While many people are focusing on the opportunities shale gas extraction and production provides in terms of energy and fuel, others are working to realize another opportunity in the region’s petrochemical sector.
At the Ohio Valley Plastics Summit, hosted Sept. 24 by the Polymer Alliance Zone of West Virginia in Vienna, lawmakers, leaders and experts from the region’s chemical, plastics and natural gas industries convened to collaborate and discuss the prospects for expanding a long-lived plastics manufacturing industry.
“West Virginia has a winner in the development and the downstream opportunities associated with the horizontal fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and the delivery of natural gas and natural gas liquids,” said Tom Witt, economist and former director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “This Ohio Valley region has an opportunity with the continued growth and development of the Marcellus and Utica shale for downstream manufacturing that will allow us to create truly a very competitive business cluster based on these resources.”
“From 2007 to 2012, we had a 440 percent increase in shale gas production in the United States,” said Bill Carteaux, Society of the Plastics Industry president and CEO. “This single act is one of the biggest things that the United States has seen from a manufacturing perspective, probably since the industrial revolution.
“This is a game-changer for U.S. manufacturing — especially a game-changer for the plastics industry,” he added.
Ethane cracker plants take ethane, a component of natural gas found in abundance in Utica and Marcellus shale, and “cracks” it into ethylene. The most commonly produced petrochemical, ethylene is the root chemical for many plastics, as it can be converted into polyethylenes and other products that can then be made into everyday essentials, such as bottles, food containers, tires, clothing, pipes and antifreeze, to name a few.
The talk of the summit regarding such projects surrounded the Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise, or ASCENT, proposed in November 2013 by Odebrecht, an international petrochemical company. Project ASCENT would include an ethane cracker and three polyethylene plants in Washington, which is located about 10 miles outside of Parkersburg. The plant would take ethane from nearby fractionation plants, such as the Cadiz and Hopedale complexes located in Harrison County, Ohio, and produce new raw materials for plastics and the specialty chemical industry in the form of various ethylenes and other products.
The December 2013 report, “Building Value from Shale Gas: The Promise of Expanding Petrochemicals in West Virginia,” which Witt wrote with funding from Odebrecht subsidiary Braskem America, called the prospect of an ethane cracker and associated polyethylene manufacturing facilities a “watershed economic opportunity for the state and region” with its potential of expanding a high-value manufacturing industry and creating high-wage jobs, new technologies and opportunities for expanding downstream plastics industry investments.
“(Discussion of a plant like this) is a big deal here for a very specific reason: we built this industry,” said Keith Burdette, West Virginia Department of Commerce secretary. “The first petrochemical plant in the world was built in the Kanawha Valley in 1926. The first cracker plant built in the world was built in the Kanawha Valley in 1923. But as resources moved and evaporated, so did the industry.
“But this new incantation of the petrochemical opportunity associated with an ethane cracker is one that is much more thought out and requiring a great deal more of planning because it is almost as if we’re starting from scratch,” Burdette said. “And we have the opportunity to look at our region to determine what infrastructure, what assets we have to build to be competitive in an entirely new economic environment.”
And one of those necessary assets is a proficient labor pool.