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SpaceX #5: Just How Big and Ridiculously Stupid is this Project?
"I Trust Elon" maybe, you.... like, shouldn't
CLICK HERE FOR INTRO - Background
CLICK HERE FOR PART 1 - NEPA Primer / FAA has no business permitting oil and gas facilities
CLICK HERE FOR PART 2 - Elon Musk’s Natural Gas Treatment Plant
CLICK HERE FOR PART 3 - SpaceX is building a pipeline and doesn’t feel the need to mention it
CLICK HERE FOR PART 4 - SpaceX dreams of drilling for a sh*tload of oil
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Chapter 5: Elon Musk isn’t going to be “disrupting” the oil industry…
He’s just going to make a mess.
The oil industry is an inner-connected web of wells and pipes and plants. The reason that plants and refineries and terminals are lumped together isn’t because the companies’ CEOs all play golf together (I mean, they do, but that’s not the point). It’s because every input makes an output and every output becomes an input down the supply chain. From well to diesel, plastics, and fertilizer, things have to keep humming. Stuff breaks when any step in this process stops. Some of that is economics, but mostly it is a function of logistics. If you take a liquid from somewhere, turn it into a saleable product and also create a co- or by-product liquid or gas, that by-product needs to find a spot in a pipe or tank or truck somewhere.
This is an “environmental” focused newsletter, but the operations are immensely fascinating. I’ve worked in the industry. I don’t see it as a purely chaotic evil like many do, but as a necessary commodity for society to function. It’s one that we should scale back on, sure. And absolutely an industry that requires, nay demands, strict regulatory oversite. To argue otherwise is foolish.
But that’s neither here nor there. I’ve gotten 10k+ views on these SpaceX posts so far and two of the biggest pushback are some variation of:
Surely this operation can’t be as big as you’re saying, there’s no way this has gone unnoticed. And,
Well, Elon can just scale back operations and then step on the pedal, so really the impact is seasonal or cyclical. e.g. “I Trust Elon.”
Let’s cut those two arguments down with some swift, no-nonsense data.
1. This is actually quite a large operation
We’ve talked about the gas plant needing to be sized in order to feed processed gas into the 250 MW power plant. It’s thermodynamics, baby. We also know they’re not getting pipeline grade 97%+ methane natural gas. So they need wells and a gathering system.
50 Million Standard Cubic Feet might sound like a lot or a little or maybe just a mystery, but let’s take it a step back to first principals (thanks Elon).
We’re going to be very generous and assume that SpaceX will strike gold and hit some high quality, high methane natural gas when they start a-frackin’. This is extremely doubtful but my assumption only benefits SpaceX so humor me.
80% Methane, 11% Light-Ends C2-C4 (Some combination of Y-Grade/NGL depending on mix) and 4% heavies (C4/5+). Doing a simple mass balance on 50 Million scfs per day yields the following:
Woah. Uh yeah so annually:
6 million gallons of condensate (light oil)
1.2 million gallons of oil contaminated water, and
105 Million pounds of light ends
That’s a lot of stuff! Now you can see why oil transfer, storage and pipeline facilities all sit next to each other.
SpaceX wants only the Methane, so the rest is stuff they don’t need. And since we know they don’t have access to a NGL/Y-grade pipeline, it all has to go out via truck. That’s right, forget everything else about the project, 6 DOT tankers, 4 of which are specialized LNG vessels come into and out of the facility. Every day. All year long.
And remember, this is an optimistic scenario for them. 60-70% methane out of the ground is much more likely, which means 8-10 tankers in and out of the facility per day. This is a project killer on economics alone (though Elon Musk’s track record suggests he doesn’t care about this), but don’t you dare tell me that this is a minimal or insignificant industrial activity.
That brings us to argument #2:
2. They’ll just turn stuff on and off as is convenient
If SpaceX wanted an intermittent 250 Megawatt power source, and they decided on a Co-generation gas turbine, they are run by the stupidest engineers on the planet. Turbines are rad as heck because they’re way more efficient than reciprocating engines. That’s why they’re used for base load power plants. They don’t do well at being turned off and on, though. It’s hell on them mechanically, but perhaps more importantly, the efficiency during startup and shutdown is horrific.
Oh, and the emissions are pretty bad:
TCEQ requires people permitting turbines to include emissions for so-called MSS (Maintenance, Startup, and Shutdown) events. I’m 100% sure the crack geniuses at SpaceX didn’t consider these in the PEA (which I will cover in a later post), but just look at that sucker! This is using assumptions in other TCEQ permitted sources for similar sized power plants. Emissions go up, on an hourly basis, 12 fold for Carbon Monoxide and nearly 2 fold for Oxides of Nitrogen, or NOx during startup and shutdown. TCEQ (and every related Clean Air Act rule) really wants you to minimize these events, I think for obvious reasons.
SpaceX fully intends to run this plant all year round. Or they are incredibly stupidly run. Maybe it’s both.
And as for the gas plant? Excuse me I meant “fuel pretreatment process.” This is the thing that feeds the power plant. We, likewise can’t just shut this thing down willy-nilly. Hourly flaring emissions from several other brand new 50 mmscf/day gas plants recently permitted by TCEQ look like this:
So no. If you want to make an integrated Oil and Gas operation, you either run it or you don’t build it. It’s as simple as that. You can’t just turn on a tap to get out what you want. Someone should tell Elon that.
In the mean time, I hope the residents of Boca Chica and Brownsville are stoked to see a fleet of these bad boys driving through their neighborhoods all day, every day.
You wouldn’t want to halt progress on colonizing Mars now, would you?