The pros and cons of the cracker plant
MONACA, Pa. — The 42-mile drive from Washington to Potter Township represents the proverbial scenic route as it winds through rural and wooded areas north into Beaver County.
Eventually, the relative tranquillity gives way to the panorama of a massive construction project: the Shell Chemical Appalachia Petrochemical Complex, taking shape on a 340-acre tract along the Ohio River and representing a $6 billion investment by one of the giants of the oil and gas industry, Royal Dutch Shell.
The purpose of the plant is to break up molecules of ethane — a byproduct of the tri-state region’s natural gas stream being tapped by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — into smaller molecules as a step in the creation of plastics. By industry parlance, the process involves molecules being “cracked,” hence the common reference to cracker plants. As is the case with any endeavor of such a major scope, the Shell project has its supporters and detractors.
Those in favor cite job creation as a major plus: Some 6,000 workers are needed during construction and 600 full-time employees when the plant goes into operation in the early 2020s.
Further employment opportunities could arise with the development of a regional pipeline system connecting natural gas suppliers with the Shell complex and other similar plants, if built.
In December, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced approval of permit applications for a pipeline extending from the MarkWest processing plant in Chartiers Township north to Potter Township. And Asian companies PTT Global Chemical and Daelim Industrial Co. have been exploring the possibility of building a cracker plant in Belmont County south of Shadyside.
The ethylene produced by such facilities is used for plastics production and for creating petrochemicals such as plastics, synthetic rubber, solvents, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, additives, explosives and adhesives. These products are used in vehicles, packaging, household goods, medical equipment, paints, clothing, building materials and other applications.
The petrochemicals industry has evolved out of oil and gas processing by adding value to low-value byproducts, which have limited use in the fuels industry. And all of it stems from the effort to find and extract natural gas.
“Natural gas is the biggest game changer, and everybody in the tri-state area should collaborate on this,” Robbie Matesic, executive director of the Greene County Department of Economic Development, said regarding local economic forecasts for 2019. “We need to be as responsive as we can, as collaborative as we can, as fast as we can and as fearless as we can. This is a global market we’re in now.”
Also regarding possible financial impact, a study conducted by Rob and Leslie Dunn, both Washington & Jefferson College economics professors, found that counties where cracker facilities are located have higher levels of employment and higher levels of earnings.
The Dunns also concluded that counties bordering a cracker facility have lower levels of employment than counties with the plants, but faster rates of employment growth and higher earnings levels.
Then there’s the flipside.
“The Petrochemical Invasion of Western Pa.: Its Environmental Consequences and What Can Be Done About It” served as the theme for a recent forum at Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills in Mount Lebanon, with a variety of panelists expressing reasons to oppose the prevalence of fossil fuel-related industries in the region.
As executive director of the Breathe Project, a clearinghouse for information on air quality in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Matt Mehalik brought the perspective of impact to the atmosphere.
“We still have a serious air-quality problem in southwestern Pennsylvania, and adding to our airshed burden will only make things worse,” he told the forum’s audience. “We consistently get failing grades from the American Lung Association: Three F’s several years in a row, the only place outside of California with that distinction.”
His reference was to the association’s State of the Air report, issued in April and citing Allegheny County and its dismal performance in three measures of air pollution: days with elevated ozone, and daily and annual values for fine-particle pollution.
Ozone is generated by the reaction of volatile organic compounds — released by the burning of materials such as gasoline, wood, coal or natural gas — with nitrogen oxides. Such conditions make breathing difficult, especially for children, older adults and people with asthma, according to the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, which has a regional office in Pittsburgh.
Mehalik also spoke about the market, or lack thereof, for what cracker plants produce.
“All this is to make plastic. The world doesn’t need it for ginned-up demand in Asia, because that’s the only scenario where the industry might generate a profit,” he contended. “It’s all projected to be sold in China. There’s no projected demand growth in most of North America.”
Panelist Patricia DeMarco delved further into the subject:
“All of the plastic that has ever been made, about 8.3 billion tons, is pretty much still with us. There is about 2.5 billion tons that is virgin plastic still in use, that is being put into products that are either still with us or have been recaptured.”
That leaves 5.8 billion tons of plastic as waste, and “4.6 billion tons is discarded into landfill or other places,” she said. “So more than half of what has been created as plastic from the beginning is not only still with us, it is in a discard mode and not serving any useful function.”
A Forest Hills resident who has a doctorate in biology, DeMarco is the author of “Pathways to Our Sustainable Future: A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh,” published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. She asserted the need for audience members to “make a demand for responsibility from the industry and also from the government, at the local, state and federal level.”
“It is a moral imperative. This is not a technology problem. We use plastic, a material designed to last forever, for products that are designed to be lasting for minutes,” she said. “Just because we can do these things doesn’t mean that we should.”
DeMarco also is a founding member of the recently established Allegheny County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, an environmental organization started in 1922 to promote natural resource protection and outdoor recreation. Greene County’s Harry Enstrom Chapter joined the Allegheny County chapter in sponsoring the petrochemical forum.
“No. 1 for our chapter is protect our water and air, and clean it up. No. 2 is to promote a future that is green and that’s sustainable,” Mike Stout, the Castle Shannon resident who serves as the latter’s president, announced at the forum’s start.
“Our chapter is going to go out, over the next year, to the 75 to 100 environmental organizations that exist in Allegheny County,” he said, “and we’re going to try to rally all of those people, all of those organizations and all of those individuals into one fist, under one platform, with one voice and one movement that begins to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and the people who are destroying our planet.”
These same issues are being debated as discussion continues about a cracker plant that PTT Industries likely will build in Dilles Bottom.