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SPACEX #16- Elon Musk is (STILL) Building a Big Gas Plant for Fracked Well Gas
And your precious first principles math proves it
🚨Here’s your SpaceX NEPA 101 guide for context🚨
SpaceX Saga tl;dr twitter thread. Links to previous entries at bottom
This one is short and sweet. Let’s talk about first principles. It’s the idea that one can make sweeping claims about the capabilities of a process or idea or thesis using simple math and physics, generally rooted in Newtonian principles.
As a quick check of whether something passes the sniff test of feasibility, or deserves further investigation, first principles thinking is a valuable way to take a macro view of the world.
As a specific guideline for economic feasibility or engineering tolerances in a world with tight (and shrinking) profit margins or where the difference between a 99% success rate and a 99.99% success rate means unacceptable death counts (looking at you, self driving cars), it’s an unbelievably foolish framework to base one’s engineering ethos.
Elon Musk, of course, lives in the world of the latter. Billions of hours of collective human iterative learning in any field is no match for a skim of a Wikipedia article followed by sweeping generalizations from a Physics 101 concept. As an engineer who has a bit of process safety under my belt, this idea makes me cringe.
Regardless, the First Principles framework can be applied to strike down some assumptions folks have made about SpaceX’s oil and gas operations. Not at all helped by Elon’s blatant greenwashing terminology.
Links to previous entries at Bottom
CHAPTER 16: A First Principles approach to cutting through bad gas
Let’s talk about the gas plant. As covered in part 2, the facility is clearly designed, as described to take “wet” natural gas from fracked gas wells via pipeline and then treat it, just as the dozens of other facilities throughout the State of Texas do. But since there’s no pipeline mentioned in the Environmental Assessment and SpaceX doesn’t use icky acronyms like “LNG” or “NGLs,” and instead talks about Rocket Fuel and Pure Methane, the entire world refuses to pay attention.
We talked about the not-a-gas-plant the other day, which is all but certainly a modular 200 million standard cubic foot per day modular unit, a plant that would generate 25,000+ barrels of gasoline like Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs), slop oil and produced water every single day, here’s a look at such a plant that treats standard wet gas:
Now, a First Principles Approach. Let’s lay down some facts:
Methane and Ethane are not Volatile Organic Carbons (VOCs) per EPA and TCEQ regs
There are two forms of gas SpaceX could source: Pipeline Quality Natural Gas or Fresh From the Tap Well Natural gas
Pipeline Quality natural gas has already been treated at a gas plant and contains less that 0.04%1 propane or heavier hydrocarbons (eg VOCs). LNG is this stuff, but liquified
Wet gas varies in exact composition, but is usually 70-90% methane and ethane by mass, with the remainder being Nitrogen, H2S, CO2 and VOCs. It comes from gas wells, is treated in a gas plant and comes out as nearly 100% non-VOC gas (usually 97% or greater Methane)
Modern gas processing plants lose roughly 0.2% - 0.05% of total net gas produced. This escapes through mostly small leaks in valves and fittings.
SpaceX claims that there will be 45.8 tons per year of VOC emissions from the gas treating and liquefaction process
The first principles approach states that we can work backwards from the VOC released2 into the atmosphere to volume of gas processed.
Think about it like this. We have 3 variables:
Inlet Gas Flow rate (measured by mmscf/d but easily convertible to pounds methane equiv.)
The VOC content mass % of the inlet stream
The Loss Rate through leaks in valves, fittings, etc. This is the fraction of the total inlet stream is lost to the air
We simply multiply these three items together to get:
The VOC emission rate in tons per year (US short tons are EPA standard)
Since we know #4 (The PEA told us), we know #2 (Pipeline Quality Gas is always <0.1% VOCs, and usually lower), and #3 is a range (with modern cryo plants at the lower end), we can simply go backwards to calculate implied flow rate:
If we’re taking the assumption that SpaceX is just minimally treating pipeline gas (which again is very, very low in VOC), then we must conclude that they intend to process, uhhh… 23 billion standard cubic feet per day, or nearly 1000x what the utility sized 250 MW power plant will use. Ok.
The entire state of Texas produces 25 billion cubic feet of gas per day. So, for this assumption to be true (SpaceX is treating pipeline spec natty into super pure methane), they will now process 92% of the entire state of Texas’ natural gas supply.
Or….. they’re just running a normal gas plant like everyone else. Maybe it’s, I dunno, a 200 million scf/day modular unit using the best ethane recovery technology in the game, as mentioned in part 13. Let’s use the handy dandy “goal seek” function in excel to take a look, using 2 variables: gas processed and VOC percentage.
Well, well, well. 4.77% VOC kinda looks like natural gas from a well. Reminder that there are no wells nearby to provide that gas. 200 mmscf from trucks would require something like 500 loads per day. So, yeah about that pipeline that’s not mentioned…
If we change the net loss rate of gas to less realistic 0.1%, this is what the sheet spits out:
Realistically, for modern cryo plants, 0.05% loss rate is on the high end, but regardless that 3-10% VOC natural gas is exactly in line with what fracked well gas looks like.
So yeah, please Elon Musk fans, I’m begging you: prove me wrong.
But this sure looks like a massive fraud to me. There’s a pipeline that doesn’t exist and lots of new wells that need to be developed, all seen once the curtain has been pulled back.
Editor’s note: switched loss assumptions to be more realistic
PART 1 - NEPA Primer / FAA has no business permitting oil and gas facilities
PART 2 - Elon Musk’s Natural Gas Treatment Plant
PART 3 - SpaceX is building a pipeline and doesn’t feel the need to mention it
PART 4 - SpaceX dreams of drilling for a sh*tload of oil
PART 5 - A discussion on the hugeness of the project, a parade of tankers and a reality check about the Oil and Gas biz
PART 6 - The Facility would be a Major Source of Pollution under the PSD Rules in the Clean Air Act, which by statutory definition would exclude it from fast track approval under NEPA
PART 7 - The GHG and CO2 emissions are plainly nonsense
PART 8 - ESG Hound drops the gauntlet and explains why this is a massive fraud happening in plain sight.
PART 9 - The End of NEPA as we know it
PART 10 - ELON MUSK REALITY DISTORTION FIELD
PART 11 - Pipeline Plans Confirmed!
PART 12 - It turns out drilling for oil and gas has some negative environmental impacts
PART 13 - I found the Modular Gas Plant; the clue that got me there will leave you stiff with shock
PART 14 - The wildlife toll of industry, told through my personal experiences
PART 15 - SpaceX is building an LNG, does anyone care?
FERC spec sheets, industry standards
Combustion emissions are only 350 mmbtu/yr and at 98% destruction efficiency are extremely minimal. MSS emissions are not assumed, but have the potential to reduce the VOC number