a time where you don’t realize the scope of what’s happening and by the time you do it’s too late,” said Barb Mew, who lives near the proposed PTTG Global Ethane Cracker plant in Belmont County.
Politicians and developers say the Appalachian Storage Hub will usher in much-needed economic prosperity. But people who live up and down the Ohio Valley, where the hub would be built, still aren’t sure what the project is, or how it would impact their health and their environment. And they say proponents of the project are peddling the same thing residents have heard before: empty promises of jobs in exchange for pollution.
Questions surrounding the hub loom: What exactly is involved in the entire hub? Who’s building it? What kinds of pollutants will each facility emit? How will they contribute to a warming planet?
“There’s just a lot of potential there, and a lot of good things potentially for West Virginia, because Lord knows we could use the economic activity,” said Jamie Van Nostrand, professor of law and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law. “But can’t we learn from our previous experience and do a better job of protecting the environment?”
Appalachia has such a wealth of natural gas that, if it were its own country, it would be one of the top producers in the world, according to a report from the Department of Energy. The Appalachian Storage Hub would include all kinds of facilities to take advantage of that gas every step of the way, from processing, to storage, to transporting it and selling it elsewhere. It’s a massive project with many pieces, including the proposed cracker plant in Belmont County.
Plans for the Appalachian Storage Hub are opaque. A 600-page loan application to the Department of Energy from the Appalachia Development Group, the group behind the storage hub, has many pages considered confidential and left blank. In 2017, West Virginia officials proudly announced an $83.7 billion investment, agreed to in a memorandum of understanding, with a China-owned energy company for shale gas and chemical manufacturing projects in the state. When the agreement was announced, Gov. Jim Justice said China had made several large agreements with the United States for projects focused on power generation, chemical manufacturing and underground storage of natural gas liquids.
West Virginia University was working with the state government to coordinate the investment as it researches coal liquefaction with Chinese government-owned coal mining company Shenhua Group and energy company Guodian Group. At the time, WVU said the investment would focus on the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub.
The memorandum of understanding, which might shed light on the scope and details of the agreement, hasn’t surfaced. A lawsuit that sought to make the agreement public is now pending before the state Supreme Court.
After Justice announced the $83.7 billion investment agreement, he revealed that a member of the state’s trade delegation, Appalachia Development Group CEO Steven B. Hedrick, had been lobbying for his own private company during the trip to China.
At the request of Congress, the U.S. Department of Energy compiled a feasibility report on a storage hub in the upper Ohio Valley.
Plans, according to the report, include an array of infrastructure and plants — not just the underground storage hub, which has received the most attention. The Ohio Valley corridor would be dotted with gathering lines, processing plants, fractionation facilities, liquid storage facilities and ethane crackers — all to keep up with the rapid extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.
“From cradle to grave, from the point they extract this stuff to when it goes into use, no aspect of this is not toxic to human health in some way,” said Dustin White, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, which has fought against the project.
The raw natural gas would begin at the wellhead and move to processing plants, where gas is treated and separated into liquid and dry natural gas, which includes methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is the main component of the dry natural gas. Natural gas liquids include butane, used for lighter fuel and plastics, and propane, used as fuel for heating and cooking.
The natural gas liquids can be “fractionated” into other materials, including ethane. Then, at a cracker plant, like the one proposed by PTTG, ethane would be “cracked” with high heat and used to make plastic pellets and petrochemical products.
Two cracker plants are in the works in Monaca, Pennsylvania, and Shadyside, Ohio. Last week, Winberg urged state lawmakers in the Interim Committee on Natural Gas Development to help build another one in West Virginia, creating a triangle of cracker plants in the Ohio Valley.
“What we need, ladies and gentlemen, is one of these crackers in West Virginia,” Winberg, former vice president for CONSOL Energy Research and Development, told the room.
In Shadyside, Ohio, just north of Moundsville, Thailand-based PTT Global and Korea-based Daelim Industrial Company are planning their own cracker plant. The company was delayed making its final investment decision, and residents living nearby are waiting to hear more.
The cracker is just one piece of infrastructure in an entire production chain imagined by the Appalachia Development Group and laid out in the Department of Energy’s report. The site, according to its permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, would emit about 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.
“It’s just the environmental impact of something like this is so enormous,” Mew, who lives near the proposed PTTG Ethane Cracker, said. “And all to make a million and a half tons of plastic a year, which is the last thing we need.”
