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Shell’s ethane cracker, a mammoth plastics plant near Pittsburgh, begins operations

10 years in the making, plant will turn ethane, a natural gas component, into pellets

  • Reid Frazier
Shell ethane cracker in Monaca, Pa. March, 2022. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Shell ethane cracker in Monaca, Pa. March, 2022. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

Shell says its brand new plastics plant near Pittsburgh is now in operation. 

The $6 billion plant, known as an ethane cracker, will take ethane, a component of natural gas, from fracking operations in the region and process it into 1.6 million metric tons of plastic a year. The chief product will be pellets of polyethylene, a common plastic. 

“Building this world-class facility is a fantastic achievement and one the team can be proud of; it’s a showcase of Shell’s project delivery expertise,” said Huibert Vigeveno, Shell downstream director, in a written statement.

Construction of the plant was Pennsylvania’s largest industrial project since World War II, according to Gov. Tom Wolf, and benefitted from the largest state subsidy ever – a $1.65 billion tax credit, plus various state and local tax breaks.

“This plant is the largest investment in Pennsylvania since the mid-century and one of the largest of its kind in North America,” said Hilary Mercer, senior vice president for Shell Polymers, in a company Facebook message. “Shell Polymers’ will use our polyethylene to create products that we see and use every day – consumer packaging, pipe, conduit, and many more lifestyle solutions…Safely constructing and commissioning this world-class facility is a special and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we couldn’t have done it without a truly collaborative approach between teams around the globe and the support of the community.” 

More than 8,500 people, many from out of state, crowded into Beaver County to work on the plant at peak construction. The Monaca, Pa. facility  is expected to employ 600 permanent workers. 

Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County has been approved to emit 2,248,293 tons of CO2e per year.

 

Dave Callahan, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in a statement the opening of the plant “a historic day for Pennsylvania” and example of how industry-friendly policies “can create sustained economic growth for the Commonwealth and our nation.”

Environmental groups worry about the plant’s potential for pollution – it’s permitted to be the state’s second biggest emitter of volatile organic compounds, precursors to ground-ozone, or smog. It is also permitted to be a large source of greenhouse gas pollution – with the climate impact of 400,000 more cars on the road. 

As part of a settlement with environmental groups, Shell agreed to install and operate fenceline monitors at the plant to monitor emissions.

Community environmental groups said this was a day for which they’d been preparing for years, including by establishing a network of citizen air monitoring around the plant, aided by a recent EPA environmental justice grant through the Inflation Reduction Act.

“We’ve already had issues with air quality and have yet to learn what will be coming from the plant during a full run,” said Robert Schmetzer, a Beaver County resident and member of Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, in an emailed statement. “We have plenty of air inversions in our area — will they reduce operations during this period? These are serious concerns.”

The road to building the plant began in 2012, with the passage of the tax credits, as part of the state’s Resource Manufacturing Tax Credit. 

“I can tell you, with hand to my heart, that without these incentives, we would not have made this investment decision,” a Shell executive said in 2016

Gov. Tom Corbett, who championed the tax credit for Shell, said at the time, “When you’re looking at the investment, you have to look at what it would have cost us had we done nothing, had we let these businesses go.” 

At the time, the tax credits were thought to be kick-starting a regional plastics manufacturing boom. That so far has not materialized, as the Shell plant is the only one of its kind in the region. A Thai company that has been considering building an ethane cracker in Belmont County, Ohio has yet to green-light that project.  

 

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