A possible ‘cracker’ plant in Beaver County that will produce not only jobs but also more gas wells, will require close scrutiny of the environmentally-tarnished operator Shell Chemical.
The heading on the Shell website reads “Shell continues to progress plans to build a proposed world-scale petrochemical complex in the US Appalachia region, which could upgrade locally-produced ethane from Marcellus shale gas production.” That world-scale complex could be built on a site along the Ohio River near Monaca in Beaver County, a site for which Shell has signed a land option agreement with the owners of a doomed zinc-smelting plant.
A Marcellus ‘cracker’ plant in Western Pennsylvania makes sense because in our region the gas extracted from the shale is termed ‘wet’, not wet with water, but ‘wet’ with hydrocarbons other than relatively heavy methane. In a cracker plant the ‘wet’ hydrocarbons like ethane are heated along with steam and broken down into ethylene; ethylene is feedstock for many plastic compounds. Shell’s proposed complex could also include facilities to produce polyethylene and mono-ethylene glycol.
The next step is for Shell to conduct a ‘commercial feasibility assessment’, and if favorable, construction could begin in two years time and operation begin in four years. Well-paying jobs are always welcome, but it will fall on environmental and citizen groups to closely watch this development. Not only will such a large plant increase the demand for more fracking wells in the region, but Shell will need to adhere to very tight air quality restrictions in a county that already has one of the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the region.
Shell’s environmental record is not re-assuring. It has been accused of ‘environmental devastation’ in Nigeria, is at the center of the Corrib Pipeline controversy in Ireland, drilling off-shore of Scotland, and multi-million dollar violations of the Clean Air Act at chemical plants in Texas and in Alabama and Louisiana, and 207 oil spills around the world in 2011.