The Appalachian Storage Hub “Bait and Switch” by Alice Melendez

Bait and Switch- The Usual

We have all become familiar with one kind of fossil fuel corporate shell game: the one where lower performing ‘assets’ (land, minerals, and ‘rights’) are sold off to small companies with weak legal connections to key human players and limited capital so that when clean-up and worker pay/healthcare obligations come due after the mining party is over, the small companies can declare bankruptcy and leave the taxpayer and underfunded state agencies on the hook for the hazardous waste and sick people <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/01/09/kent-j09.html >. The Appalachian Storage Hub conference held this week in Canonsburg, PA illustrates a different bait and switch.

Bait and Switch- The Shine-stealers

When I first looked at the conference program, Perry Babb, caught my attention, naming his talk “A Low-Carbon Future for Natural Gas in the Appalachian Basin ” while touting his skills at ‘rescuing stranded natural gas assets’ for people on the hook financially. On the surface, it looks like the story of the broader greenwashing of natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, obscuring the millions of cubic feet of ‘fugitive’ methane emissions at the wellheads, redirecting investment from renewables and proving the climate-friendly storyline to be fraud.

But his talk is part of another bait and switch. He speaks in Canonsburg to provide cover for other sleights of hand in shifting power-stories about the future of the Appalachian Basin petrochemical development. Why is one of the keynote speakers at the ‘storage hub’ conference behind a vertically integrated wellhead-to-product project that doesn’t need any shared storage? His project vision has literally nothing to do with the fantasy Appalachian Storage Hub Mont Belveiu-like scenario <https://environmentalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/EIP_Ethane-hub-memo.pdf >, other than he also-uses natural gas. So, why the hell is he a main speaker? Partly because the ASH project has so few actual supporters to present. Take a look at their tired, blast from the dinosaur past website, like Becky Christmas of Reuter’s Upstream and their team of shiny tech-wizards wouldn’t answer the calls to shine up and sell the conference. They are stuck with Topline Analytics who hasn’t updated their website since 2014 (the financial story from today just doesn’t sell as well <https://www.toplineanalytics.com/shale-gas-matters/ >) and even they don’t mention going to the conference this year in ‘upcoming events’.

Babb’s team has designed an innovative, potentially sane medium-term manufacturing/ climate-transition business that could keep fossil fuel wealth multipliers in the local economy<https://www.appastorage.com/app/download/15607524/KeyState+NGS+Public+Updats+9.10.20.pdf >. It has replicable elements while following the thread of experience which teaches us that local contexts are unique and that when investment and design plans are copy-pasted across the world we end up with the colonial hell that is currently crashing our health, economy and critical ecological infrastructure. Babb offers the Appalachian Storage Hub project-from-hell a chance to rub off some of his ‘shine’. They use him to create a mirage. The wizards behind the curtain pretend their plan has something to do with carbon-capture scaled on-site to match the project. They pretend their plan is driven by needed products and not by what mining outputs they need to sell. They pretend their plan gives two shits about the massive bleeds of the earth’s blood and guts and vapors out into the atmosphere, about the climactic catastrophe they are spelling into existence with their arcane formulations of chemistry and debt. He builds churches but here at Canonsburg he’s selling his soul <http://www.keychurch.net/our-covenant.html > for new investors. At the scale of major manufacturing, working in the existing world system, even for someone who recognizes the need to transition, the money-lenders circle around the petrochemical industry.

Bait and Switch- “Game-changer?” Or “Just a warehouse”

Another lead speaker, Mike Tritt, says in his press release on the conference website that ASH won’t be built as it was proposed <https://www.appastorage.com/presentations/mike-tritt-press-release/ >. Damn guys. But, “Lane Power’s leader is convinced rather than one large storage facility, a number of smaller storage projects will be built in the Appalachian Basin, offering capacities between 2 million barrels and five million barrels, costing between $200 and $300 million.” He would know, his team actually builds the underground caverns to store the stuff. David Hooker of Mountaineer NGL storage called Hedrick’s competing Appalachian Storage Hub project ‘pie in the sky,’ saying it’s too large for the needs of the region. Hooker also said he has no plans to turn his project into anything like the Mont Belvieu complex, with its long history of mishaps and environmental violations. “We just want to be a warehouse,” he told James Bruggers of Inside Climate News<https://insideclimatenews.org/news/20032020/appalachia-future-center-petrochemicals-coronavirus-plastic-ethane >. Hooker is currently reapplying for permits to Ohio Department of “Environmental Protection” after Ohio DEP failed to follow their legal public comment process for a project-type which has never been built in our region and which fails catastrophically when and whereever it does fail <https://www.tankstoragemag.com/2020/09/30/ohio-cancels-drilling-permits-for-mountaineer-ngl-storage/ >.

