There you can explore particular facilities, review permits, potential pollutants and other information. I had the opportunity to dig deeper into this one-of-a-kind dataset to learn more about America’s new era of oil and gas. In the next two articles, I’ll share my findings about the oil and gas industry, its expanding infrastructure network, the potential pollution, and the fenceline communities in the crosshairs.
Note that all facility and emissions data reflects EIP’s database at time of analysis in November 2021. Please visit oilandgaswatch.org to view and download the most recent data.
Over the past two decades, the United States has seen multiple shifts in the energy sector. The decline of coal and decreased energy consumption are laudable achievements to combat climate change. However, while coal was declining, natural gas and oil were rising. Combined, they now exceed coal’s contribution to U.S. energy production. While coal’s massive carbon footprint and environmental damage from extraction techniques like mountaintop removal are significant, natural gas and oil have their own set of devastating consequences.
Drilling technology advancements, in conjunction with loose regulatory frameworks and rising gas prices, facilitated a major boom for oil and gas during the early and mid 2000’s. During the twenty year period between 2000 and 2020, domestic coal production fell 52%, natural gas production increased 65% and crude oil production nearly doubled to over 4 million barrels a year. Advanced extraction practices like hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, and cyclic steam simulation allow oil and gas producers to reach deposits that were unprofitable or inaccessible using conventional methods.
Certain states like Louisiana, Texas, and Pennsylvania are particularly accommodating to the oil and gas industry, frequently offering tax incentives and little facility oversight, often at the expense of nearby communities and the environment. This substantial increase in oil and gas production requires corresponding downstream infrastructure and facilities to process and transport it. According to the Oil and Gas Watch database, emissions from additional oil and gas facilities built between 2012–2025 are estimated to contribute over 300 million metric tons of CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent), roughly equal to adding 73 million cars to American roadways.
Although, when combusted, natural gas emits half (gasoline a third) the C02 when compared to coal, it also produces significant amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Raw natural gas alone is almost 95% methane, and for the same mass, methane traps 25–28 times the solar energy and contributes a reported 10% of America’s GHG emissions according to the EPA. In 2019, oil and natural gas accounted for 30% of methane emissions in the United States, compared to 9% for coal. Despite the oil and gas industry and the EPA reporting declining methane emissions, research suggests that methane emissions from oil and gas are significantly underestimated. One research team found that in 2015, “[Emissions from US] oil and natural gas supply chain exceed U.S. EPA estimates by ~60%.”. They go on to say that when accounting for abnormal operating conditions and leaks, methane emissions are roughly equal to CO2, essentially negating any climate change benefits from natural gas burning cleaner than coal.
In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, the processing of gas and oil also emits harmful air pollutants like fine particulate matter (PM2.5), formaldehyde, sulfur dioxides (SO2), lead, benzene, and butadiene, having a significant effect on local communities. Just as coal power plants are being shut down or converted to burn natural gas, additional facilities are under construction to either burn, export, or refine the excess supply, likely erasing any gains made from reducing coal consumption.
The fossil fuel industry covers a multitude of interrelated sectors, ranging from power generation and drilling to manufacturing petroleum based products like plastic and paints. Most upstream infrastructure, like drill pads and oil derricks, exist only where the fossil fuel deposits are located, often (but not always) in sparsely populated areas, out of sight and mind for most Americans. While fracking and other modern extraction techniques have a host of side effects like well contamination, earthquakes and literal rivers of oil, there's additional harm done downstream. After extraction, crude oil and raw gas is converted into various forms, like propane for heating homes, gasoline for powering cars, and manufacturing widely consumed products like shrink wrap, nylon, and fertilizer. These products require the installation of large, pollution producing downstream facilities. The siting of these facilities is determined by many factors — land availability, local regulatory regimes, and proximity to existing industry, essentially wherever is cheapest to build. The result is that hotspots for industry are often sited in lower income communities of color.
These communities not only see higher rates of air pollution, but also have higher rates of poverty, restricting access to health care services and further compounding harm. This story is evident across the country, particularly in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and West Virginia. Once raw oil and gas rises to the surface, the producers rely on a networked infrastructure of pipelines, cracking facilities, manufacturing plants, and transportation systems to get their product to consumers. All along the production chain, from extraction and transportation, to purification and combustion, fossil fuel resources leave a cloud of emissions directly and indirectly affecting residents and the environment.
