Factory near Houston would convert garbage into jet fuel. “Green” energy or trash talk?

Factory near Houston would convert garbage into jet fuel. “Green” energy or trash talk?

July 26, 2023

The Houston Ship Channel is already ground zero for fossil fuel processing.  But now, a bioenergy company has plans to bring something new to the crowded industrial hub: a facility that converts landfill trash, including single-use plastic, into jet fuel. With the aviation industry rapidly growing, and pressure mounting for it to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, the implications are large. But so are the obstacles, with experts and environmentalists doubting not only the viability of the technology, but also its potential for worsening air pollution.

On Nov. 14, the company, Fulcrum Bioenergy, received $57 million in tax breaks over 15 years from a local school district in Baytown to build its proposed Trinity Fuels Biorefinery on the eastern side of the Houston Ship Channel.  Fulcrum expects the $800 million plant to begin operating in 2025 not far from Trinity Bay, near Tri Cities Beach Road, according to school district documents. Baytown is already home to an ExxonMobil oil refinery and chemical complex, one of the largest petrochemical campuses in the country.

Air Alliance Houston executive director Jennifer Hadayia expressed concerns about the potential air pollution from the proposed Fulcrum project.  Even though the facility claims it will be recycling waste, she said, “it will still be bringing a new process that will create new carcinogens and new emissions to a community that’s overburdened.”

Hadayia called it part of an “enterprise of chemical recycling” that is moving into the Houston area and trying to establish itself as a petrochemical-friendly solution to the problem of plastic waste. “This is the fourth type of facility somehow claiming to take single use plastics and turn into something great, like, jet fuel,” she said.

An aerial view of petrochemical facilities lining the Houston Ship Channel. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

After a decade of effort, in December 2022, Fulcrum Bioenergy produced its first synthetic crude oil made from landfill waste at a plant outside of Reno, Nevada, called the Sierra BioFuels Plant. The company is now planning to develop three more similar waste-to-fuel refineries, in Gary, Indiana, Cheshire, U.K., and Baytown, Texas.  

Eric Pryor, Fulcrum's President and CEO, said the opening of the company’s Reno plant “opens the door for our plans to transform landfill waste around the world into a low-carbon transportation fuel in a way that will have a profound environmental impact.”  

He continued: “Successfully creating a low-carbon fuel entirely from landfill waste validates the strength of our process and our partners’ unwavering belief in and support for our business model.”

Fulcrum has the support of the Biden Administration, which has pledged $4 billion to the development of low-carbon fuel to help unlock “the potential for a fully zero-carbon aviation sector by 2050.” According to EPA, aviation produces 10 percent of United States transportation-related emissions, and three percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  Having grown faster in recent decades than rail, road or shipping, without intervention that percentage is likely to grow. Internationally, the same trend applies. Without a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, the aviation industry will increasingly represent a larger percentage of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions as it is an especially challenging sector to decarbonize.

According to the company, the Reno facility has the potential to convert 175,000 tons of garbage per year—including as much as 30 percent plastic waste—into 11 million gallons of clean, synthetic fuel.  

But the Reno plant also produces air pollution. According to the facility’s permitting documents examined by Oil & Gas Watch News, the plant is allowed to emit not only up to 316,234 tons of greenhouse gases per year, but also 256 tons per year of potentially health-damaging pollutants. These include 91 tons per year of nitrogen oxides and 56 tons per year of volatile organic compounds (both of which contribute to smog), and 20 tons per year of microscopic soot-like particulates that can trigger asthma and heart attacks.

Plans for the Trinity Fuels Biorefinery near Houston are far more ambitious, converting 700,000 tons of garbage per year into 31 million gallons of fuel starting as soon as 2025. The amount of air pollution that would be produced by the plant are not yet available, because the company has not yet applied for an air pollution control permit.

Overall, the company has a plan to grow its program of waste-to-fuels plants across North America and internationally to a production capacity of approximately 400 million gallons of fuel per year.  

John C. Fleming, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said that while bioenergy technology could lead to some reduction in the airline industry’s carbon footprint, reliance on landfill waste must remain limited, otherwise it could exacerbate the environmental impacts of landfills.  

“Plastic, a large component of landfill waste, should not be used since it stores carbon over a long period of time if it remains in a landfill,” he said. “Using plastic for fuel production means losing this carbon storage. Because landfill waste is a limited resource that cannot be scaled up, and the amounts available are not enough to satisfy all jet fuel demand, the bioenergy technology proposed will not solve the aviation emissions problem.”

Fleming said the Biden Administration is selling itself short in relying so heavily on alternative fuels.  

“The Biden administration had the opportunity to establish an aviation greenhouse gas emissions standard that would have pushed for technological and operational improvements in the aviation sector and would have produced significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” he said. “But the EPA instead settled for a rule that leads to no emissions reductions. In this way, the administration has fallen short of the action needed to decarbonize aviation and meet its climate goals.”

The Department of Energy released a Roadmap to Achieve Carbon Neutral Aviation Emissions in September 2022 to help spur the innovation of sustainable aviation fuels.  

“From field to flight, this data-driven technology strategy will help guide America’s scientists and industry to chart our course to clean skies,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm of the plan. “Not only is Sustainable Aviation Fuel critical to decarbonizing the airline industry and reaching our climate goals, but this plan will help American companies corner the market on a valuable emerging industry.” 

