Shell Chemical Appalachia’s petrochemical complex has begun to rise from a dusty Beaver County brownfield that follows a slow bend in the Ohio River near Monaca. It took hefty tax incentives to secure it. The nation’s largest zinc smelter was razed to make room for it. More than 7 million cubic feet of earth were moved to accommodate it.
No industrial plant has been more anticipated in recent decades—or been seen as more consequential to the economy and environment of the region.
The ethane “cracker,” which will produce feedstock for plastics manufacturing, is the first major plant to exploit the industrial potential of the region’s gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, the second-largest unconventional natural gas field in the world.
To economic development groups, the Shell complex is seen as a catalyst for an expansive shale-related industrial corridor endorsed by the governors of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to stimulate investment and create jobs in communities hungry for both.
But the vision raises concern over the environmental impact of petrochemical plants that despite being required to deploy sophisticated emission control technologies are expected to add tons of air pollutants to a region where meeting air quality standards remains a struggle and the risks of cancer and other diseases from airborne toxic chemicals are among the highest in the nation.
Hydraulic fracturing has enabled energy companies to efficiently tap the abundance of natural gas found in the tri-state region’s Marcellus and Utica shale plays. Those plays are also rich in natural gas liquids, including ethane and propane, which are highly valued raw materials for petrochemical production and plastics manufacturing.
That “downstream” manufacturing is underdeveloped in southwestern Pennsylvania. Last year, all of the ethane recovered in Pennsylvania as petrochemical feedstock was shipped out of state for processing, according to a recent industry analysis done by the business research firm, IHS Markit. Moreover, some 70 percent of the market for such products is within 700 miles of the Marcellus and Utica shale gas fields of southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
The governors of those states endorsed a Tri-State Shale Coalition in late 2015 whose intent is to expand the economic benefits of shale gas beyond drilling. To pave the way, the states agreed to cooperate on marketing the Appalachian Basin region as a destination for the petrochemical industry, spur investment in transportation and other infrastructure to support it and train an industry-ready workforce.
Their vision is a hub of petrochemical manufacturing in the Appalachian Basin with the potential to become the largest network north of the sprawling 150-company chemical corridor along the Mississippi River that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in southern Louisiana.
Eight months after the governors signed on, Shell announced plans to build the Beaver County ethane cracker, giving the proposed petrochemical corridor its first anchor tenant.
“It’s validation for us,” said David Ruppersberger, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, which is working with other economic development groups in West Virginia and Ohio to attract petrochemical companies. “A lot of people here didn’t think it could happen. A lot of people on the Gulf Coast didn’t think it was going to happen because nobody builds crackers outside the Gulf Coast. And it’s Royal Dutch Shell that is making this investment. That is international validation that this is a viable play.”
The Shell complex will take low-cost ethane from locally drilled natural gas and “crack” or break the ethane molecules apart to produce polyethylene, a common plastic used to make products ranging from packaging and containers to automotive parts.
An estimated 6,000 construction workers are needed to build the cracker. The plant itself is expected to employ about 600 people and estimates suggest its supply chain could generate another 1,200-1,800 jobs.
Several nearby counties can use the work, state Department of Labor and Industry data suggest. Beaver County and nearby Washington and Fayette counties had unemployment rates this year higher than the 5.3 percent average for the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area.
Ongoing operations at the ethane cracker are estimated to generate $9.3 million-$12 million in state income taxes and $3 million-$ 3.8 million in local taxes a year, according to an economic impact analysis Robert Morris University conducted for Shell.
It is unclear how many petrochemical companies can be convinced to settle in the three-state region. Finding sites for large chemical complexes that cover hundreds of contiguous acres of relatively flat riverfront property is particularly challenging and seen as a limiting factor.
But industry interest in the region is growing. Later this year, Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical is expected to decide whether to invest billions of dollars to build an ethane cracker along the Ohio River at Dilles Bottom in southeastern Ohio. “I can’t talk about specific companies,” Ruppersberger said, “but I can say there are other companies considering ethane crackers as well as other natural gas liquid processing.”
Pollution measured in tons
While such possibilities brighten the economic prospects of the region, air quality modeling and other evidence suggest emissions from petrochemical facilities, such as ethane crackers, are not benign.