According to the Department of Energy report “All Benefits, No Costs!,” Appalachia can separate 1.1 million BPD into discreet natural gas liquid components, so the two million barrel storage cavern handles a couple days worth of production in a floating capacity for downstream users, while most will still be going away in pipelines, particularly the ATEX capacity expansion. The storage hub Tritt and Hooker refer to is truly just a dirty, dangerous warehouse for a product which, while initially generating gasps of amazement <https://www.pinterest.com/pin/320670435943581100/ >, is now generally recognized as a scourge covering over the planet in garbage and poison <https://psmag.com/environment/almost-all-of-the-plastic-produced-since-1950-is-still-in-landfills >.  Besides greenwashing, and shine-stealing, the bad wizards behind the Appalachian Storage Hub (and their stooges at county economic development offices) are jobswashing, fooling the people who will suffer the impacts of the petrochemical build-out on the Ohio River into thinking that, at least, it will lead to long-term money in the pockets of regular working people <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyCCJ6B2WE >.

When the American Chemical Council makes up the widely-repeated story about a hundred thousand jobs coming to the region, the layers of bullshit are literally so many and so deep that the muck would suck off your shoes and leave you cussing and coming back with a shovel to extract your footwear. Really. The assumptions built into their models have proven to be wrong in the past. They get paid to make planned facilities look better-than-reality, to secure government funds and investors, to convince people-in-the-way who might complain at public hearings and fight permits that they will benefit and never feel costs. Please read Sean O’Leary’s useful true accounting, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Economic Impact Studies” <https://ohiorivervalleyinstitute.org/lies-damned-lies-and-economic-impact-studies/ > about this project’s data sources and methodologies.

Even in the ACC study used to transmit politically-useful fraudulent claims about the economic impacts of the proposed development, they reveal the true driver of the project. As much as they wish to dress the industry up in the appearance of ‘the public good,’ their calculations are all about using all the mined resource they can get their hands on, as quick as possible.  And this is opposite the public interest. 

From their report (my comments in italics):

The Appalachian region is an ideal location for the emergence of a second major petrochemical manufacturing hub in the United States, offering benefits such as:

  • Proximity to abundant NGL resources from the Marcellus/Utica and Rogersville shale formations [the mine is the driver]
  • Proximity to manufacturing markets in the Midwest and along much of the East Coast [the distance to Midwest and East Coast is relative to how far the NGLs are processed. If they are still mixed, liquid hazardous material, the cost of using existing pipelines versus the price of the unrefined material is the issue; if they are moving nurdles and processed chemicals valuable enough to warrant paying to move by tanker, they can move by road/rail/barge… the critical issue is to limit the distance the unrefined chemical has to move]
  • -Opportunity to strengthen the U.S. economy by providing employment and supply diversity [one could provide employment almost any other way, what if our government was giving $500,000 to 80,000 smallish businesses instead of sending Chuck Zelek to the ASH Conference with a briefcase full of $40 billion in easy debt for big dogs only?; the key here is creating multiple sites to keep the processing of the raw mine material moving at the pace of the wellheads]
  • -Opportunity to enable high-value ethane use to create U.S.-made products, while avoiding ethane rejection [burning ethane or selling it below cost of transport is the great driver, here mentioned explicitly]

More or less, the idea that we need the product is not mentioned as a potential benefit of a potential hub located here. Tritt does mention potential for clients for hydrogen storage. Here is a zero carbon emissions fuel, which requires massive amounts of mostly natural gas (or maybe even Clean Coal TM?!) -fueled electricity to separate the hydrogen and store it for fuel, making it a perfect greenwashing candidate for public consumption while also helping with the apparently critical challenge of creating markets for that financially-stranded natural gas.

