Making Plastic From Fracked Natural Gas Could Replace Coal and Steel in Ohio Valley

Cracking plant under construction near Pittsburgh     Ross Mantle, The New York Times

Here in Madrid, the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, touted his city as a green Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the failed steel and coal industries, with a growing economy based on high tech and health care companies and improved air and water quality — the city is turning a corner.  But he pointed out that just up the road Royal Dutch Shell is building a giant, greenhouse gas-spewing plant that will (using a process called “ethane cracking”) make tiny plastic pellets that can be turned into items like phone cases, auto parts, and food packaging according to The New York Times — it is one of several in nearby Ohio and West Virginia that are being considered because of an excess of fracked gas and a desire to see jobs like these return to the rust belt.

Why This Matters:  The Pittsburgh plant will be allowed to emit each year 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide, 522 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and 160 tons of particulate pollution or soot, according to local NGO the Breathe Project.  These pollutants cause numerous health problems and will likely even diminish Pittsburgh’s air quality 25 miles away.  Shell’s representatives make the point that the world needs plastic for mobile phones, wind turbines, and solar panels, which is true.  Not to mention the need for good jobs for the region.  But the question becomes why should a new plant like this one be allowed to pollute so much?  In one fell swoop, the pollution from this plant that will only employ 600 people permanently could erase the gains made from Pittsburgh’s pledge to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

How Dirty Is the Cracking Plant?

This will be the largest ethane cracker in North America and the amount is allowed to permit is the equivalent of about 480,000 cars, though Shell says the plant is likely to emit less than that.  According to the Breathe Project, which has run the numbers, the planned cracker plants in the region could result in additional health care costs of up to $80m annually for the local counties impacted as a result of increased respiratory ailments, lung cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, as well as for the loss of work.  Plastic production is one of the few viable uses for ethane it —  some fracking executives say without it, their wells would not be financially viable.

Are Markets The Answer?

Many here at the climate meeting are touting market-based solutions to lead to better carbon emission outcomes.  But these market solutions often perpetuate environmental justice problems.  Consider that for this plant, Shell purchased pollution credits to offset its emissions, which is a way for a plant to exceed air pollution rules in one very localized area and such credits are easier to buy in areas that don’t meet federal air quality standards because they have lots of grandfathered pollution. It was even more controversial in this case because Shell could not find enough credits for its VOC emissions so, according to Yale Environment 360, it lobbied Pennsylvania environmental regulators to convert surplus nitrogen oxide credits into VOC credits, which will allow even more toxic pollution near the cracker plant when it comes online in 2021.  This means that the VOC emissions at the plant actually are allowed to be over a regional cap on such emissions.

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