'Cracker' plant will bring jobs, but what about the air?

Shell plant in Singapore
Monaca, Pa. could be the site of an ethane cracker like this one built by Shell in Singapore, which releases around 2,000 tons of NOx a year. (Photo from Shell Chemical)

Much has been said about the number of jobs the petrochemical 'cracker' plant that may be coming to Western Pennsylvania would add to the local economy. Between 500 and 1,000 permanent jobs are created at ethylene crackers, plus thousands of other potential jobs that would result from associated businesses that cluster around them.

Shell Oil Co., which announced it may build the plant in the next six years, has estimated it would bring more than 10,000 jobs to the area.

But what of its environmental impact? Would it become a significant source of pollution? And how would it impact Western Pennsylvania’s already poor air quality?

Shell has kept specifics of the plant closely held. And the company declined a request to talk about the plant’s potential environmental impact.

But similar plants around the country are significant sources of emissions like Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Both are precursors to ozone, or smog, a pollutant that already exceeds federal limits in the Pittsburgh region.

Ozone can aggravate asthma and increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Pittsburgh region has not attained the national standard for ozone, so any new sources of its components will be watched closely by regulators and environmental groups.

Most of the emissions from ethane cracker plants  come from the process of “steam” cracking ethane, a hydrocarbon found in “wet” natural gas like the Marcellus shale, says Goetz Veser, a professor of chemical engineering at Pitt. During this process, ethane is heated to very high temperatures--around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. The furnaces used to create this type of heat usually run on natural gas, said Veser.

An interactive graphic of how volatile organic compounds emissions for Western PA compare with other 'world scale' plants.
Interactive graphic of how volatile organic compounds emissions for Western PA compare with other 'world scale'

In outlining its plans for the plant in Beaver County, Shell has mentioned another world-scale plant it owns in Norco, La. In addition to ethylene, that plant produces propylene and butadiene, two other important petrochemicals used in the creation of plastics.

If it were located in Pennsylvania, the Norco facility would be the highest emitter of VOCs in southwest Pennsylvania, more than doubling the amount at the next highest source, a coal preparation plant in Greene County run by Consol Energy, according to emissions data from the EPA’s 2008 National Emissions Inventory.

It would also be among the top 10 plants in southwestern Pennsylvania by NOx emissions, with a 2008 total of 3,791 tons. The U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, the largest NOx emitter in Allegheny County, produced 4,195 tons of NOx that year.

It’s unclear whether the Monaca site would emit a similar amount of pollution, Veser says. Though the process would likely be similar at the two plants, the Beaver County facility will be required to use the newest, most efficient technology available, likely resulting in lower emissions.

Another Shell “world-scale” cracker opened in Singapore in 2009 produces 2,000 metric tons, or 2,200 tons, of NOx, according to an impact statement prepared by Shell. This would also qualify as a “top 10” emitter in southwest Pennsylvania.

http://www-static.shell.com/static/chemicals/downloads/aboutshell/sepc_e... [section 3.2.2]

If and when Shell does produce a plan for the plant, the company may need to supply regulators with air pollution models that can show how its emissions will be dispersed, says Joe Osborne, of the Group Against Smog and Pollution.

An interactive graphic of how nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions for Western PA compare with other 'world scale' plants.
Interactive graphic of how nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in Western PA compare with other 'world scale'

Since the Pittsburgh region is already failing federal ozone standards, Shell may need to buy emissions offsets. It could buy these offsets from other companies either shutting down facilities or implementing pollution control measures, says Bonnie Smith, an EPA spokeswoman.

The cracker itself is likely to be only part of the impact--both environmental and economic--expected to take place in and around the proposed Monaca facility. Other plastics and petrochemical facilities are likely to sprout around any cracking plant.

That’s because ethylene is a gas, making it difficult to transport. Plants that can use ethylene to create plastics tend to aggregate around cracker plants, says Martha Moore of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group. These facilities can convert ethylene into products that are more easily shipped, like polyethylene pellets, which go into commonly used plastics like freezer bags, milk jugs, and textiles.

Shell said the cracker would be “world scale,” which means it would produce more than a million tons of ethylene per year.

The company says it’s still determining how much ethane would be available, and once it decides that it would determine the size of the complex.

There are 44 ethane crackers in the United States, said Jeff Robinson, chief of air permits for EPA's Region 6. Of those, about 30 are in Texas or Louisiana.  After a decade without a new ethane cracker built in the United States, there are about 20 that have been proposed in recent years to take advantage of the abundant ethane sources found in shale gas, said Martha Moore of the American Chemistry Council.

The ethane comes out of the ground during hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas. The process has opened up new areas for drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale. Shell recently bought about 700,000 acres of gas leases in the Marcellus, and earlier in March announced plans to build a $1 billion ethane cracker in Monaca.

The bottom line, Veser says, is that Shell’s cracker will bring jobs, but it will also put pressure on air quality in the region. “Is an ethane cracker going to create emissions? Absolutely,” says Veser, who has consulted with Athier, another company looking to build a cracker in the region.

“Does it mean we should resist it? I don’t think so, unless you stop using the products from that industry--and you can't."

Interactives

Air pollutants from Western PA plants

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are air pollutants regulated by the EPA. Combined with Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), and sunlight, they form ozone. Ozone can exacerbate asthma and lead to respiratory illnesses.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  • 1000
  • 800
  • 600
  • 400
  • 200
  • 0
Volatile Organic Compounds Emissions for Western PA
(in tons)
(Hover over each bar to see company/site name, location and total emissions)

Shell Chemical

Los Angeles, California

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

898.32 TONS

USS Clairton Works

Clairton, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

532 TONS

Consol PA Coal Co. LLC / Bailey Prep Plant

West Finley, Greene County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

501 TONS

Nova Chemical Inc.

