The fracking and petrochemical industries are pushing to convert the area of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia into a natural gas and plastics manufacturing center to rival the hyper-polluted Gulf Coast, threatening communities and the environment. The destructive practice of natural gas drilling and fracking has proliferated across the Tri-State shale basins, but the rapid expansion created a gas glut that has driven down gas prices. Now, the fracking industry needs to sell its gas to new buyers or markets (new demands) to absorb excess gas to justify more drilling. The industries’ environmentally destructive solution is a buildout of plastics factories.
The expanding petrochemical and plastics manufacturing sectors can sop up excess gas, propping up the faltering fracking industry and creating a mutually profitable and polluting partnership. The surge in fracking created a surplus of ethane, a natural gas liquid (NGL) and fracking byproduct that has been a boon for the plastics industry. The petrochemical industry converts ethane into chemicals essential to manufacturing plastic.
One of the nation's biggest gas infrastructure, petrochemical, and plastics manufacturing building booms is unfolding in the Tri-State area. The buildout includes a cluster of the new petrochemical and plastics plants, proposed ethane pipelines and the Appalachian Storage Hub, a large underground storage facility to supply regional factories.
The Ohio Valley petrochemical buildout
An alliance of industry players, government officials, and universities is promoting this substantial petrochemical investment. Elected officials in all three states are cheerleading new links between the region's shale gas fields and an expanded petrochemical industry that could tap surplus NGLs. China Energy, the world’s largest power company, announced that it would invest $84 billion to develop West Virginia’s shale gas, petrochemical manufacturing, power generation, and NGL storage infrastructure over the next two decades.
Three facilities alone — two petrochemical facilities known as ethane "crackers" and the Storage Hub — are estimated to tally at least $26 billion. The fracked gas is processed to separate out ethane and other NGLs that supply cracker plants. Crackers apply steam or heat to “crack” ethane into ethylene, which is then converted into the most common type of plastic, polyethylene.
Shell began construction on a $6 billion petrochemical complex, including an ethane cracker and a polyethylene unit to make plastics in western Pennsylvania. Shell also proposed the 97-mile Falcon Ethane Pipeline to deliver ethane to the cracker. Other investments include a partnership between a South Korean petrochemical construction company and a Thai government-owned oil company to build a $10 billion Ohio ethane cracker. But the cornerstone project is the $10 billion Appalachian Storage Hub in Ohioio, which includes an NGL underground storage facility and pipeline infrastructure to connect to facilities across the region.
The Appalachian Storage Hub locks in petrochemical pollution
The proposed Monroe County, Ohio hub would establish a natural gas storage complex with a pipeline network to capitalize on the region’s shale gas to supply chemical and plastics manufacturing plants. It could hold 2 million gallons of NGLs hundreds of thousands of feet underground in a geological salt formation. The storage facility would provide a steady stream of ethane to nearby crackers and act as a trading post for companies looking to sell their NGLs to nearby facilities. According to one study about the storage hub, it would be a keystone asset; without it, "the entire [petrochemical investment] program cannot go forward."
This storage hub would ultimately supply a region full of petrochemical facilities and plastics plants that would rival the Gulf Coast, the current epicenter of U.S. petrochemical and plastics manufacturing. But the Gulf Coast has some of the highest pollution levels and pollution-related illnesses and diseases. The Tri-State region already faces stark environmental and associated public health challenges from a century of industrial pollution. Petrochemical plants emit massive amounts of hazardous air and climate pollutants. And these plants pump out plastics that create mountains of litter that can pose health problems.
The proposed storage hub and petrochemical buildout creates a symbiotic profiteering opportunity for the gas, petrochemical, and plastics industries that would lock in more demand for fracking and decades more climate pollution. This provides a profit incentive to justify the expansion of fracking with more spills, accidents, water pollution, climate-destroying methane emissions and ecosystem damage. It is time to invest in a just transition to a clean energy future and to limit purchases of non-biodegradable rochemical and plastics industries that would lock in more demand for fracking and decades more climate pollution. This with more spills, accidents, water pollution, climate-destroy- ing methane emissions and ecosystem damage. It is time to invest in a just transition to a clean energy future and to limit purchases of non-biodegradable plastic products, which effectively supports and finances the oil and gas industry.