Why Plans to Turn America’s Rust Belt into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate

Jerri-Lynn here: This post makes clear the connection between the US petrochemical industry’s plan to create a plastics belt, using natural gas derived from fracking, and climate change.

I cited this piece in my post yesterday, Plastic Watch: Five Flaws in the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Plan. I crosspost the complete piece here, as I think it’s important that readers understand, not only is the United States not doing very much to arrest or clean up its existing plastics problem, but our home-based plastics pushers are doing their best to ramp up demand for their product. These efforts are aided and abetted by the Trump administration’s pro-fossil fuels policies. (See also my post from earlier this year, Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis.)

The current post addresses the argument that plastics are necessary, because to ship things now encased in plastics instead in other packaging forms – glass, etc. – would exacerbate global warming. Instead, it argues that cutting plastics production and mitigating global warming are not incompatible goals. The more plastics we consume, the more we encourage the growth of fossil fuel production.

I mention this because a few commenters on my post yesterday understood me to be saying that  I endorsed (implicitly) a supply chain argument– i.e., plastics are necessary, because to ship things now encased in plastics instead in other packaging forms-  glass, etc.– would exacerbate global warming – when instead, I’d meant to dismiss it.

Apologize for yesterday’s ambiguity, but my position is: the climate change costs of ramping up plastics production using fracked natural gas dwarf the possible increase in shipping costs of using alternative packaging. And I also suggest, that the (weak, subsidiary) claim about increased shipping costs itself deserves further scrutiny. Is this really the case? And indeed, we need to engage in the far more important larger discussion, which I hope to encourage through my writing, of whether the planet can maintain the current insane system of shipping goods from farfetched locations when those goods could – and should – be locally sourced.

By Sharon Kelly, an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware. Originally published at DeSmogBlog.

The petrochemical industry anticipates spending a total of over $200 billion on factories, pipelines, and other infrastructure in the U.S. that will rely on shale gas, the American Chemistry Council announced in September. Construction is already underway at many sites.

This building spree would dramatically expand the Gulf Coast’s petrochemical corridor (known locally as “Cancer Alley”) — and establish a new plastics and petrochemical belt across states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

If those projects are completed, analysts predict the U.S. would flip from one of the world’s highest-cost producers of plastics and chemicals to one of the cheapest, using raw materials and energy from fracked gas wells in states like Texas, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Those petrochemical plans could have profound consequences for a planet already showing signs of dangerous warming and a cascade of other impacts from climate change.

The gathering wave of construction comes as the Trump administration works to deregulate American industry and roll back pollution controls, putting the U.S. at odds with the rest of the world’s efforts to slow climate change.

Trump announced in June 2017 that the U.S. had halted all implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement and intends to fully withdraw. America is now the world’s only state refusing participation in the global agreement to curb climate change (after Syria, the final holdout, signed in November 2017).

This petrochemical industry expansion — much of it funded by foreign investors — makes America’s refusal to participate in the Paris Agreement all the more significant, because much of this new U.S. infrastructure would be built outside of the greenhouse gas agreement affecting the rest of the globe.

If American policy makers approve this wave of new plastics and petrochemical plants with little regard to curbing climate change and reducing fossil fuel use, environmentalists warn, they’ll be greenlighting hundreds of billions of dollars of investment into projects at risk of becoming stranded assets.

From Rust Belt to Plastics Belt

Some of the largest and most expensive petrochemical projects in the U.S. are planned in the Rust Belt states of Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, a region that has suffered for decades from the collapse of the domestic steel industry but that has relatively little experience with the kind of petrochemical complexes that are now primarily found on the Gulf Coast.

In November 2017, the China Energy Investment Corp., signed a Memorandum of Understanding with West Virginia that would result in the construction of $83.7 billion in plastics and petrochemicals projects over the next 20 years in that state alone — a huge slice of the $202.4 billion U.S. total. Those plans have run into snags due to trade disputes between the >U.S. and China and a corruption probe, though Chinese officials said in late August that investment was moving forward.

The petrochemical industry’s interest is spurred by the fact that the region’s Marcellus and Utica shales contain significant supplies of so-called “wet gas.” This wet gas often is treated as a footnote in discussions of fracking, which tend to focus on the methane gas, called “dry gas” by industry — and not the ethane, propane, butane, and other hydrocarbons that also come from those same wells.

Those “wet” fossil fuels and chemical feedstocks are commonly referred to as “natural gas liquids,” or NGLs, because they are delivered to customers condensed into a liquid form — like the liquid butane trapped in a Bic lighter, which expands into a stream of flammable gas when you flick that lighter on.