Tritt of Lane Power will headline the ASH conference because any cavern storage building project is a huge capital expense and he makes his money from the highly specialized work of building them. I’d say not many folks could secure good enough liability insurance or otherwise manage cost of risk to handle the fall-out when a cavern leaks or blows at the wellhead and creates a toxic cloud and/or massive explosion <https://ogst.ifpenergiesnouvelles.fr/articles/ogst/full_html/2019/01/ogst180301/ogst180301.html>. But Tritt of Lane Power knows and makes known that the real prospect for “development” is nothing like the showy studies presented to the public. He will get his team whatever money he can from the pent up political energy that created all those great promotional materials that cover the asses of the “public servants” who need to subsidize the projects. And he will tell the conference goers that the project in the promo and the reality are completely different because he knows the public doesn’t read much. Whoever you are, reading this blog, you know you are the exception (now what are we going to do about it?).

Bait and Switch – The Power of the Four Denials

As people every one of us tangled in a massive complex infrastructure that sustains our very lives through burning of fossil fuels, we are dependent on fossil fuels. They are precious. SOME of the chemistry and engineering that moves and transforms them does, whether we like it or not, serve us (and as one who enjoys hot showers, coffee, internet and cheap food particularly, I admit I often do like it, even as I experiment with ways to get these pleasures differently <https://newdream.org/blog/excerpt-the-art-of-frugal-hedonism >). But some of the mining and burning is clearly stupid and serving no one but the wealthy mining gambler as high-paid CEO, the engineer with a big paycheck following orders and making the will of the schemers material and concrete, the super-rich financier needing a massive capital-intensive project where to park their money outside a bank. So-called ‘environmentalists’ are scripted to “Just Say No” to all big projects and then painted as naive, but we are more than the term and the protest sign <https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-10-13/who-is-we/ >. The ‘industrialists’ are scripted to feed projects to the ‘economic developmentalists’ that they know will sacrifice the regions where they are built, poisoning and trapping people with no other options for livelihood. Both tribes pretend they don’t know that and that the opposite is true.

All of these enormous lies flow out of what the carefully-named Gesturing Toward Decolonial Futures folks call “The Four Denials” <https://decolonialfutures.net/4denials/ >.

  1. the denial of systemic violence and complicity in harm (the fact that our comforts, securities and enjoyments are subsidized by expropriation and exploitation somewhere else),
  2. the denial of the limits of the planet (the fact that the planet cannot sustain exponential growth and consumption),
  3. the denial of entanglement (our insistence in seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land, rather than “entangled” within a living wider metabolism that is bio-intelligent), and
  4. denial of the depth and magnitude of the problems that we face.

Sit with the four denials a while. Sit some more. We can all become better earthlings through this practice of honesty. No bait and switch, sit with a deeper reality. Then consider: What if Preventing Collapse Isn’t Profitable? <https://www.postcarbon.org/what-if-preventing-collapse-isnt-profitable/>. Then consider the confessions of a fossil fuel addict who thinks about it real hard <https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-08-06/im-sian-and-im-a-fossil-fuel-addict-on-paradox-disavowal-and-impossibility-in-changing-climate-change/ > and her wish list for how we might handle ourselves going forward. This includes

  • rethinking our relationship to the fossil fuels and mined minerals themselves, considering that they have a place in their ground, that they and the lands and beings surrounding them have value as working communities of life and spirit, energy and structure, and not only as extracted, disembodied commodities.
  • Giving love to government regulators and negotiators in tough places trying to figure out how to square a circle and fit round pegs of future life-support in square holes of a culture in a millennias-long death spiral
  • Loving fossil fuel industry folks who have “made both the delights and the difficulties of our current lives possible [and…] need non-violent communications and support in order to divest and/or to fuel transformation.”
  • A complete reconfiguring of the fossil fuel industry. Currently dominated by rapacious profit-driven and destructive corporate entities supporting and protected by military adventure, fossil fuel producers surely need to be taken into public ownership and regulated to invest income in the production of renewables as well as for the public good more broadly… A possibility here though is for fossil fuels and other minerals to be extracted only under structures akin to a Norway-style sovereign wealth fund, established, to ensure responsible and long-term management of revenue from Norway’s oil and gas resources in the North Sea so that this wealth benefits both current and future generations.

Let’s STOP FALLING FOR the bait and switch, let’s stop ENABLING the bait and switch, let’s stop ENACTING the bait and switch on our neighbors. I know its hard to be real, to look at the four denials and our part in them, to consider the scale of what is needed, but it beats the alternative. We are not a bunch of suckers, hanging on every lying word of some sad wizard with a powerpoint behind a shabby curtain.  There’s no place like home everybody.

With love,

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