Ethane Crackers are Unsavory

Have you ever heard the term “ethane cracker”?

Far from the familiar crunchy snack that may spring to mind, an ethane cracker is a type of hydrocarbon processor that breaks oil and gas into smaller molecules, creating ethylene, the monomer used in the production of polyethylene and MEG (mono-ethylene glycol). Ethane crackers also produce some propylene, used in the production of polypropylene (plastic #5).

Last year, NPR was following the saga of a particular ethane cracker, one that Royal Dutch Shell wants to build in the U.S.  Multiple states were vying for the hosting honors, because building and operating an ethane cracker creates jobs, and jobs, as we all know, are in demand.

Pennsylvania ultimately got the nod, though not without the governor, Tom Corbett, promising extremely generous terms to Shell:

Pennsylvania wooed Shell by granting the company a fifteen-year tax amnesty window. In June [2012], Governor Corbett successfully pushed for an additional tax break that will grant Shell a $2.10 credit for every gallon of ethane it purchases from Pennsylvania-based natural gas drillers. Over a 25-year window, the credit has been valued at $1.65 billion, making it the largest tax break in state history.

Shell has said that the proposed plant will turn out “more than a million tons of ethylene a year,” creating the feedstock for plastics like PET (polyethylene terephthalate, plastic #1), polyester fiber, LDPE (low density polyethylene, plastic #4), HDPE (high density polyethylene, plastic #2) and polypropylene (plastic #5) which in turn are made into things like plastic bottles, clothing, bags, wraps, packaging, caps and straws.

As of this writing, the Shell plant in Pennsylvania is not a certainty, and although Gov. Corbett is enthused about the jobs, it’s worth looking at the environmental costs of this heavily subsidized business deal. I have to say, I pity the poor folks near Monaca in Beaver County—the likely site.  If the plant does indeed get built, air quality and health will suffer for sure, both locally and down wind.

Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club in Texas, has plenty of experience with gas crackers.  An ethane cracker produces emissions of carcinogenic chemicals as well as particulate matter.  Breathing that, he says, is “like injecting someone with cancer.”

Thanks to the fracking boom, four new “world scale” crackers (including Shell’s) are planned for the U.S. by 2017.  Together with upgrades to existing facilities, FrackCheck WV reports that the “outlined expansions total an estimated 7.4m tonnes/year of ethylene capacity by 2017, representing 28% of existing US ethylene capacity of around 26.6m tonnes/year.”

To learn more about hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus shale for natural gas in Pennsylvania, watch this investigative report from Link TV (18 minutes).


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