Plastics: the new coal in Appalachia?

On the banks of the Ohio River in Monaca, Pennsylvania, workers are assembling the region’s first ethane cracker plant. Cracker plants take ethane, a liquid natural gas byproduct, and “crack” the molecules to produce ethylene, a root chemical used to manufacture plastic products. When the plant opens in a year or two, employees of Shell Polymers will turn “wet gas” into plastic pellets. Two Asian companies may soon announce a plan to invest as much as $6 billion at a similar plant in Ohio. A third plastics plant is currently proposed in West Virginia. An investigative look into these plants says that they may point to a new petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub shaping up along 300 miles of the upper Ohio River, from outside Pittsburgh and into Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. Some worry about the environmental and health costs of such plants. The ethane cracker plant in Monaca will release a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics could account for half of the increase in petroleum consumption in the next 30 years. State and business leaders, and the Trump administration, are applauding petrochemical and plastics manufacturing as the next big thing.

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