'Cracker' plant would need greenhouse gas permit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If West Virginia political leaders want a multibillion-dollar natural gas "cracker" plant to be built in Wood County, they might have to swallow a bitter pill: state restrictions on the amount of greenhouse gases the facility could spew into the air.
West Virginia elected officials generally don't acknowledge the scientific consensus that industrial emissions are making the world warmer, threatening a wide variety of negative impacts. State leaders oppose efforts to curb global warming pollution, and are fighting Obama administration proposals to mandate such reductions.
But a little-noticed state regulation -- approved by lawmakers in 2011 -- requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to address greenhouse gas emissions when it reviews air pollution permits for major industrial facilities, such as a large-scale cracker plant.
Before it could approve such a permit, the DEP's Division of Air Quality would be required to conclude that the Brazilian firm Odebrecht designed the facility with the "best available control technology" to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Last week, DEP air quality officials met privately with Odebrecht representatives to begin discussing the project, in anticipation of an air pollution permit application being filed sometime during the second quarter of 2014. Review of the application could take up to two years, officials said.
"It's going to be a difficult permitting process," said John Benedict, the DEP's air quality director.
In mid-November, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced that Odebrecht would "explore the development" of a new petrochemical complex in Wood County. If built, the complex would include an ethane cracker, a facility that would process ethane from Marcellus Shale natural gas production to make ethylene, one of the primary building blocks for petrochemicals and important raw materials for countless everyday items.
State and company representatives have provided few details about the size of the facility, and say it's too soon to say much about the specifics of the plant's potential environmental footprint.
Officials from Odebrecht declined a request for an interview about the plant's environmental impacts, but provided a prepared statement expressing a commitment to operating in a sustainable manner.
"Protecting the quality of our land, our air and our water is a priority for us as community partners," said the statement, issued by company spokesman Chuck Glazer. "Our approach will be to use best practices and to work closely with the appropriate local, state, interstate and federal authorities to be sure that our facility is constructed and operated to satisfy all applicable regulatory and permitting requirements."
Last week, the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project warned that the boom in natural gas production has so far brought with it a "tidal wave" of new or expanded chemical, fertilizer and petroleum plants that will release as much green house gas pollution as more than 20 large coal-fired power plants.
Since January 2012, companies have proposed or already obtained 95 Clean Air Act permits across the country for new compressors, pipelines, and other major facilities made possible by cheap shale-gas production. The climate change implications of these new sites "are considerable," the group said.
"It's important that we understand the full climate change picture when it comes to America's shale gas boom and the related tradeoffs," said EIP director Eric Schaeffer.
"As natural gas replaces coal as the fuel of choice for electric power plants, greenhouse gas emissions from that sector will decline, since gas releases less than half as much carbon as coal per kilowatt of electricity generated," Schaefer said. "But the data suggest that declining CO2 emissions from the electric power sector will be partially offset by higher emissions from other industries cashing in on cheap and abundant supplies of oil and gas from shale deposits."
In West Virginia, Odebrecht has not yet provided any estimates of the size of its proposed cracker or the potential pollution it might create. But state officials are fairly confident it will meet the 100,000-tons-per-year emissions threshold to quality as a "major source" of greenhouse emissions.
For years, West Virginia law has generally prohibited state regulators from issuing any new rules or permits that would limit greenhouse gas emissions, absent a federal mandate to do so and separate legislative approval.
Then, in May 2010, the Obama administration issued what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called its greenhouse gas "tailoring rule." It set up the guidelines for what size industrial facilities need to consider greenhouse gas emissions when they obtain construction permits.
Once the EPA issued its rule, West Virginia had two choices: The state could go along, and add similar language to the its air pollution rules, or it could refuse -- setting up a legal fight and likely leading the EPA to take over review of those sorts of permits.
In Texas, officials decided to fight the EPA. Federal officials did take over some of that state's permitting functions, and Texas officials have continued a court fight to block the EPA's greenhouse emissions rules.
West Virginia DEP officials decided not to take that route. In January 2011, they added greenhouse gas language to an air pollution rule rewrite that was already being considered by the Legislature. Lawmakers approve the language, and it took effect in June 2011.
So, when Odebrecht submits an air pollution permit, the company will have to prove that it's proposing to use the "best available control technology," or BACT, for its greenhouse emissions. DEP officials will have to verify the company's claims.
DEP air quality engineer Joe Kessler said that in Texas, the EPA has issued several BACT determinations for cracker facilities like the one being considered for Wood County. The EPA has not required those facilities to capture and store their carbon dioxide emissions, he said. Instead, federal officials have focused on requiring companies to use efficiency, combustion controls, and leak detection and repair efforts to limit their greenhouse emissions. Without an actual permit application in hand, though, it's hard for DEP officials to say what they might require of a cracker plant in West Virginia.
"We want to know a little bit about what we're really looking at," Kessler said.
Meanwhile, though, Tomblin and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey have filed a "friend of the court" brief to support the effort by Texas to have the EPA's "tailoring rule" on greenhouse emissions thrown out.
In their legal brief, Tomblin and Morrisey argue that processing the greenhouse gas portion of air pollution permits is overly costly and too much of a burden for the DEP.
The Texas case is one of several the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear from industry groups and states that are trying to derail the EPA's initiatives aimed at curbing climate change.
"They are arguing that the federal Clean Air Act was not intended to address greenhouse gases," said John Walke, clean air director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "and the state of West Virginia is making clear that, absent any federal mandate, they would not do so."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.