Ethane can represent a surprising amount of the fossil fuel from a fracked shale well, particularly in the Marcellus. For every 6,000 cubic feet of methane (the energy equivalent of the industry’s standard 42 gallon barrel of oil), Marcellus wet gas wells can produce up to roughly 35 gallons of ethane, based on data reported by the American Oil and Gas Reporter in 2011.

And U.S.ethane production is projected to grow dramatically. By 2022, the region will produce roughly 800,000 barrels of ethane per day, up from 470,000 barrels a day in 2017, according to energy consultant RBN Energy.

That supply glut is driving down ethane prices in the Rust Belt.

The lowest price ethane on the planet is here in this region,” Brian Anderson, Director of the West Virginia University Energy Institute, told the NEP Northeast U.S.Petrochemical Construction conference in Pittsburgh in June.

Chemicals and the Climate
Image projected onto Houston petrochemical plant during the Houston Toxic Tour, 2017. Credit: Backbone Campaign, CC BY 2.0

The petrochemical and plastics industries are notoriously polluting, not only when it comes to toxic air pollution and plastic waste, but also because of the industry’s significant greenhouse gas footprint — affecting not only the U.S., but the entire world.

“The chemical and petrochemical sector is by far the largest industrial energy user, accounting for roughly 10 percent of total worldwide final energy demand and 7 percent of global [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the International Energy Agency reported in 2013. Since then the numbers have crept up, with the IEA finding petrochemicals responsible for an additional percentage point of the world’s total energy consumption in 2017.

Carbon emissions from petrochemical and plastics manufacturing are expected to grow 20 percent by 2030 (in other words, in just over a decade), the IEA concluded in a report released October 5. A few days later, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that by 2030, the world needs to have reduced its greenhouse gas pollution 45 percent from 2010 levels, in order to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to a less-catastrophic 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

The petrochemicals industry has so far drawn relatively little attention from oil and gas analysts and policy makers. “Petrochemicals are one of the key blind spots in the global energy debate, especially given the influence they will exert on future energy trends,” Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, said in a statement this month.

“In fact,” he added, “our analysis shows they will have a greater influence on the future of oil demand than cars, trucks and aviation.”

The new investments, which will rely on decades of continued fracking in the U.S, offer the oil and gas industry a serious hedge against competition from renewable energy, even in the event that climate policies push fossil fuel energy to the margins.

“Unlike refining, and ultimately unlike oil, which will see a moment when the growth will stop, we actually don’t anticipate that with petrochemicals,” Andrew Brown, upstream director for Royal Dutch Shell, told the San Antonio Express News in March.

The planned infrastructure could also help bail out the heavily indebted shale drilling industry financially by consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels, both for power and as a raw material.

The American Chemistry Council has linked 333 chemical industry projects, all announced since 2010, to shale gas — that is, gas that is produced using fracking. Forty-one percent of those projects are still in the planning phase as of September, according to the council, and 68 percent of the projects are linked to foreign investment.

State regulators in Texas and Louisiana have already issued permits that would allow a group of 74 petrochemical and liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects along the Gulf Coast to add 134 million tons of greenhouse gases a year to the atmosphere, an Environmental Integrity Project analysis found in September. The group said that was equal to the pollution from running 29 new coal power plants around the clock.

The expansion of plastics manufacturing in America also has environmentalists worried over a plastics pollution crisis. “We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realizing we should use far less of it,” Carroll Muffett, president of the U.S. Center for International Environmental Law, told The Guardian in December 2017.

This story is part of Fracking for Plastics, a DeSmog investigation into the proposed petrochemical build-out in the Rust Belt and the major players involved, along with the environmental, health, and socio-economic implications.

Petrochemical Paradox

The petrochemical industry transforms ethane and other raw material into a huge range of products, including not only plastic, but also vinyl, fertilizers, Styrofoam, beauty products, chemicals, and pesticides.

The petrochemicals industry itself straddles an uncomfortable fence when it comes to renewable energy and climate change. A significant portion of its revenue comes from “clean” technology sectors, as it provides materials used to make batteries and electric cars.

One report last year concluded that roughly 20 percent of the industry’s revenue comes from products designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the American Chemistry Council cited the industry’s role supplying “materials and technologies that improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions,” as it opposed Trump’s decision to drop out of the Paris Agreement.

But petrochemical manufacturers are also heavily reliant on fossil fuels. They need them to power and supply a dreamed-of “manufacturing renaissance,” as the ExxonMobil-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute explained as it pushed for Trump to abandon the Paris Agreement.

