President Donald Trump on Tuesday toured Shell Chemical’s soon-to-be completed ethane cracker complex in Monaca, Pennsylvania, to tout his administration’s commitment to expanding energy production. The facility is part of what industry boosters hope will be a new plastics and chemical manufacturing base in the upper Ohio Valley, but many residents here worry about the heat-trapping gases and plastic waste such an industry would produce.
Speaking to a crowd of a few thousand construction workers, Trump said investment in plastics and other petrochemical plants in the Ohio Valley could greatly benefit the region. He touted the vast reserves of natural gas and natural gas liquids contained in the Marcellus Shale, which extends throughout much of the Appalachian basin.
“This is an incredible region; you’re sitting on top of something special,” Trump said in a wide-ranging and often rambling speech. “It’s all fueled by the greatest treasure on the planet, American energy, and we don’t want people taking that away from us.”
The Shell facility, located about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, will use extremely high temperatures to convert natural gas liquids, including ethane, from the Marcellus Shale into smaller molecules used in plastics and chemical manufacturing.
Once completed, the facility will include an ethylene cracker and polyethylene production complex slated to produce 1.6 million tons of ethylene each year and permanently employ about 600 workers, according to the company.
In his speech, Trump noted additional investments are being made in Ohio to build out the region’s petrochemical industry.
“This is just the beginning,” Trump said. “My administration is clearing the way for other massive multi-billion dollar investments.”
Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical and partner South Korea’s Daelim Industrial Co. is in the permitting process for a cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio, across the Ohio River from West Virginia.
Outside the Shell facility, protesters boycotted the president’s visit.
Environmental and public health groups argue cracker plants are huge pollution emitters that threaten the climate, environment, and the health of residents living in the region. Investment into plastics manufacturing in the Ohio Valley comes at a time when some municipalities and countries are banning single-use plastics due to environmental concerns.
“The scheme for a petrochemical hub in the Ohio Valley is yesterday’s answer to today’s problems, and it ignores tomorrow’s crises,” Mary Wildfire, a West Virginia resident and volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said in a press release. “It ignores the rapidly increasing problem of plastic waste choking our oceans and infiltrating our bodies — and the rapidly increasing movement away from plastic. And it ignores the steady movement toward cleaner, sustainable energy sources like wind and solar.”
Shell’s Beaver County facility is permitted to release up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution annually, or the equivalent of the emissions from nearly 480,000 cars.
A report released earlier this year by a coalition of environmental groups estimates production and incineration of plastic in 2019 will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, or equal to the pollution of building 189 new coal-fired power plants.
That figure will rise substantially over the next few decades as the demand for single-use plastic continues to grow, the report finds. By 2050, emissions from the entire plastics life cycle could account for as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.
‘A petrochemical renaissance’
Trump’s visit comes weeks after a top Department of Energy official testified in front of members of the West Virginia Legislature that the federal government is prioritizing expanding the petrochemical industry in Appalachia.
“Federal efforts are strong and continue to gain momentum,” Steven Winberg, DOE’s assistant secretary for fossil energy, told the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development. “We also recognize that others are doing a lot and we believe that together we can make this Appalachian petrochemical renaissance happen for the benefit of the industry, the region and the country.”
Winberg urged West Virginia lawmakers to invest in preparing sites for possible cracker development, characterizing them as “anchor facilities.”
The region’s third cracker plant, proposed for Parkersburg, West Virginia, may be in doubt. Michael Graney, executive director of the West Virginia Development Office, told lawmakers that developer Braskem has pulled out of the project.
Another key component to attracting plastics and petrochemical manufacturing to the Ohio Valley is creating storage for natural gas liquids. Officials in the region have been working on the so-called Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub for nearly a decade.
The hub cleared its first major hurdle last year when it got approval for the first of two phases for a $1.9 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan.
Earlier this year, a coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups led by Food & Water Watch sent a letter to the chair of the House Appropriations Committee challenging whether it’s legal for DOE to grant a federal loan guarantee to the fossil-fuel-based project.
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to an appropriations bill that would clarify that DOE could only grant loans for “clean energy projects.” The measure has not been taken up by the U.S. Senate.