Market Headwinds Buffet Appalachia’s Future as a Center for Petrochemicals

A proposed $5.7 billion ethane plant in Belmont County, Ohio, was seen as a likely casualty even before coronavirus cratered oil prices and collapsed the economy.

Mar 21, 2020
A collaboration between Thailand’s PTT Global Chemical America and South Korea’s Daelim Industrial has been planning to construct a $5.7 billion plastics manufacturing plant at this site, as it was in February 2019, in Belmont County, Ohio.

A collaboration between Thailand’s PTT Global Chemical America and South Korea’s Daelim Industrial has been planning to construct a $5.7 billion plastics manufacturing plant at this site, as it was in February 2019, in Belmont County, Ohio. The project has been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: James Bruggers/InsideClimate News

Less than two years ago, the Trump administration and the chemical industry were promoting development of a plastics manufacturing center in Appalachia they thought would benefit Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.

IHS Markit, a global information and data company, forecast the potential for as many as five plants that would turn abundant ethane from fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shale regions into ethylene and polyethylene, among the most commonly produced petrochemicals and components of all sorts of plastic products. 

Now, analysts at IHS Markit have concluded that a proposed $5.7 billion ethane plant in Belmont County, Ohio, may never be constructed due to circumstances that were present even before the coronavirus began to dramatically shrink the economy. 

And in a new study, analysts at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a nonprofit think tank that works toward a sustainable energy economy, have found that the plant faces a damaging, cumulative set of risks, all raising doubts about whether it will ever be financed.

 

The plant's fate is seen by both the IEEFA and IHS Markit as a harbinger of trouble for the broader vision of Appalachia as a major petrochemical hub.  A string of significant setbacks and delays now seem more important amid the coronavirus pandemic, a crashing economy, cratering oil prices, slowing demand for plastics and what could be the final months of a fossil fuel-friendly Trump administration.

Activists who have been fighting fracking and the planned petrochemical boom say they hope the industry's mounting woes, which are sure to be worsened by a coronavirus-related economic stall, will lead to a long enough pause for leaders to decide whether the nation's former steel belt should continue to embrace another heavily polluting and fossil-fuel dependent industry.

Ethane Cracker Plants on the Ohio River

"Too many regulators, too many lawmakers, and too many government officials were too eager to sign us up and lock is into a bigger fossil fuel future, and at a time when we don't need more plastics," said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, the Pennsylvania community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Integrity Project. "This could be an important moment in time where we need more reflection, where we need a pause button, and ask, what do we really want for this region?"

Industry representatives acknowledge the challenges but continue touting the region's natural gas-driven petrochemical future, while asking for government help.

"As our industry navigates market headwinds, policies that encourage energy infrastructure development and expand natural gas use in manufacturing, power generation and transportation, will help drive economic growth and create good-paying jobs," said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

The Planet Has its Own Timeline

The shale gas boom that began about a decade ago won't last forever, and environmental and health advocates say the planet has its own timeline. 

The Center for International Environmental Law, working with the Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance and others, last year concluded that the plastics' and petrochemical industries' worldwide growth plans could make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the most challenging benchmark established under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. 

Plastics manufacturers also face another big problem—a global backlash against vast amounts of plastic waste, said University of Pittsburgh chemical engineering professor Eric J. Beckman. 

"Polyethylene has become Public Enemy No. 1," Beckman said. "To me, that is more of an existential threat to (new ethane plants) than the basic economics of the oil price dropping."

Bans on single-use plastic products are spreading in the United States and the European Union. So are so-called "polluter pays" regulations, requiring manufacturers to finance the costs of recycling or safely disposing of plastic products that consumers no longer want. 

Last month, Democrats in Congress introduced wide-ranging plastics legislation that could prompt plastics reform, should the Democrats defeat President Trump and win the Senate. 

Trump's diminishing prospects top a long list of obstacles to realizing his administration's vision for bringing petrochemicals to the Ohio River Valley, and beyond. 

A Wealth of Problems

The headwinds began blowing in Appalachia last year, when the Braskem and Odebrecht companies ended their plans to construct an ethane cracking plant in West Virginia. 

Tens of billions of dollars in petrochemical investment from China, announced in 2017, never materialized.

And a company seeking to secure $1.9 billion in federal loan guarantees to construct massive underground storage for ethane, promoted as essential to support a petrochemical bonanza along the Ohio River, ran into Congressional opposition. The money would come from a fund that has primarily been used to back wind power, solar and other types of clean energy. 

Plastics: From the Gas Well to Your Home

The company, Appalachia Development Group, announced more than a year ago that it had been invited by the Trump administration to submit a second phase of an application for the money. Steven Hedrick, the chief executive officer of the Appalachian Development Group, said this week that he's still working to complete the application.

And while Pennsylvania lawmakers last month passed a bill that could deliver hundreds of millions of dollars of tax breaks to new plastics, petrochemical or fertilizer plants that use Pennsylvania natural gas as a feedstock, Gov. Tom Wolf has said he would veto the bill.

Suddenly, however, local factors such as tax incentives and financing issues have been dwarfed by the coronavirus pandemic, which, along with Saudi Arabia's oil price war with Russia, have sent the crude market plummeting to levels not seen in nearly two decades. 