Plans to use American shale gas would also link petrochemicals to the expansion of fracking, which carries its own environmental concerns. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s landmark study on fracking and drinking water concluded in 2016 that fracking has led to water contamination and poses continued risks to American water supplies.

In addition, though conversations about climate change usually focus on carbon emissions, the gas industry has such a bad methane leak problem that using natural gas can be even worse for the climate than burning coal.

“We share IEA’s view that the production, use and disposal of petrochemical-derived products present a variety of environmental challenges that need to be addressed,” the American Chemistry Council said in a statement sent to DeSmog, which also cited the use of petrochemical products in the renewable energy industry and the manufacture of products that raise energy efficiency like home insulation and lighter auto parts. “We are committed to managing energy use in our companies and manufacturing facilities.”

Pittsburgh and Paris

Climate implications make a petrochemical build-out risky, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from a fiscal perspective, Mark Dixon, co-founder of NoPetroPA, which opposes fracking-based petrochemicals projects, told DeSmog.

One plant, Shell’s $6 billion ethane “cracker” plant currently under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, has permits to pump 2.25 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year into the air near Pittsburgh, roughly equal to the annual carbon pollution from 430,000 cars.

Industry advocates say the region can produce enough ethane to support up to seven more ethane cracker plants like Shell’s.

“We’re trying to drop our emissions 50 percent by 2030,” Dixon said, referring to Pittsburgh’s highly touted plans to comply with international climate targets despite the federal government’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. “The Shell cracker alone will decimate that.”

A kayaker protests against Shell’s cracker project outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in June 2018. Credit: Mark DixonCC BY 2.0

Stranding Assets

International negotiators met in Bangkok in September to hash out details on how the Paris Agreement will be implemented. The U.S., which participated in talks despite the Trump administration’s intention to withdraw from the accord, faced criticismover working to delay clarity over the agreement’s financing (nonetheless, a top UN negotiator praised “good progress” from the talks).

While the Paris Agreement is not directly binding, globally there has been discussion of using trade agreements and tariffs to pressure countries that fail to keep up with their carbon-cutting commitments.

In February, the European Union (EU) declared that it will not sign new trade agreements with any country that refuses to get on board with the Paris Agreement.

“One of our main demands is that any country who signs a trade agreement with EU should implement the Paris Agreement on the ground,” France’s foreign affairs minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told the French Parliament. “No Paris Agreement, no trade agreement.”

“They’re already shooting across the bow, saying look, you’ve got to implement the Paris climate agreement,” Dixon told DeSmog. “We could very well spend 10 years building an infrastructure to support fracking all over the region, crackers, ethane, plastics, everything, then have Europe say, ‘sorry, you can’t do that. You have to shut it down.’”

In other words, whether or not the U.S puts its signature on the climate pact’s dotted line, the pressure from trading partners to reduce greenhouse gas pollution — and the underlying concerns about the rapidly warming climate — could remain the same.

That said, while the U.S. is the only country to reject Paris on paper, it is far from the only country on track to miss its targets aimed at warding off catastrophic climate change. Only Morocco and The Gambia are projected to hit “Paris Agreement Compatible” targets, according to the Climate Action Tracker (whose rating tracker includes many major polluters but not all countries worldwide).

The EU itself currently earns a rating of “insufficient” from the group (China is ranked “highly insufficient,” while the U.S.> and four other nations earned the worst “critically insufficient” grade).

Closing Windows

The next several years will determine the future of petrochemical production for decades to come, crucial years when it comes to the fate of the climate, if industry gets its timing right — particularly in the Rust Belt.

“The window to make this all work is not forever,” Charles Schliebs of Stone Pier Capital Advisors told the NEP Northeast U.S. Petrochemical Construction conference in June. “It’s maybe two to five years.”

That means key decisions may be made while Donald Trump remains in office — though state and local regulators will also face important calls over permits and construction planning.

For some living near the center of the planned petrochemical expansion, the problem is readily apparent.

“We’re not going to be able to double down on fossil fuels,” Dixon said, “and comply with the Paris climate agreement.”

Follow the DeSmog investigative series, Fracking for Plastics, and get your questions answered with our Field Guide to the Petrochemical and Plastics Industry

UPDATED: This piece has been updated to include an additional statement from the American Chemistry Council.

