The lead executive in charge of the construction of Shell’s ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pa., recently gave an overview of the project and the reasons that the company chose the Pittsburgh area to locate the approximately $6 billion facility.
Speaking to an audience at a VisionPittsburgh event, Hilary Mercer explained what is taking place in Potter Township. Construction of the plant at the site of a former zinc processing facility along the Ohio River began in 2017 and as about 7,500 people continue to work there, all of the major parts are built and are now being connected, she said. When the plant is operational in the early 2020s, about 600 full-time jobs will be created.
“It is arguably the largest construction site in the U.S.,” said Mercer, adding that it’s also the “single largest investment in Pennsylvania since World War II.”
The plant will use ethane, which is found in the wet gas of the Marcellus shale, and turn it into polyethylene pellets, which are the building blocks of plastic products, through a chemical process that involves super-heating the gas.
Shell decided to locate the plant in the Ohio River valley, the first outside the Gulf of Mexico in more than 20 years, because of the abundance of natural gas from the Marcellus, one of the largest deposits in the world. But also figuring into its decision was the fact that the area is at the center of the U.S. market for polyethylene, making it less expensive to ship to customers and reducing wait times. The site also has access to rail, river and interstate highways for shipping.
“It’s the most sophisticated, automated plant we’ve ever built,” Mercer said. She said it will feature state-of-the-art technology, including using a simulator where every operator will train to be prepared for any scenario, and having analyzers on many pieces of equipment that will allow them to “talk” to the operators.
Mercer acknowledged the ongoing problem with plastic disposal, as more plastic waste has been generated and found its way into landfills and bodies of water. She said Shell is part of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and has committed $1.5 billion to the effort. But she still believes that “plastic will be a huge part of our sustainable future.”
She also said the Shell has committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 20 percent by 2035 and 50 percent by 2050. However, the plant would emit more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, leading to concerns about it contributing to climate change. Concerns have also been raised about possible health effects for those living in proximity to the plant due to emissions. Mercer said the company is operating the plant within state and federal regulations, has bought carbon credits locally and plans to have emission monitors all around the plant.
While this is the first cracker plant being built locally, it likely won’t be the last. Thailand-based PTTGC is close to a final decision on building a plant in Belmont County, Ohio, and has already begun site clearing and received permits. Recently, reports surfaced that Exxon Mobil is scouting the area for sites, including in Washington and Greene counties.