Judge Bernard A. Labuskes, Jr., of the Environmental Hearing Board (EHB), recently ruled that a series of Sunoco projects at Marcus Hook, which the company said were all independent, were actually all part of one project.

Considering them as a single project is critical. By proposing them individually, Sunoco has been able to avoid any consideration of the overall effect of the facility on air pollution. Each small step has been safely below the regulatory limits. Now, the judge is saying, the facility as a whole must meet pollution regulations.

Some of the details of the judge’s ruling are here, and the complete ruling is here. The immediate practical importance of the ruling is that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must now re-evaluate the set of projects to see if the resulting overall petrochemical complex violates environmental regulations. I look forward to the results of that review.

Interesting details about NGL processing at Marcus Hook. In the meantime, the ruling contains a great deal of information that I found fascinating (and that I hope will interest others) about what Sunoco has been doing at Marcus Hook. But much of the information is not very accessible because of the dry and technical nature of the 78-page ruling. I have tried to summarize it in an easier-to-digest form below.

The ruling dealt with six “projects”. Later in this post, there are diagrams of five of them. (The one I didn’t diagram, “Project B”, is not closely related to the others.) The diagrams show the role each project plays in the processing of “natural gas liquids” (NGLs) at Marcus Hook.

Here is a list of the five related projects:

  • Project 1: new storage tanks for ethane and propane
  • Project A: a system to treat and separate mixtures of ethane and propane
  • Project C: a chilling tower to generate cooling water, to replace an air chiller for ethane and propane
  • Project D: additional storage tanks for ethane and propane
  • Project E: a system to extract butane and heavier hydrocarbons from NGL mixtures

Just from that list, you can see that it is hard for Sunoco to defend the “independence” of these projects. The judge found that the connections among them and their introduction in quick succession indicate an overall plan, not “independent projects”. That finding is reinforced by their physical proximity and connecting pipes. (This is illustrated in the aerial photo near the end of this blog post.)

Getting deeper into the weeds. There’s a lot of detail provided in the judge’s finding, and the most important parts are covered in the balance of this post. The post contains some technical terms that may not be familiar, so I’ll summarize them here.

  • Amine treatment: removes acidic gases (primarily hydrogen sulfide) from NGLs
  • Dehydration system: removes water vapor from NGLs
  • Deethanizer: extracts the ethane from a mixture of NGLs
  • Depropanizer: extracts the propane from a mixture of NGLs
  • Debutanizer: extracts the butane from a mixture of NGLs
  • Fractionation towers: a general term that includes deethanizers, depropanizers, and debutanizers as well as towers for other refinery processes

In the diagrams below, I have shown in red the parts that are added or changed by that particular project. I have also noted dates of submission and approval, which add to the impression that this was a planned sequence, not independent projects. I created this set of diagrams by simplifying and combining some of the diagrams and information in the ruling.

Some readers who are more familiar with petrochemical processing than I am will probably find errors or inconsistencies. I hope they will submit comments with suggestions and corrections.

Project 1. Approved February 5, 2013. The plan approval authorized the facility to receive liquefied ethane or propane via pipeline, and to store these in cryogenic storage tanks. Periodically, these liquids would be loaded on ships and sent “off site”.

project 1 1-15-19
Project 1 consisted primarily of two storage tanks, one for ethane and one for propane. These products would be delivered as separate batches via Mariner East 1.

Project A. Submitted March 4, 2013 (about a month after Project 1 was approved). Sunoco requested approval to install a deethanizer unit, amine treatment system, and dehydration system. These facilities meant that Sunoco could accept a mixture of ethane and propane at Marcus Hook, treat it, and separate it into marketable products. Project A was approved on September 5, 2013. It is shown in the diagram below, with the changes from Project 1 shown in red.

project a 1-15-19
Project A involved constructing a treatment and separation system so that mixed ethane and propane could be separated, then stored and shipped as in Project 1.

Project B. Submitted September 13, 2013 (less than two weeks after Project A was approved). Project B was approved January 20, 2014. This project, not as closely related as the others, was to accept tank trucks carrying heavier hydrocarbons that didn’t need compression (“natural gasoline”), with equipment to separate these into salable products (pentane and light naphtha). The light naphtha would leave Marcus Hook by pipeline or ship; the pentane would be added to existing pentane storage and then transported by truck or ship. The main elements in common with the other projects are storage and ship-loading equipment.