The former Bethlehem Steel Plant in the Rust Belt city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is now open to tourists. The decaying plant is a relic of an era when coal and steel, closely linked like shale gas and plastics, were dominant industries in the region. Credit: © 2018 Julie Dermansky

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  1. Anarcissie

    In addition to straight mechanical and chemical pollution, plastic, especially seagoing microplastic, threatens biological pollution. Bacteria and other microorganisms are ‘learning’ (evolving) to metabolize plastic for energy and useful materials. While growing on plastic, where they come into contact with one another, some of them exchange genes, thus producing novel forms of life. Some of the newer organisms may be harmful to human bodily health and other interests. The microplastic and the organisms evolving in the sea are carried back to land through a variety of channels and are already present in our food.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Don’t know if the comment went through before the 529 message)

      We are dumping into the oceans more than just microplastic.

      Radio-active fluids, from, say, Fukushima.

      And all kinds of chemicals – from suntan lotions, household cleaning solutions, birth control pills, etc.

      Will all these lead to new lifeforms? Are we humans better off just doing nothing – this, in reference to the Pascal quote – All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

      And so, we go to some islands for vacation.

      Most go there by flying (on a jet)….air pollution.

      And likely the Deplorables have no money to go…relates to wealth inequality.

      It makes one wonder how some (or many of those) island nations can survive, even if the seas are not rising.

  2. oaf

    ” America is now the world’s only state refusing participation in the global agreement to curb climate change (after Syria, the final holdout, signed”
    …Just one more reason for the rest of the world to consider us *the enemy*

    What may be of interest is considering, in global reference, energy use per capita…oaf would like to see a graph comparing this value across various national boundaries.By country. It is at least in part a measure of consumption. It could be measured, for instance, in Joules…It should include the hidden parts; like where production and or disposal are outsourced. Waste stream and pollution remediation, mitigation, or compensation are real factors, whether ongoing, or deferred. Dealing with plastic wastes will require more consumption of energy, ie: largely fossil fuels and resultant emissions…

    *all’s well that ends well-…until it don’t* oafstradamus

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      About that personal energy use per capita.

      For the person who is designing a dam that will generate lots of energy for an under-developed nation, so that factories can now be set up (no previous such energy use), how do we count his or her (the dam designer’s/developer’s) energy use (indirectly – he/she is enabling others to consume energy)?

      Normally, he or she is celebrated for bringing progress to a poor nation.

      Do we now say he’s contributing to more energy use*?

      *the original comment refers to a per-capita energy use number, not what kind of energy (hydro/wind/coal/nuclear/etc).

      1. oaf

        There are the obvious parts; ie: fuel, electric bill…but also the indirect parts; how much energy is used to build your home, all the stuff that goes with it; your vehicle, if you use one instead of your muscle. Much of shipping costs is for fuel; and packaging! How much energy was expended in the development of your portfolio and bank accounts? What is one’s share of the infrastructure in one’s country; or all the military endeavors…science/computing/other technology.How much goes into disposal, and how much will be due when we find that the disposal wasn’t done in an Earth-friendly manner. It is possibly one, or several, order(s) of magnitude greater for some individuals than for others.If one looks only at one part at a time, there is a risk of missing the big picture.
        We are constantly bombarded with the message that consumption is good; more is better. Bigger, faster, louder. Think about the fun!!!…not the costs…

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          I agree…everything is connected and we impact the environment in various ways that we are not immediately aware of.

          Take, for example, imported organic fruits (so they are available year around …from the other hemisphere, say).

          Even shipping them on sailboats can be problematic.

          Just that extra boat trip (versus zero boat trip by shopping local, even if no substitutes, say for tropical fruits, are available. In that case, buy some else entirely different) can impact adversely how some fish reproduce. It could be due to the noise or the shadow cast by the sailboat.

  3. Steve Ardire

    Visualizing the Global Transition to Green Energy http://www.visualcapitalist.com/global-transition-to-green-energy/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare
    #corrupt to core #Trump #Zinke oil companies continue to push #fossilfuels so vote Dem in Nov and #YesOn1631

    https://twitter.com/Conserve_WA/status/1056267798173937665 #YesOn1631

    RT @BillGates https://twitter.com/BillGates/status/1054018720195059712 #YesOn1631

    definitely #YesOn1631 in WA https://yeson1631.org/ since #RenewableEnergy Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels by 2020 https://futurism.com/new-report-predicts-renewable-energy-cheaper-fossil-fuels-2020/ but #corrupt to core #Trump #Zinke and oil companies continue to push #fossilfuels so vote Dem in Nov !