Monaca, Beaver County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

237 TONS

INDSPEC Chemical Corp.

Petrolia, Butler County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

177 TONS

Team Ten LLC / Appleton Papers

Roaring Spring, Blair County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

150 TONS

PA State System of Higher Education - Indiana University / Specialty Tires of America

Indiana, Indiana County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

142 TONS

Eastman Chemical Resins Inc.

West Elizabeth, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

137 TONS

 

AK Steel Corp. / Butler Works

Butler, Butler County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

125 TONS

Texas Eastern Transmission LP / Holbrook Station

Wind Ridge, Greene County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

125 TONS

Sonneborn Inc. / Calumet Penreco LLC

Karns City, Butler County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

120 TONS

Neville Chemical Company

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

113 TONS

Clarion Boards Inc. / Clarion Plant

Shippenville, Clarion County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

112 TONS

Pittsburgh International Airport

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

103 TONS

Shenango Inc.

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

92 TONS

RRI Energy Northeast Mgmt. Co. / EME Homer City Generation LP - Center Twp

Homer City, Indiana County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

92 TONS

Wheatland Tube Co. / Wheatland Tube Division

Wheatland, Mercer County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

86 TONS

Cemex Construction Materials Atlantic LLC / Wampum Cement Plant

Wampum, Lawrence County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

86 TONS

PPG Industries Inc.

Springdale, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

85 TONS

Allegheny Ludlum Corp.

Brackenridge, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

72 TONS

RRI Energy Northeast Mgmt. Co. / Seward Generating Station - East Wheatfield

New Florence, Indiana County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

69 TONS

US Steel Corp. / Irvin Plant

Dravosburg, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

67 TONS

Horsehead Corp. / Monaca Smelter

Monaca, Beaver County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

66 TONS

Bedford Materials Co.

Manns Choice, Bedford County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

66 TONS

ACN-Pittsburgh LLC

Bakerstown, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

64 TONS

Source: EPA National Emission Inventory, 2008 | Interactive graphic: Alexandra Kanik for PublicSource


How Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emissions in Western PA compare with other 'world scale'
(1 million tons of ethylene produced per year) ethane cracker. Shell's Monaca plant will probably be required to use the best available pollution controls on its cracking units, and could have lower emissions than existing plants.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  • 30
  • 24
  • 18
  • 12
  • 6
  • 0
Nitrogen oxides emissions for Western PA (in 1,000 tons)
(Hover over each bar to see company/site name, location and total emissions)

First Energy Generation Corp.

Shippingport, Beaver County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

25,929 TONS

Allegheny Energy Supply Co. LLC / Hatfield's Ferry Power Station

Masontown, Greene County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

24,523 TONS

RRI Energy Northeast Mgmt. Co. / EME Homer City Generation LP

Homer City, Indiana County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

17,885 TONS

RRI Energy Northeast Mgmt. Co. / Conemaugh Plant

New Florence, Indiana County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

17,461 TONS

RRI Energy Northeast Mgmt. Co. / Keystone Station

Shelocta, Armstrong County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

15,767 TONS

USS Clairton Works

Clairton, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

4,196 TONS

Orion Power Midwest / Cheswick Station

Springdale, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

4,110 TONS

Shell Norco

Los Angeles, California

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

3,791 TONS

 

Orion Power Midwest LP / Elrama Power Station

Elrama, Washington County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

3,523 TONS

Fomosa Plastics

Point Comfort, Texas

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

2,932 TONS

RRI Energy / Orion Power Midwest LP - New Castle Power Plant

West Pittsburg, Lawrence County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

2,790 TONS

Allegheny Energy Supply Co. / Mitchell Power Station

New Eagle, Washington County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

2,727 TONS

Allegheny Energy Supply Co. / Armstrong Power Station

Adrian, Armstrong County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

2,488 TONS

AES Beaver Valley LLC

Monaca, Beaver County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

2,483 TONS

Seward Generating Station - East Wheatfield

New Florence, Indiana County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

2,236 TONS

Shell Singapore Cracker

Singapore

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

2,204 TONS

Essroc

Bessemer, Lawrence County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

1,729 TONS

Horsehead Corp. / Monaca Smelter

Monaca, Beaver County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

1,176 TONS

Cemex Construction Materials Atlantic LLC / Wampum Cement Plant

Wampum, Lawrence County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

1,150 TONS

Pittsburgh Glass Works / Meadville Works 8

Meadville, Crawford County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

1,088.2 TONS

Cambria Cogen Co.

Ebensburg, Cambria County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

1,066 TONS

Graymont PA Inc. / Pleasant Gap & Bellefonte Plants

Bellefonte, Centre County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

962 TONS

Guardian Industries Corp. - Floreffe

Jefferson Hills, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

884 TONS

Armstrong Cement & Supply Corp. - Winfield

Cabot, Butler County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

696 TONS

US Steel Corp. / Irvin Plant

Dravosburg, Allegheny County

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

633 TONS

BASF FINA Petrochemicals LP

Port Arthur, Texas

 

TOTAL EMISSIONS:

604 TONS

 

Source: EPA National Emission Inventory, 2008 | Interactive graphic: Alexandra Kanik for PublicSource

 

Comments

To help facilitate the conversation, we've put together some guidelines so you'll know what we think is harmful or inappropriate. Harmful, inappropriate content will be removed and repeat offenders can be banned from contributing in the future. Click here to read our commenting guidelines.