Sustainable Aviation Fuel is a heart-warming, rather than planet-warming, term, but, as a 2022 Center for Biological Diversity report on “The Biofuels Myth” points out, there is currently no adequate definition of “sustainable” in the aviation fuels context. According to the center’s  analysis, only municipal solid waste, wastewater sludge, and crop residues passed the assessment for sustainability. “But the availability of these feedstocks is far from that required to meet the Biden administration’s 2050 goal—only 4 percent to 38 percent of the predicted 35-billion-gallon demand.”

While Fulcrum’s landfill-sourced fuel potentially meets the center’s sustainability requirement, the process for converting the trash to usable hydrocarbons is complex and energy-intensive. In its simplest description, the process entails five steps, as laid out on the company website: feedstock preparation, gasification, Syngas Clean-up, Fischer-Tropsch reactor, and upgrading to jet fuel.  

Fleming said these processes involve the formation of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and soot or particulate matter, which have been linked to human health harms.  

“This would rightfully be an environmental justice concern for communities in the vicinity of proposed bioenergy facilities,” he said. “These communities should have assurances that the pollutants associated with the proposed fuel production technologies will not make their way into their homes and threaten their health.”

Andrew Rollinson, a renewable energy expert and consultant who has researched the conversion of waste to renewable energy, is highly skeptical of Fulcrum’s plans, and questions the company’s claims to have produced sustainable aviation fuel from landfill waste.  

“Attempting to turn waste into fuel would be so energy and resource intensive, if it were even possible, that it is just engineering nonsense,” Rollinson said.

Rollinson also said there is a high risk for fire, explosion, and toxicity for workers at these facilities. Rollinson thinks sustainable airline fuels from landfills are a pipedream and a distraction from more effective ways of reducing landfill waste.

“There is no way to avoid aircraft emissions, and if the industry must expand then so must the greenhouse gases and other pollutants that the industry puts into the atmosphere,” he said. “The only way to cut significantly back greenhouse gas emissions from air travel is to significantly cut down on the number of flights.”

Fleming suggested battery electrification in the aviation sector may hold promise.

“Battery electric propulsion for short-haul aircraft is already within reach, and we could see a future with battery electric long-haul aircraft as well if research and resources were put toward the goal,” he said.

As noted in a 2020 report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), less than half of one percent of aviation fuel currently comes from alternatives to crude oil. The report states that pyrolysis—the heating of organic matter, such as biomass from landfills, to high temperatures until it decomposes—“remains at 'early demonstration stage' due to its products’ high viscosity, water, acidity and oxygen content, as well as chemical instability.”

“The problems with gasification as a mixed-waste-to-fuel process have been known for a century,” the report states.  

Heavy equipment levels out municipal waste at a landfill in Houston. Photo by M&R Glasgow.

Jane Williams, executive director of the environmental nonprofit California Communities Against Toxics, said the byproduct of the heating of landfill waste (pyrolysis) is essentially a hazardous waste.

“The whole concept of taking plastic and cooking it and then trying to make it into aviation fuels is, in my mind, is just a complete greenwashing crackpot scheme at this point,” she said.  

Williams thinks the Biden administration should be investing in battery technology “and not chasing switchgrass, plastic to fuel, fusion, or other crazy schemes. The technological race is clearly pointing to solar and wind and storage.”

She added that an analysis of the environmental justice impacts of pyrolysis and gasification projects showed that over 80 percent of the facilities are in communities that are lower income or people of color.   In fact, Fulcrum’s Gary, Indiana, plant is being met with significant community pushback for its location in an environmental justice community already burdened with decades of heavily polluting industry.  

The proposed Trinity Fuels Biorefinery outside of Houston will include three separate facilities: two feedstock processing facilities that prepare the household garbage and one biorefinery that will convert the prepared feedstock into jet fuel. Fulcrum says it will prioritize the hiring of Gulf Coast residents whenever feasible for the construction and operations of the plant, which will create over 1,000 temporary jobs and 200 permanent positions.

Gulf Coast residents have been hearing these types of commitments for generations. More and more, long-time residents, such as Port Arthur’s John Beard, are waking up to the unstated compromises inherent in such promises.  

“They’re still writing a blank check to industry to do what they’ve always done, more exporting, more drilling,” Beard, a former refinery worker and founder of the nonprofit Port Arthur Community Action Network, recently told The Houston Chronicle. “They build here because they’re the path of least resistance where they can get away with the pollution and the fires. They don’t build them in Beverly Hills.”

Lead photo: Fulcrum's Sierra Biorefinery, located in Reno, Nevada. Courtesy of Fulcrum Bioenergy media kit.

Ari Phillips
Senior Writer and Editor

Ari joined Environmental Integrity Project in 2018 after working as an environmental reporter and editor for ClimateProgress, Univision’s Project Earth, and Gizmodo Media’s Earther. He’s also freelanced for a number of outlets. He has masters degrees in journalism and global policy studies from the University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. from UC-Santa Barbara.

Factory near Houston would convert garbage into jet fuel. “Green” energy or trash talk?

Factory near Houston would convert garbage into jet fuel. “Green” energy or trash talk?

July 26, 2023
Ari Phillips
Senior Writer and Editor

Ari joined Environmental Integrity Project in 2018 after working as an environmental reporter and editor for ClimateProgress, Univision’s Project Earth, and Gizmodo Media’s Earther. He’s also freelanced for a number of outlets. He has masters degrees in journalism and global policy studies from the University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. from UC-Santa Barbara.