When Mew first heard about the cracker plant she had no idea what anyone was talking about. She’d never heard that term before. But she’d noticed a rise in hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — and began to realize her home might soon be surrounded by natural gas and chemical development.
“The destruction of the land, I know so many people that have property that they love, that they grew up on and the serenity of that is being destroyed by the fracking, the lights, the noise,” Mew said. “The fear of something that these chemicals leaching into the ground and doing God knows what to your water supply making you and your family sick, and there’s just been so much of it.”
Gas production and extraction have already changed the landscape of the region. Trucks wear down the roads, and compressor stations are loud. Several gas pipelines are being built in the area.
“It reminds me of a spaceship landing because there’s so much bright light,” said Randi Pokladnik, who lives in Harrison County, Ohio, and worked as a chemist and teacher. “This is probably one of the reasons why at almost 64 I can’t enjoy retirement, because I have two granddaughters. And I worry about how this is going to affect their children, or how cancer rates are going to skyrocket,” she said.
People who live in the area said they’re worried about the cumulative impacts of so many different infrastructure projects. It’s not just methane emissions from a single pipeline, or organic molecules in fracking fluid.
“It only takes very, very small quantities,” Pokladnik said. “We’re talking about in the one part per million range to really direct your endocrine system to do things it’s not supposed to do.”
A good chunk of ethylene in the United States is used to make polyethylene, the most commonly produced plastic in the world, the DOE report says. It’s used in single-use products, such as bottles, containers and food packaging.
That’s a problem, said Bev Reed, who lives in Richwood, Ohio. Why manufacture more plastic products as states and companies across the country continue to scale them back?
“From the extraction of fossil fuel to create plastic to use to having to dispose of it all of it is toxic to human body and planet,” she said. “Future generations are really going to suffer if we don’t clean up our act and stop making all this plastic.”
The hub is billed by its developers — and in the DOE report — as a much-needed center in a region that sits on top of these gas-rich shale formations. Storage would allow the region to hold onto its resources, instead of shipping them off elsewhere, or either cutting off or curtailing production when demand is lower.
The hub would mirror a similar facility in the Gulf Coast, but connect supply and demand and make petrochemical supply easily accessible, particularly during severe weather events on the Gulf Coast. Proponents of the hub point to downstream growth, and other industries that would grow alongside the influx in jobs and people.
“It’s always this false dichotomy. It’s either environmental protection or jobs and you can’t have both things. And that’s just not true,” said Van Nostrand. “But why don’t we start protecting our citizens instead of just selling off our resources for nothing and leaving us holding the bag?”
In Monaca, Pennsylvania, a little north of Pittsburgh, Shell has 5,000 construction workers on-site and plans to have 600 full-time employees when construction is finished in the early 2020s. A spokesman for the company wouldn’t discuss the cost of the project or specific end-date, but said that the Allegheny County Health Department, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all OK’d the project.
Experts say it’s hard to imagine what the emission totals might be because so many of the projects haven’t yet been built, but the cumulative impacts of a hub would be significant.
“We have significant concerns about building out an infrastructure based on a fossil-based economy with significant climate impacts and health impacts. I think others would say the economic development opportunity is significant, and that’s not true,” said Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
It’s the wrong type of investment, Van Nostrand said — market forces, public opinion and natural gas’s contribution to climate change makes the hub a “fairly short-lived venture in terms of, we need to stop burning fossil fuels,” he said. We could focus, instead, on capturing methane leaks or investing in renewable energy, he said.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Van Nostrand said.
Richardson questioned whether the hub would be built at all.
“They’ve been talking about these cracker plants for a while now, and we haven’t seen one,” Richardson said.
Back in the committee meeting in July, Mike Graney, executive director of the West Virginia Development Office, got up to present to lawmakers on a change of plans.
The third cracker plant, this one in Wood County and called by the DOE “an early candidate for success” wouldn’t be built after all.
Lawmakers asked what they could do to get the state ready for another cracker plant and Appalachian Storage Hub. In Washington, D.C., West Virginia’s U.S. senators are pushing hard for the hub, looking for a federal loan guarantee that might end up costing as much as $10 billion.
“What seems to be holding up the progress in the state of West Virginia?” asked Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, who chairs the committee.
Winberg said he didn’t think it was the state’s fault, or that there was something elected officials weren’t doing — but it would help to start finding potential sites.
“At least know where they are and what it would take to make them shovel-ready,” Winberg said.