I did not create a diagram for Project B.

Project C. Submitted April 7, 2014 (while Project B was still under review). Approved November 19, 2014. This project involved adding a cooling tower to provide cooling water, to replace the air chiller of Project A.

project c 1-15-19
Project C involved adding a cooling tower to the process outlined in Project A.

Project D. Submitted September 26, 2014 (even before approvals for projects B and C were issued). Approved February 26, 2015. This project was primarily to increase storage for separated ethane, propane, and butane, prior to shipment.

project d 1-15-19
Project D was primarily the addition of more storage tanks.

Project E. Submitted September 16, 2015. Approved April 1, 2016. This project involved two depropanizer fractionation towers, and a debutanizer fractionation tower, as well as other components. With these additions, Sunoco could process mixed NGLs, received from western Pennsylvania, into their component gases for storage and shipment. It used existing storage for all of these.

project e 1-15-19
Project E involved separating ethane, propane, butane, and heavier liquids from a mixture arriving by pipeline. With this step, Sunoco could process any mixture of NGLs at Marcus Hook.

As an aside, the Marcus Hook facility spans the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. Several of the “projects” involved in this case were supposed make use of an existing flare on the Delaware side of the line. But the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control found, in March of 2017, that only materials originating in Delaware could be flared there. That ruling happened after the submissions and approvals listed above. At the time, Sunoco was fined $750,000 for flaring in Delaware materials that originated in Pennsylvania.

There is no indication in the EHB ruling that the Delaware decision was discussed in this case. But can Sunoco move ahead with plans that violate the 2017 Delaware decision? If not, must the project plans involving that Delaware flare be revised and re-submitted for approval using a Pennsylvania-based flare? The EHB ruling doesn’t provide any enlightenment about this.

Looking at the diagrams of the progression from two storage tanks in Project 1 to the full NGL processing plant in Project E, it is easy to see why the judge decided that all of them should have been considered as a single project. The quick succession with which each new “project” was submitted immediately after (or even prior to) the approval of its predecessor also suggests a planned progression, not a series of standalone decisions.

How the Marcus Hook plant is laid out. Another piece of evidence that convinced the judge that all these projects should be combined for regulatory purposes was the layout at Marcus Hook. If the projects were really independent, their components wouldn’t be intermingled and connected to each other by pipes. But that is exactly the situation at Marcus Hook. Here is a diagram showing what is where, superimposed on a Google Maps image. I created it by using information from the EHB ruling to identify the various pieces of equipment.

annotated aerial view of marcus hook 1-15-19
The major equipment at the Marcus Hook site, based on information in the EHB ruling.

Apart from the obvious clustering and pipe connections among the components of the various projects, the other feature that jumps out from this image is the availability of a lot of relatively unused space at the upper right and lower left in the diagram. We hear that Sunoco has much bigger plans for Marcus Hook in the future, and clearly they have space available.

What I hope this blog post illustrates is that the judge used nothing more than common sense in ruling that these are all parts of one project. This seems so obvious that it makes me wonder about the DEP staffer(s) who approved each of them as independent projects. What were they thinking? Are they competent to do their jobs? Was Sunoco able to pressure them in an inappropriate way? The DEP has some explaining to do.

What happens now? No information is available about the timetable for future steps regarding regulatory action at Marcus Hook. The judge sent the combined project back to the DEP for re-evaluation, but we don’t know how long that re-evaluation will take or even whether it will actually occur. There are apparently several directions this could take.

For example, the DEP could review the combined project and determine that, even with all the projects considered together, it does not violate any regulations. That is what Sunoco and the DEP claimed in this case, and what the Clean Air Council (the plaintiff) takes issue with. If that is the DEP’s determination, Sunoco would be free to continue with its plans, and might even be able to continue submitting new “independent projects” and getting them approved as such.

Alternatively, the DEP could determine that the combined project violated environmental regulations and Sunoco would have to make changes to bring the plant into compliance. That could add months or years to the construction process.

Or, either the DEP or Sunoco could challenge the Environmental Hearing Board in court, claiming that the ruling was in error and that the projects were indeed independent.

No matter what direction the case takes, Sunoco is free (for the moment) to pursue its plans. The judge found that, although the regulatory process was flawed, it was not clear that people would really be harmed if work were allowed to continue. In the absence of that kind of evidence, he is permitting Sunoco to implement its “projects”.