The potential of the Beaver County ethane cracker to pollute is not lost on those who live in the surrounding communities, according to surveys conducted by the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based environmental nonprofit. While 54 percent of county residents support the new plant, 56 percent are concerned about its environmental impact.
Air quality permits require petrochemical plants to use emissions control systems that meet industry-specific “best available technology” and other engineering standards for reducing pollution. Cap-and-trade rules also allow a plant to reduce its emissions on paper and meet permit requirements by purchasing emissions credits that other plants earn by polluting less.
Emissions from ethane crackers contain a wide range of regulated air pollutants, including major “criteria” pollutants as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, such as fine particulates, known as PM2.5, and sulfur dioxide, as well as hazardous air pollutants, which include compounds known or suspected to cause cancer.
Those air toxics also include volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ground-level ozone. Air throughout the seven- county Pittsburgh MSA fails to meet the annual federal limits for ozone, a widespread pollutant that research suggests raises the risk of asthma attacks, permanent lung damage and abnormal lung development in children.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued Shell an air quality permit to operate the ethane cracker in 2015 based on the sophistication of its pollution control systems and its estimated emissions. “Required controls are very effective in capturing and controlling emission sources of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants,” Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said. “They range from 98 percent to 99% percent effective.”
Characteristics of the ethane cracker’s emissions are detailed in the permit, which requires Shell to estimate the potential maximum volume of pollutants the plant will release. Those data also show how emissions from the ethane cracker, which is fueled by natural gas, differ from those typical of large coal-fired industrial works, such as power plants and steel and coke works.
On one hand, the ethane cracker is expected to emit lower volumes of major pollutants. Shell estimates, for example, that the ethane cracker will release a maximum of 159 tons of PM2.5 a year—about half as much as the U.S. Steel Clairton metallurgical coke plant in Allegheny County emits. Emissions from the Clairton Works is a major reason why Allegheny remains one of only 30 counties nationwide that are unable to meet EPA standards for PM2.5, which increases the risk of heart and lung disease.
But the ethane cracker is expected to emit higher concentrations of several hazardous air pollutants than were released from the zinc smelter that previously occupied the Beaver County site, according to air quality permit data, a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health regional air toxics analysis and other studies.
Shell estimates, for example, that the Beaver County cracker will emit a maximum of 522 tons of volatile organic compounds a year, nearly eight times the amount the zinc smelter released in 2008.
“If you are using ethane to drive a petrochemical industry, that creates a new pathway for volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants being released,” said James Fabisiak, toxicologist and associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh. “We know volatile organic compounds can contribute to ozone formation. This industry brings an unprecedented amount of volatile organic compounds to the area.”
The south Louisiana chemical corridor and parts of southwestern Pennsylvania share some of the highest rates of cancer risk due to toxic emissions in the nation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment data.
Elevated lifetime cancer risk is reported across the 25 Louisiana parishes with a peak rate of 185 cases per 1 million people—a likelihood of contracting cancer from breathing air toxics higher than what is reported in the southwestern Pennsylvania pollution hot spot in the Monongahela River valley downstream from Clairton, home of the nation’s largest metallurgical coke plant.
In and around Monaca, where the new ethane cracker is being built, the estimated cancer risk from breathing toxic chemical emissions stands at 52-in-1 million people, which is 30 percent higher than the latest national average.
Under state law, Shell is largely responsible for monitoring plant emissions and recording the data that will show how effectively the system is managing pollution. Its air quality permit only requires monitoring within the plant.
The Clean Air Council argues that’s not enough based on a health impact study it conducted that concluded the ethane cracker will raise the levels of several hazardous pollutants in the region. It is appealing the plant’s permit, contending, in part, that Shell should expand its monitoring to areas along the plant’s fence line and make the data public.
“Fence-line monitoring protects both workers and the community. People should know what is coming directly into the community,” said Joseph Minott, the nonprofit’s executive director and chief counsel. “The technology exists. The EPA requires it for refineries. We don’t understand why DEP wouldn’t require it for a facility like this.”
The appeal is pending. But Shell’s Fisher suggested that expanding air quality monitoring at the Beaver County petrochemical complex is not out of the question. “While Shell’s view is that fence-line monitoring is not required by state or federal regulation for this type of facility,” he said, “Shell is open to considering the installation of fence-line monitoring and the sharing of monitoring information with the community.”