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DOE Urged to Weigh Environmental Inequity From U.S. Ethane Boom

Aug. 24, 2021, 8:05 PM

Efforts to expand production and exports of ethane—a natural gas byproduct used to make plastics—were criticized by groups that told the Department of Energy Tuesday that any job gains wouldn’t benefit regions bearing the brunt of environmental damage.

The comments came during an online hearing to help the Energy Department produce a study on the environmental, health, and various local impacts of ethane processing and distribution, as well as the potential economic benefits of increasing production, including more exports.

The study, led by DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, was mandated by Congress and set to be completed by the end of the year.

U.S. ethane production has nearly doubled since 2013 and is projected to continue increasing to meet rising global demand for petrochemicals, particularly plastics production, according to the Energy Information Administration, DOE’s statistical arm.

Local community and environmental advocates complained that holding just one public meeting shortchanged the ability for Appalachian and other communities to express concerns about environmental impacts and economic inequities.

‘Left in Poverty’

Many said their communities have seen lasting environmental damage and few benefits from ethane production and other extraction industries, which have boosted the U.S. oil and gas industry and the overall economy.

Fossil fuel extraction has helped boost “the prosperity of the rest of the country” while the Appalachian region “has been left in poverty,” said Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher with Policy Matters Ohio, which helped launch the ReImagine Appalachia blueprint calling for more sustainable and equitable development.

“We call this the resource curse,” she said, because the enormous wealth created from extracting fossil fuels in the region has provided little benefit to the region.

“One would think it would be the richest region in the nation. But you would be wrong,” she said. While the industry does provide some good-paying jobs, most go to out-of-state workers who migrate “from one job to the next,” Woodrum said.

By contrast, several counties in the Appalachian region today remain in the lowest 10th percentile for wealth and employment levels, she said.

Video: The Biden Administration has pledged to make environmental justice a priority. Here’s a look at the limited legal options impacted communities have to combat negative environmental impacts.

‘A New Approach’

DOE officials said the department considers the burdens of pollution—more often borne by low-income and minority communities—in all of its work, including the study.

“For too long, front-line communities have suffered the negative health and social impacts associated with fossil energy infrastructure built through and around their neighborhoods,” said Jennifer Wilcox, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.

“We are determined to tackle these inequities, and it signifies a new approach for our Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, one where environmental justice, equity, and workforce development are at the center of our efforts,” she added.

Ongoing Concerns

Increased petrochemical production alarms climate advocates and environmental groups because the energy-intensive nature of such manufacturing translates into significant planet-warming emissions, mostly carbon dioxide.

While produced primarily through natural gas processing plants, ethane is also a feedstock used in petrochemical plants known as “crackers” which separate ethane from natural gas to produce ethylene, the building block for plastics and many other industrial products.

Cracker plants primarily located in the Gulf States such as Louisiana and Texas have triggered complaints of pollution and other environmental damage to surrounding communities.

But companies have in recent years eyed northeastern states for new plants, including Pennsylvania where Royal Dutch Shell is building a massive operation 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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