Low gas prices from hydraulic fracturing sparked proposals in 2015 for 44 petrochemical industry construction and expansion projects. Those are expected to increase greenhouse gas pollution by 86 million tons a year — as much as from 19 coal-fired power plants, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project. That would be a 16 percent increase over the industry’s total in 2014.
Almost half of these planned or permitted liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals, gas processing plants, fertilizer factories, refineries and chemical plant projects are in Louisiana, according to state and federal records. Others are in Texas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon and other states.
Previously, from 2012 through 2014, EPA and state agencies issued draft or final permits to build or expand 105 oil, gas, or chemical plants that will release up to 97 million tons of greenhouse gases yearly. That's as much pollution as from 21 coal-fired power plants.
All of these planned projects are in industries that use natural gas either as a main ingredient or primary fuel (not including electric utilities). The recent crash in oil and gas prices is causing bankruptcies and layoffs among drilling companies. But industries that benefit from cheap gas and oil — such as the chemical and fertilizer manufacturers — are using the low prices as an opportunity to expand.
Some of the recent petrochemical projects will release far more than a coal-fired power plant. A 500 megawatt coal plant running at full capacity around the clock will release about 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. By comparison, the Cameron LNG Liquefaction plant in Louisiana, which received a permit on Jan. 14, 2016, is authorized to emit twice that much — up to 9 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.
Petroleum refineries and chemical plants can expose downwind communities to carcinogens like benzene or smog-forming pollutants. These pollutants trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments that make it harder for people to breathe, especially children and the elderly. Much of this pollution comes from flares, tanks, leaking process units and other sources that are poorly monitored. While emissions have declined since the 1980s, the industry’s growth and its proximity to large, low-income neighborhoods means further reductions are needed to protect public health.
EPA estimates that the drilling, storage, and processing of oil and gas before it arrives at refineries or chemical plants releases more than 177 million pound of toxic air pollutants a year, or 40 percent of the U.S. total. And that’s after new federal emission limits take effect. Sloppy drilling and disposal practices have also contaminated groundwater and wetlands, and little is known about the effects of some pollutants.