Extreme Energy: fracked gas in the era of Covid- 19

hile the public-at-large adheres to lockdown guidelines due to Covid-19, the oil and gas industry is running roughshod over local communities, refusing to curtail its projects. As soon as Covid-19 became a threat to the incessant pursuit of ever-more infrastructure, industry called in its chips at the Trump Administration, securing ‘Essential Critical Infrastructure’ status for all its projects. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) went so far as to create a new upper management position — the ‘Pandemic Liaison’ — designed not to address growing public outrage, but to streamline services to industry. To anyone watching, the trend is clear: oil and gas turned Covid-19 into own risk stimulant, dramatically undercutting public health in order to consolidate assets and power.

On the ground, this new affront is part of a larger trend towards Extreme Energy- methods, geographies and financial structures increasingly propagated throughout the oil and gas industry. Across the gas sector, upstream Cube Development, midstream pipeline overbuilds and downstream LNG megastructures are becoming ‘mainstream’. Freed from regulatory constraint due to Covid-19 exemptions, these projects proceed unimpeded:

Instead of retreating, the American oil and gas sector has plowed ahead at full speed during one of the worst pandemics in a century, even as demand for its product tanked because of the COVID-19 economic downturn.

the fossil fuel industry and its allies in the Trump administration have wasted no time in leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to increase the federal government’s financial favors to oil and gas.

As domestic oil and gas replicates itself in an unprecedented, regulation-free bubble, global extreme energy geographies are blinking red. At a Total LNG project in Mozambique, the company is working with the government to manage a number of COVID-19 cases.

August 2017 > April 2020 | Mozambique LNG site, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Imagery via Sentinel Hub.

Northward in Russia in its remote Murmansk region, a massive new shipyard devoted to the production of floating LNG gas facilities is in crisis with more than 200 workers testing Covid-19 positive:

May 2017 > April 2020 | Novatek Ship Yard devoted to the production of floating LNG facilities. Imagery via Sentinel Hub.

Extreme energy and extreme Covid-19 vulnerability is on a collision course in Weymouth, Massachusetts, just south of Boston proper. While this metropolitan region braces for a Covid-19 onslaught, its all hands on deck, full steam ahead construction at Enbridge’s 7,700 HP Fracked Gas compressor, shoehorned onto a notorious brownfield site in a community plagued by historic industrial uses.

The Weymouth project has been an extreme energy anomaly from the start. Sold as nothing more than a large garage with a fence around it, physical massing on the site is outlandish.

Enbridge’s Weymouth Compressor Station built, circa mid-April, 2020. Imagery via @ElfOnSite, a twitter account tracking the project’s development.

Like all FERC’s Fracked Gas projects, early environmental assessments promised ‘local jobs’ which invariably failed to materialize in any meaningful way. Disappointing in normal times, this gimmick during the Covid-19 pandemic poses life-threatening risks to Weymouth residents.

Compressor stations are built by a specialized workforce that migrates regionally, often across state boundaries. Many out-of-state plates have been noted amongst the Weymouth compressor daily workforce, Imagery via @ElfOnSite.

To make matters yet worse, Enbridge sited its project in a particularly dense residential corridor with underlining environmental justice vulnerabilities:

An interactive mapping of residential structures within two miles of the project — https://vzpi.github.io/weymouth_2mile_proximity/

The project’s site design, migrating workforce and demographic profile makes this project an exemplar of extreme energy, an anomaly amongst it peers. Spatial analysis of compressor stations of a ‘similar class’ (stations with a nameplate capacity of 7,500 to 8,000 HP) results in the following mapping of 25 stations. Representing 18% of all stations (magenta squares vs all other stations as black dots in the map below) not one is situated in dense urban geography particularly prone to Covid-19.

25 ‘similar class’ compressor stations (magenta squares) situated amongst 1354 total stations (black dots) | Data: Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data (HIFLD). Map by author.

A visual survey of all 25 stations across all four US Census regions situates each station in rural, not dense urban geography:

25 Compressor Stations between 7,500–8,000 HP | Imagery via Google Earth.

Maybe Enbridge will miraculously dodge the Covid-19 bullet even while its practices make it a prime target. But if it does get hit, tracking the trajectory will be irrefutable: extreme energy practices unfettered by complicit state and federal infrastructure policy.

Stephen Metts is a GIS analyst and instructor based in New York State. His research interests covered in this article include public policy, public health, risk mapping and extreme energy geographies.

GIS Analyst & Instructor | Shale Gas Impacts, Environmental Justice & Climate Change Issues

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