Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Penn State's Jenn Baka Receives National Science Foundation Grant For A 5-Year Study Of The Shell Ethane Plant's Environmental And Human Impacts In Beaver County

By Francisco Tutella,
Penn State News

A new ethane cracker plant in western Pennsylvania may transform the Ohio River Valley into an industrial hub, but its footprint will extend far beyond the energy sector.

Jenn Baka, associate professor of geography at Penn State, received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award to examine the cracker plant’s impact on humans’ relationship to the environment and environmental policymaking.

The cracker plant will take ethane, a chemical byproduct of shale gas development, and transform it into components used to make plastics. The current regulatory system treats the plant and each pipeline that runs into it as separate components. 

Baka will look at the facility and pipelines as a single system to get a comprehensive understanding of its environmental impacts and how it influences environmental policymaking.

“Because of the way the regulatory system is constructed, each gas well sending ethane to the plant and each pipeline is regulated separately instead of looking at the system as a whole,” said Baka. “The big question I’m looking at is: if we treat the wells, pipelines and plant as a system rather than as individual components, how does that change our understanding of the human-environmental impacts of the system? We have an opportunity here to engage regulators and industry operators early in the process so if we find environmental burdens building up in certain areas, we can help reduce those environmental impacts.”

Baka's approach to the five-year project, which falls under the nascent field of political-industrial ecology, will examine the environmental impact of the whole system and how environmental costs are distributed across society. 

She will also study power relations and see who gets and does not get a say in the decision-making processes that affect communities in the impacted areas. 

The political-industrial ecology approach is an important lens to apply to understanding the industrial sector of society, according to Baka.

Baka received a seed grant from Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment that helped facilitate her earning this CAREER award, as well as a John T. Ryan, Jr. Faculty Fellowship from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. 

She is also a co-funded faculty member of IEE and is an associate of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. 

She currently serves as a member of the Environmental Justice Advisory Board for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“Funding from IEE and the Ryan Fellowship helped me to conduct preliminary fieldwork to conceptualize the project,” said Baka. “I was able to meet community groups and begin building trust with stakeholders through this preliminary fieldwork. Serving on EJAB helps me to facilitate communication between communities and government officials.”

The project includes learning and outreach components for Penn State students and communities impacted by energy development. 

Baka will mentor undergraduate students as they design case studies on energy landscapes to support a new online undergraduate course open to students across all Penn State campuses. 

Graduate students working on the project will conduct regulatory reviews and interviews with communities in West Virginia where similar cracker plant projects have been proposed. 

Baka also will work with students and the Penn State Center for Immersive Experiences to develop the first immersive virtual field trip of the new petrochemical corridor in the Ohio River Valley. 

The immersive virtual field trip will show students and citizen scientists how energy development transforms environments.

The research team will present their findings and host discussions with community members and individuals from academia, industry, government agencies and environmental organizations at the annual Shale Network Workshop.

“Different stakeholder groups participate, to varying degrees, in the decision-making processes related to energy development,” Baka said. “Shale Network has had success hosting 10 meetings where all the different stakeholders have come together to discuss, in a very civil way, the environmental future of Pennsylvania and the Marcellus region. Historically, we’ve talked more about water impacts from unconventional energy development. Now, this petrochemical corridor in the Ohio River Valley is coming to the forefront, and it’s important to address it.”

Baka intends to use the findings from the research, education and outreach components of the project to make policy recommendations that help to reduce environmental burdens. 

Southwest Pennsylvania already suffers from poor air quality because of the historic legacy of industrial development and regional topography, she said. 

The cracker plant will be one of the state’s largest emitters of volatile organic compounds, a main component of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory health issues.  

“Much of the public discourse surrounding the cracker plant focuses on its potential to create jobs and start a plastics manufacturing industry in southwest Pennsylvania,” said Baka. “It can be transformative for Pennsylvania’s and the Appalachian region’s economy and environment and a way to revitalize Rust Belt towns. I’m looking at how we can build out a new industrial sector while avoiding the environmental burdens of the past.”


(Reprinted from Penn State News.)


-- WESA/The Allegheny Front - Reid Frazier: How Shell’s New Ethane Cracker In Beaver County Will Impact Air Quality, Jobs, Property Values [And The State Budget]

-- Inside Climate News - Reid Frazier: New Shell Ethane Plant In Beaver County Will Soon Become The State’s 2nd Largest Emitter Of Volatile Organic Compounds

-- TribLive Editorial: State Fines Should Be Higher Than Tax Cuts To Penalize Environmental Leaks [PaEN]

-- Republican Herald Editorial: State Lawmakers Should Adopt Rules That Preclude State Taxpayers From Subsidizing Pollution From Oil & Gas Industry  [PaEN]

-- Citizens Voice Editorial: Subsidizing Pollution - Taxpayers Pay $1.7 Billion To Subsidize Shell Ethane Plant In Beaver County 

[Posted: October 19, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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