Facilities Big and Small
Downstream facilities that process oil and gas come in a variety of sizes and functions. Some, like sprawling onshore liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals and high capacity offshore crude oil terminals along the Gulf Coast, are purpose built for exporting gas and oil to international markets. Other facilities like Ethane crackers and LNG fractionators, often found in the Ohio River Valley and Gulf regions, process raw feedstocks into refined hydrocarbon products. Not all facilities are created equal when it comes to emissions. According to EIP’s data, facilities such as compressor stations, which help maintain pressure in natural gas pipelines, emit a relatively modest 140,000 tons of CO2e per year — roughly the equivalent of 30,000 cars. But this can add up. The data shows an additional 18,000 miles of pipeline are either recently completed, under construction, or planned — enough to make the round trip from San Francisco to New York more than six times — requiring 184 new compressor stations. Other facilities, like synthetic fertilizer plants that use natural gas as the main input, produce C02 and other greenhouse gases at an immense scale. The newly operating IFC fertilizer complex in southeast Iowa, only miles from the banks of the Mississippi, produces over two million tons of C02e per year in addition to other more harmful pollutants like PM2.5 and volatile organic compounds.
Two sectors in particular, export and refinement — mostly for plastics, represent the largest pollution contribution by sector. Both sectors not only process significant amounts of raw fossil fuel resources, but also take considerable energy to do so. Whether it be terminals, ethane crackers, or compressor stations, this intense investment in oil and gas infrastructure will cement our economic reliance on fossil fuel extraction for future decades and dramatically alter our health and landscapes for centuries.
Liquid Natural Gas — LNG
Let’s talk about LNG terminals like the Cameron Terminal, as they produce a dramatically outsidized proportion of emissions. In short, these facilities convert natural gas into liquid. They chill the gas to roughly -270 degrees Fahrenheit and compress it to a 600th of the size, making it easier for international transit on special LNG cargo ships. However, doing so requires immense amounts of energy and produces significant CO2, PM2.5 and NOx emissions. Representing only 27 of the 445 facilities in EIP’s database, LNG terminals account for 35% of CO2e emissions, 29.8% of PM2.5 emissions and an incredible 41% of NOx emissions.The expanding Cameron LNG terminal in Cameron, Louisiana is permitted to release an additional nine million tons of CO2e alone.These terminals, and their immense impact and emissions, embody the petrochemicals transition to natural gas and its exports.
Crackers and Fractionators
Not all of our natural gas will get directly exported. Much of it will be processed in LNG fractionators and Ethane crackers. These facilities convert our glut of natural gas into higher value resources like ethylene, bhutane, and gasoline via a process called cracking. According to the US Energy Information administration, ethylene production in the United States has increased from 27 million metric tons per year in 2000 to 40 million in 2020. Cracking requires super heating ethane to over 1500 °F until it forms ethylene, a molecule which when chained together, makes polyethylene and eventually plastic pellets, ready to be minted into bottles and takeout containers. EIP’s data shows an additional 20 ethylene plants have been brought online since 2013 and an additional 7 are planned for the next decade. The expansion of the plastics refinement industry is evident across the country. In the Ohio River Valley region, at the nexus of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, towering fractionation towers, flare stacks, storage tanks, and complex webs of steel piping now dominate once-pastoral landscapes.
Along the Gulf Coast, new ethane crackers are adding to industrial sprawl in places like Port Arthur, Texas, a city which already deals with incredibly high levels of pollution and cancer. The recently-completed Bayport (Baystar) Port Arthur Ethylene cracker, one of the largest in the world, will produce over one million tons of ethylene each year to feed Baystar’s nearby Pasadena Polyethylene Plant, set for completion in 2022. The Port Arthur cracker alone is permitted to emit over one million tons of CO2e per year, in addition to three and a half million tons of greenhouse gases during the two week startup period in 2021.
The oil and gas facilities that comprise America’s retooled fossil fuel industry will inevitably worsen both our climate and our health. Sea level rise, wildfires, and intense storms are already affecting our communities across the country. For those who live near these facilities, increased prevalence of respiratory illness and cancer has always been a fact of life and will continue to be. The renewal of investment in oil and gas hamstrings our efforts to hold global warming to 1.5 °C and will further an ongoing public health crisis. Immediate action is necessary to lessen these inevitable consequences. While many facilities in EIP’s database have already been built, many are still in the permitting process. You can filter the database to explore projects planned near you. From there you can find permit numbers and potentially submit public comment, write to your local representative, or get involved with a community effort to cancel the project.
To learn more, check out oilandgaswatch.org and other work by EIP. Also check out the Commons’ additional reporting on the project. Follow for future articles about the expanding oil and gas industry and its effect on our communities and climate.