Seven organizations have filed a joint protest with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) strongly urging the agency to deny air permit exemptions that Shell Pipeline Co. LP has requested for its Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, which is being developed to feed the multi-billion dollar cracker under construction in the state.

Shell has filed three requests that could be granted by the DEP under a policy that allows for exemptions from regulations minor sources of emissions. The requests for determination (RFD) of minor significance would cover 11 fugitive emissions sources along the pipeline, including valves, flanges, and those from pig launching and receiving equipment and temporary flares.

DEP spokesperson Lauren Fraley said the RFDs are under review. “If DEP agrees that potential air emissions from these small sources are of minor significance, these sources could be exempted from permitting requirements,” she said.

The protesting organizations noted that the sources would emit volatile organic compounds, greenhouse gases and inert gases, among other air contaminants, in Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties. The protesting organizations include the Sierra Club, Clean Air Council (CAC), FracTracker Alliance, Earthworks, PennFuture, Breathe Project and the Environmental Integrity Project.

The organizations argue that DEP should deny the requests as a matter of law, claiming Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC’s ethane cracker and the pipeline would create many other sources of air contaminants beyond the 11 sources the company wants exempted. They added that the agency also has a duty under an environmental rights amendment in the state’s constitution to deny the exemptions.

“The department should deny the requests, and must at least defer its decision until Shell accounts for the project’s cumulative environmental effects, and the public has a meaningful opportunity to comment on the same,” the groups said.

Shell’s project continues to attract environmental opposition, especially as rumblings of a petrochemical build-out in the region intensify. The cracker is being built on a 400-acre site in western Pennsylvania’s Beaver County. It would consume more than 100,000 b/d, which the pipeline is designed to deliver, to produce ethylene and polyethylene, key building blocks for plastics. Production is expected to begin sometime in the early 2020s.

Construction is progressing, with Shell having transitioned over the last year from site remediation and early works, such as sewage, underground electricity and foundations, to the primary construction phase during which the actual plant is being built. Final right-of-way purchase efforts for the 97-mile Falcon ethane system have been completed and the necessary permit applications have been filed with state and federal agencies. Mainline construction is scheduled to start and be completed next year.

The two-leg system would have three source points within the rich-gas portions of the Marcellus and Utica shales. It would collect ethane from MarkWest Energy Partners LP's Houston Processing and Fractionation facility in Washington County, PA, and from its Cadiz Complex in Harrison County, OH. The system would also receive ethane from Utica East Ohio Midstream's nearby Harrison Hub fractionation plant in Scio, OH.

In Pennsylvania, a public comment period for the pipeline’s water obstruction and erosion control permits closed earlier this year. DEP sent technical deficiency letters asking Shell for more information about gaps in the applications, which the company has since addressed. The DEP has yet to issue any permits for the project, and Fraley added that the water and erosion permit applications are still under review.

The company “is currently reviewing Sierra Club’s letter, but it is confident that all appropriate information has been submitted” to the DEP, Shell spokesperson Ray Fisher said of the protest filing.

Some of the protesting groups have already had success in pushing Shell for additional environmental controls, at least at the massive project in Beaver County. After the DEP issued an air permit for the facility in June 2015, the CAC and the Environmental Integrity Project filed an appeal with the state Environmental Hearing Board. Last year, Shell reached a settlement with the groups, agreeing to implement more safeguards to monitor air quality, including a fenceline monitoring program and flare testing to ensure equipment is destroying nearly all pollutants emitted.

The Falcon ethane system has also been designed without pumps or compressors, which can generate even more emissions. The source points, Shell has said, would have enough pressure to transport ethane all the way to the line’s junction where the two-leg system meets to move ethane to the cracker.

In their protest, the environmental groups aired concerns about the projects cumulative effects on the environment and how those might exacerbate climate change, saying Shell’s attempt to rely on the exemption policy is wrong because it’s for small, one-off sources. The company’s reliance on the policy is misguided, they claim, arguing that it has “no basis in law” to extend the exemptions to a nearly 100-mile pipeline.  

“Ultimately, the department is responsible for applying the correct legal standard to its
review of the project,” the organizations wrote.