Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Ethane 'cracker' plants will add manufacturing element to Ohio Valley fracking boom; environmentalists wary

Inside Climate News map; click the image to enlarge it
Appalachia once depended on coal mining and steel jobs, but the natural-gas boom could make the region a petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub, especially in the upper Ohio Valley.

"In a year or two, Shell Polymers, part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell, plans to turn . . . gas into plastic pellets that can be used to make a myriad of products, from bottles to car parts," James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News. Such facilities are called cracker plants because they "crack" ethane molecules into ethylene and polyethylene. "Two Asian companies could also announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio. There's a third plastics plant proposed for West Virginia."

The gas boom is fueled by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that can extract oil and gas unreachable by conventional means. The process comes with environmental hazards: "Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030, Bruggers reports. "Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050."

Environmental groups caution against basing economic growth on another industry that harms the environment, especially as fossil fuels and plastics are facing international pushback, and worry that the region will only benefit for a few decades. But many Ohio Valley communities benefiting from the boom don't have room to be choosy.

"We have been digging our way out of a very deep hole for decades," said Jack Manning, president and executive director of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania, just west of Pittsburgh. "When Shell [Polymers] came along with a $6-to-$7 billion investment ... we were in the right spot at the right time," he told Bruggers.

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