SCRANTON, Pennsylvania -- A company called Nacero Inc. plans to build multi-billion-dollar plants here in Pennsylvania and in West Texas to produce vehicle fuels marketed as “blue” and “green” gasoline.
What, exactly, is “green” gasoline? Is it an oxymoron, like “clean” coal?
According to the Houston-based company, blue and green gasolines are fuels synthesized from natural gas that emit less greenhouse gases than standard gasoline when produced and burned. In a process first developed by ExxonMobil in the 1970s, natural gas first becomes syngas (a blend of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide), which is then converted to methanol, and finally gasoline.
“Blue” gasoline, according to the company’s definition, is made from standard natural gas drilling operations, like hydraulic fracturing wells. Nacero claims that “blue” is better for the environment than normal gasoline because it is not derived from crude oil, which has a higher sulfur content and other impurities, meaning that burning it creates more sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants.
“Green” gasoline, according to the company, is produced from methane recycled from sources like landfills, factory-scale hog and dairy farms, and wastewater treatment plants, or captured from the venting of refining or drilling operations.
Nacero’s boasts about their products are bold. “Nacero Blue will be cost-competitive with traditional gasoline and can reduce the lifecycle carbon footprint of your car or truck's fuel in half,” the company claims on its website. “Nacero Green can reduce the lifecycle carbon footprint of your vehicle's fuel all the way to zero or below.”
Two proposed Nacero gasoline plants have public records available on the Oil & Gas Watch database: the Marcellus project, in eastern Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, near Scranton; and a plant in Penwell, near Odessa, in West Texas. A third plant has been announced by the company for Kingman, Arizona, although that proposal is at an earlier phase. The company claims its factories will run solely on renewable power and capture the carbon dioxide they produce, and then transport the carbon offsite via pipeline to sequester it underground or inject it into the ground to enhance oil extraction. (This carbon sequestration is part of the reason the company claims its fuels are “green.”) But none of the plants have been built yet, so it is difficult to judge how much of the company’s claims are true or false.
Environmental organizations in Pennsylvania are fighting the Marcellus project because of the air pollution and greenhouse gases it would likely produce, as well as the traffic it would generate and the pipelines that would be built to support it.
“Nacero blue is fracked gas. That’s not anything clean,” said Susan Volz, advocacy coordinator with the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council. “The difference between Nacero blue and green is just the source of the gas to make gasoline. They call green a mix of gas from agricultural sites and landfills and waste treatment facilities….. When people find out that this will be a large source of air pollution there’s a lot of concern about the impacts on public health.”
Karen Feridun, co-founder of the Better Path Coalition, a grassroots coalition of organizations committed to bringing clean energy to Pennsylvania, was skeptical of the claims that the Nacero Marcellus plant would become environmentally friendly by capturing carbon dioxide and pumping it underground. “It hasn’t been shown that we can effectively use carbon capture at an industrial scale to mitigate climate change,” Feridun said. “We’re dumping billions of tax dollars into things that are distractions from actual solutions.”
Independent experts in the field caution that, no matter how gasoline is produced, burning it is not carbon neutral.
“Combustion is the real issue, burning gasoline releases toxic emissions that harm human health and will cause death and illness,” said Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. “Their claims of being environmentally friendly ignore aspects of air pollution beyond carbon dioxide (CO2).”
He added that when carbon dioxide is captured and pumped into the ground for the extraction of more oil (as Nacero is planning to do), this just creates more greenhouse gases. “If the CO2 is used for oil extraction, much of it will go back into the atmosphere,” said Jacobson.
The Nacero Marcellus plant may use renewable power, but in the service of the continued production and combustion of fossil fuels. “These fuels will commit us to building more fossil fuel infrastructure and lock us into a future of burning more gasoline,” Jacobson said. “It’s just the industry trying to stay relevant as long as possible.”
Daniel Cohan is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who recently published a book titled “Confronting Climate Gridlock.” He said he is skeptical that any vehicle fuel produced from natural gas will actually be helpful for combatting climate change.
“Those ideas are out there,” Cohan said of “green” gasoline made from natural gas. “But none of them make any sense unless we dramatically slash the amount of methane leaking out of oil and gas operations and do a much better job dealing with the many other environmental harms that come with oil and gas drilling. We need to look beyond just climate. We need to realize that oil and gas drilling has taken a terrible toll on our water systems and on the communities near drilling sites… And so until the supply chain of oil and gas can become much cleaner than it is today, any fuels derived from oil and gas won’t be truly clean.”