That makes Appalachia's ethane, though still cheap, less competitive as a basic building block of plastics, compared to naphtha—a petroleum product found in other regions whose price falls along with oil.

The Economics Have Never Looked Worse  

IHS Markit had removed the proposed $5.7 billion ethane plant in Belmont County, Ohio, from its long-range plastics supply forecast even before the coronavirus pandemic seized the global economy, said Nick Vafiadis, manager of IHS's global plastics practice. The project is a collaboration between Thailand's PTT Global Chemical America and South Korea's Daelim Industrial.  

There has been an oversupply of polyethylene, the product the Ohio plant would make. And IHS sees that overage continuing for at least three more years. Plastics demand will continue to rise, but at a slower rate, Vafiadis said. 

Coronovirus will take its own, additional bite out of global plastics demand, he said.

"The economics that would support approval of a final investment decision of the (Ohio) project are less compelling today than they have been the entire time it has been under consideration," he said.

Twice since June 2018, Moody's bond credit rating business, which is used by investors to decide where to put their money, raised doubts about the project. Most recently, in mid-February, Moody's predicted that PTT Global Chemical this year would "not embark on any new capacity expansion plan until margins improve on a sustained basis."

In Ohio, the state's private economic development corporation—JobsOhio—remains optimistic. It has invested nearly $70 million in the project, including for site cleanup and preparation, saying thousands of jobs are in the offing. The companies have obtained their environmental permits. A final investment decision is still expected to be announced by summer, Dan Williamson, a project spokesman said, declining further comment. 

But market conditions do not bode particularly well for the venture. Plastics prices today are much lower than what they were from 2010 to 2013, when the Ohio project was being planned, said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. He added that future prices are also projected to be weak. 

PTT Global Chemical's profits were down 60 percent last year, and they'll have a lot of competition in the United States, he said.

The region's gas exploration and production companies are also teetering on a financial cliff. They were burdened by debt even as they continued to boost production in 2019.

"Taken together, there are a lot of red flags," said Sanzillo.

Uncertainty Hangs Over Shell—and the Region

All the financial and economic factors at play with regard to the proposed Ohio ethane plant also weigh on the region's one actual facility, a multi-billion plastics manufacturing plant being built by Shell Polymers in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. 

Shell this week temporarily halted construction after some workers and public officials raised concerns about unsafe practices related to the coronavirus. 

The project's future may also be uncertain, said Beckman, the University of Pittsburgh chemical engineering professor. If demand for polyethylene stays strong in China, Shell "may come out OK," he said. 

But that may not happen, and to a big oil company like Shell, "five to six billion bucks in not the end of the world if you have to write that off," Beckman said. 

This is a gas well pad with multiple well heads and tanks just west of Pittsburgh as seen last year. Credit: James Bruggers/InsideClimate News

Shale gas exploration and production companies in the Appalachian Basin were teetering on a financial cliff, even before the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout. This is a gas well pad with multiple well heads and tanks just west of Pittsburgh as seen last year. Credit: James Bruggers/InsideClimate News

A Shell spokesman, Ray Fisher, said Shell does not see "the current price environment" affecting plans at its Beaver County plant. "We take a long-term view of the demand for the products that will come from this site," he said. 

Whatever Shell's future, the region's shale deposits are not limitless, said Andrew R. Thomas, the executive in residence at Cleveland State University's Energy Policy Center.

Natural gas production from the Marcellus and Utica shales has a lifespan of 30 years—possibly 50, if gas wells can be fracked a second time, said Thomas, who has worked in the energy industry as a lawyer and geophysicist,

Losing even 10 years could mean "we lose the opportunity to develop our own petrochemical region," he said, adding that a recession would frustrate "any investment opportunities."

In Belmont County, Ohio, Larry Merry, an economic development official, agreed that these are "uncertain times," a considerable understatement, given the coronavirus's rapid spread across the nation. But he said that petrochemical firms are "thinking long term—not just about the next couple of months, or even just the next couple of years. So I remain very optimistic." 

3 States' Natural Gas Boom

Even if multiple ethane cracking plants are never constructed, the region will still be grappling with environmental and health concerns from thousands of fracking sites. And the region could continue to produce natural gas and pipe it elsewhere, said Matthew Mehalik, executive director of Pittsburgh's Breathe Project, a collaboration of some 40 organizations working to improve air quality and fight climate change.

Long before Shell began construction on its ethane plant outside Pittsburgh, nearby residents and doctors had been alarmed by air pollution from fracking and natural gas processing.

They've called for answers on why there has been a surge in Ewing sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer, in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh.

"The health risks and environmental costs never made any sense," said Mehalik.

Now, the economics aren't making any sense, he said.

There is tremendous uncertainty, including how far state or federal governments are willing to go to prop up the shale gas and plastics manufacturing industries, he said.

"The expansion of natural gas 10 to 15 years ago was made with a different mode of thinking and different market conditions," Mehalik said. "It's time for a rethinking, and a rethinking on this opens up prospects for a different economic development vision."

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