  4. SimonGirty

    Ethane, wet-gas, sour gas, LNG lines (& collecting systems, devoid of any 3rd party inspection) from tens of thousands of sloppily fracked wells, with failing casing & crappy cement jobs; basically watering-down the radioactive return water, spraying it as road salt, irrigating crops (including organic). With hastily hired 1099 hands, “trained” by incompetent wet-brained churls, based on some dream of returning a profit by largely Indian and Russian oligarchs, buying up abandoned mills, populated with temps. Now, add Trump, Fentanyl, heavily armed, inbred, indentured serfs who’ve watched their folks die of despair in their fifties. What could go wrong? How can you convince folks who have lost everything their parents, grandparents, etc, worked/ fought so hard for. Folks seemed pretty fatalistic in McKeesport and Pittsburgh (drove by Mariner 2, on the way home… 300′ from four schools in Middletown, PA. Every politician in PA, should be in jail).

    1. Arizona Slim

      Mariner 2 also goes through Chester County, which is the richest county in PA. Locals, including state rep Andrew Dinniman, are fighting it.

      1. SimonGirty

        We’re watching professor Chomsky on Amy’s show as we write. I remember when Katrina trashed Shell’s Mars TLP (along with other deep-water platforms, cutting gas supplies all the way to New England) enabling the slickwater fracking pyramid. Some of us had foreseen the perfect storm of: Gas, Steel, Government & 3rd Party sectors simultaneously dumping all of their empirically knowledge old coots. With the Marcellus/ rust-belt still reeling from Reagan’s market-based Miracle. All it took was 30yrs of grinding poverty, unemployment, EZ Credit, “entitlement” cuts, foreclosures, FOX News’ cage rattling, drive-time radio, Freedom Arms, tag team kleptocracy and dominionist theocracy… I’m not forgetting some of the GREAT young candidates I got to hear down in Pittsburgh. And Doug Shields was fighting this, before ProPublica & DeSmogBlog: https://vimeo.com/44367635 so, should we still hope?

        1. SimonGirty

          Thank you. And… don’t forget, this is only just the beginning! https://www.ehn.org/here-are-the-25-zones-along-the-proposed-shell-falcon-pipeline-at-risk-of-explosions-due-to-landslides-2604629860.html we’re laughing at PHMSA’s latest euphemism of “subsidence” on the most recent PA/ WV pipeline explosions. We KNOW the truth, but there’s nowhere to blow a whistle, since 2016… with wet gas lines, you’ll be dead, before you’re incinerated? It’s know-nothing welds.

  5. sleepingdogmatist

    As a native West Virginian, I’m looking forward to local/state level politicians in the 2030s saying “plastic is *who we are.*”

    That and “plastic keeps, er, something on, probably.”

    1. jrs

      What’s good for plastic is good for America. Or just the line from the Graduate: plastics.

      What a mess this country is when this type of policy is even being considered, as if the world needed anymore plastic.

  6. GF

    Are the energy companies following the neo-lib bible by placing the “factories” next to where the poorest people live?

  7. Jeremy Grimm

    Look on the bright of life. Some of the plastic artifacts we leave may last for millions of years as a testament to the existence and wisdom of the human race long after we have become extinct. If our planet is ever visited by intelligent aliens the plastic will remain as a lasting epithet … along with the thin layer of synthetic elements marking our uses of nuclear energy … for various purposes.

    1. SimonGirty

      Shhhh… don’t give them ideas. They’ve already fracked a reservoir serving 80-130K residents and are fracking wet gas right below two huge old reactors, adjacent to Shell’s ethane cracker. We’re all waiting to hear that they’ve been using the plant’s (secondary?) cooling loop to frack with live steam; to ward off bankruptcy, an’at?

  8. TomFinn

    Jobs and Politicians are the determining factors in the bottom line of this issue currently. Tough to sway the politicos when district jobs are in the balance. Maybe we need to introduce plastic digesting Bacteria into our gut biome…yeah, right. Humanity: “Playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded cylinder.”

  9. Kilgore Trout

    I’m halfway through Eliza Griswold’s recently published, “Amity and Prosperity, One Family and the Fracturing of America” which examines the toll fracking has taken on one family and one town southwestern PA. near the W. VA border It’s depressing but instructive. One small law firm does heroic work against the corporate stooges, while the courage and grace of the woman at the center of the story is heartening. Our corporate betters just don’t know when to stop. The Onion called it:http://redgreenandblue.org/2018/10/11/onion-nails-exxonmobil-ceo-depressed-realizing-earth-end-finish-extracting-oil/

  10. drumlin woodchuckles

    And if there are two people who can not “not use plastic” and are not able to “not drive a car” . . . . maybe each of those two people could each use half-as-much plastic as before, and each of those two people could drive half-as-much as before.

    Those two people each using 50% less plastic and “driving” as before would cause as much plastic non-use and car non-driving as one person using zero plastic and driving zero car.

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