An article by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change concluded that the use of natural gas to create liquid fuel (“gas to liquid,” or GTL) for the transportation sector was not economically viable because of the high cost. “Even without a carbon cap, the prospects for GTL are not bright because it needs a certain price ratio of oil to natural gas: relatively high oil prices and relatively low natural gas prices,” Mark Dwortzan wrote. “We tested the potential futures and concluded that large-scale deployment of GTL is not economical.”
Nacero did not respond to questions about their proposed gas-to-liquids plants sent by Oil & Gas Watch News.
Potential emissions from the Pennsylvania plant are not available, because the company has not yet applied for an air pollution control permit there. But the Clean Air Council released a fact sheet about the project that says: “The process that the refinery would use to make the synthetic gasoline is a very energy-intensive process that creates significant amounts of air pollution. If this facility is similar to the one Nacero proposed in Texas, it would be a major source of harmful air pollution and greenhouse gases (GHGs) that accelerate climate change.”
According to an air pollution control permit for the Nacero Texas project available in the Oil & Gas Watch database, the Penwell facility, located about 15 minutes west of Odessa in West Texas, would release up to 1,636 tons of carbon monoxide per year, along with 602 tons of volatile organic compounds (which contribute to smog), 534 tons of nitrogen oxides, 240 tons of particulate matter (which can trigger asthma and heart attacks), 96 tons of hazardous air pollutants, and 78 tons of sulfur dioxide per year. On top of this would be 5.7 million tons per year of greenhouse gases.
Eighty nine people live within three miles of the plant, and 90 percent of them are people of color, while 40 percent of the local residents are considered low income, according to EPA data on the Oil & Gas Watch database.
The Penwell project was first announced in 2012 and the expected year of completion is 2027, though it is still in a preconstruction phase with the company facing a deadline to begin construction by May 2023. Once operational, the plant would have the capacity to convert 30,000 metric tons of methanol from natural gas into 115,000 barrels of gasoline products each day.
A much greater density of people live near the $6 billion Pennsylvania project. According to EPA data available on the Oil & Gas Watch database, about 15,300 people live within 3 miles of the proposed Nacero Marcellus project southwest of Scranton, and nearly 40 percent of this population is considered low-income.
During a recent visit to Newport Township to talk to local people about the project, two local residents – Charlotte Sopka Santry and Scott Cannon said they had lots of questions about the project, as they talked in a café about three miles from Nacero’s proposed site.
“Nobody knows anything because Nacero hasn’t been here to answer our questions,” said Cannon, a video producer. “There are so many questions. How are they going to get the gas here? How are they going to get the product out? Where are they going to get the electricity? There’s nobody here that can answer these questions.”
Santry is an environment advocate who has lived in Luzerne County most her life. She said she attends local government meetings every chance she gets to ask questions about the plant. “We don’t get straight answers about it,” she said. “They try not to talk about the Nacero plant. I’m the one who brings it up usually.”
When asked why she believes Nacero has selected this area, she offered her theory: “The land is cheap and they consider us naïve, they think we won’t fight anything.” She continued: “They say it’s garbage land and nobody wants it; it’s useless. Which is wrong, nature will reclaim it, it always does. That has value.”
Nature is reclaiming the land from coal mining operations that dominated the area for decades. Heaps of coal mining waste (called culm) rise on the land Nacero plans to take over.
Construction of the facility atop flammable coal mining refuse has raised concern among some residents who worry about fires. Earlier this year, Cannon said he received a call warning him that there may be an active underground fire within the culm banks near where Nacero plans to build its facility. Cannon said he phoned the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to alert them of the potential fire, and then went out and used a heat-sensing video camera to locate two spots on the ground that were abnormally hot.
Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said they sent out an inspector with a heat-detecting camera on August 9, but found nothing. “The results of the investigation found that no mine fire existed atop the culm pile or beneath the surface,” Connolly said.
Some local residents don't feel reassured about the safety of the plant. Beyond questions about building atop coal waste, some worry about the adequacy of local roads and bridges with the large increase in truck traffic expected for the plant.
“We are deeply concerned by the announcement of a gas to gasoline refinery to be constructed in Luzerne County,” said Kristin Volchansky, political and advocacy organizer for Action Together NEPA (North East Pennsylvania). “We are united in expressing our shared belief that this plant does not belong near a populated residential neighborhood, and that its construction raises serious health and safety concerns, none of which have been scientifically studied for a first-of-its-kind refinery in the United States.”