[Marxism] A Giant Factory Rises to Make a Product Filling Up the World: Plastic
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Mon Aug 12 09:11:21 MDT 2019
(The anarchy of capitalist production exemplified.)
NY Times, Aug. 12, 2019
A Giant Factory Rises to Make a Product Filling Up the World: Plastic
By Michael Corkery
MONACA, Pa. — The 386-acre property looks like a giant Lego set rising
from the banks of the Ohio River. It is one of the largest active
construction projects in the United States, employing more than 5,000
When completed, the facility will be fed by pipelines stretching
hundreds of miles across Appalachia. It will have its own rail system
with 3,300 freight cars. And it will produce more than a million tons
each year of something that many people argue the world needs less of:
As concern grows about plastic debris in the oceans and recycling
continues to falter in the United States, the production of new plastic
is booming. The plant that Royal Dutch Shell is building about 25 miles
northwest of Pittsburgh will create tiny pellets that can be turned into
items like phone cases, auto parts and food packaging, all of which will
be around long after they have served their purpose.
The plant is one of more than a dozen that are being built or have been
proposed around the world by petrochemical companies like Exxon Mobil
and Dow, including several in nearby Ohio and West Virginia and on the
Gulf Coast. And after decades of seeing American industrial jobs head
overseas, the rise of the petrochemical sector is creating excitement.
On Tuesday, President Trump is scheduled to tour the Shell plant.
“Where we are coming from is that plastic, in most of its forms, is good
and it serves to be good for humanity,” said Hilary Mercer, who is
overseeing the construction project for Shell.
The boom is driven partly by plastic’s popularity as a versatile and
inexpensive material that keeps potato chips fresh and makes cars
lighter. But in parts of the Appalachian region, the increase is also
being fueled by an overabundance of natural gas.
It has been about 15 years since hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, took
hold in Pennsylvania, which sits atop the huge gas reserve of the
Marcellus Shale. But natural gas prices have collapsed and profit must
be found elsewhere, namely the natural gas byproduct ethane, which is
unleashed during fracking and can be made into polyethylene, a common
form of plastic.
This is a place where, right now, plastic makes sense to many people. To
the labor union gaining new members. To the world’s third-largest
company struggling with low oil prices. And to the former government
officials who, in seeking to create jobs, offered Shell one of the
largest tax breaks in state history.
But any short-term good could have long-term costs.
Shell says much of the plastic from the plant can be used to create
fuel-efficient cars and medical devices. But the industry acknowledges
that some of the world’s waste management systems are unable to keep up
with other forms of plastic like water bottles, grocery bags and food
containers being discarded by consumers on the move.
Studies have detected plastic fibers everywhere — in the stomachs of
sperm whales, in tap water and in table salt. A researcher in Britain
says plastic may help define the most recent layer of the earth’s crust
because it takes so long to break down and there is so much of it.
“Plastic really doesn’t go away,” said Roland Geyer, a professor of
industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It
just accumulates and ends up in the wrong places. And we just don’t know
the long-term implications of having all this plastic everywhere in the
natural environment. It is like this giant global experiment and we
can’t just pull the plug if it goes wrong.”
‘Part of a journey’
The roots of Shell’s sleek, ultramodern plant date back hundreds of
millions of years, when the area was occupied by a wide inland sea.
Over time, the earth shifted and the sea was covered by rock, which
compressed all of the dead organisms and sediment that had settled on
its watery bottom into rich layers of hydrocarbons, including those that
make up natural gas.
Ms. Mercer has spent 32 years traveling the world for Shell — in
southern Iraq and in eastern Russia — helping turn those hydrocarbons
deep within the earth into energy. These days, Ms. Mercer, an
English-born, Oxford-educated engineer, works out of a red brick
building in Beaver, Pa.
The plant Ms. Mercer has come here to build is “as big as you get,” she
said. When finished, Shell’s cracker plant — named for the chemical
reaction of “cracking” gas molecules into the building blocks of plastic
— will consume vast quantities of ethane pumped from wells across
Pennsylvania into an enormous furnace. The superheated gas is then
cooled, forming solid pellets about the size of arborio rice. The
process takes about 20 hours.
In Ms. Mercer’s view, this is a positive development for the
environment. Creating more plastic, she says, helps to reduce carbon
emissions by creating lighter and more efficient cars and airplanes.
“You have plastic in wind turbines. You have plastic in solar panels.”
She added, “the ability to do those renewable things relies to some
extent on the plastics we produce and the chemicals that we produce. I
don’t see a contradiction. I see it as part of a journey.”
Shell’s journey into plastics was driven by a need to generate profits
at a time its primary business — oil and gas production — struggles with
persistently low prices. It is also a way for the energy industry to
hedge against declining gasoline consumption as cars become more
efficient or powered by electricity.
A big demand for plastic comes from auto manufacturers and for consumer
packaging like the ones displayed in a mock grocery store in the lobby
of Shell’s Pennsylvania offices: plastic cups, diapers and paper towel
rolls wrapped in plastic.
There’s also a stack of brochures in the lobby titled the Shell Polymers
“Constitution” that reads: “We are called to Beaver Valley by the desire
to be part of something larger than ourselves — to leave a legacy of
care, innovation and success for future generations.”
Ms. Mercer said the problem with plastic is not its production, but when
it is improperly disposed. “We passionately believe in recycling.” she said.
Shell is involved in a broad industry effort to clean up the world’s
largest sources of plastic waste. And in Beaver County, Shell recently
donated money to extend the hours of the local recycling center and it
supports other initiatives that the company believes will contribute to
a “circular economy.”
But a circular economy has not yet taken hold in Beaver. Like many areas
around the country, the county has had to limit the type of plastic
packaging it can accept for recycling because there are relatively few
buyers who want to repurpose it.
“We are looking for long-term solutions right now,” a spokeswoman for
the recycling center said.
‘This is where you want to be’
It was a golden autumn afternoon in Pittsburgh, sunny and mild. The
Steelers were in town playing at Heinz Field and Governor Tom Corbett
got two box-seat tickets to the game.
The governor’s guest at the game in October 2012 was a Shell executive,
who was helping to decide where the company would locate its giant
cracker plant. Mr. Corbett took the executive down to the field to meet
some of the players. Then the governor walked him out to midfield to
stand on the Steelers’ yellow and black logo.
“I told him, ‘This is where you want to be,’” Mr. Corbett recalled.
Shell agreed, and was offered a tax break that was projected to save the
company an estimated $1.6 billion.
Mr. Corbett, a Republican, said the plastics plant would bolster
communities in an area devastated by the collapse of the steel industry
in the 1980s, when the unemployment rate hit 28 percent.
“Did you know there is a Steelers bar in Rome?” Mr. Corbett asked in a
phone interview. “The reason the Steelers travel so well is because when
steel died many people moved away.”
Mr. Corbett said he believed the Shell plant was only the beginning of
the state’s plastics boom. He envisions manufacturers coming to Beaver
County to be closer to the source of the raw plastic. His successor, Tom
Wolf, a Democrat, has been courting more petrochemical development.
“We are rebuilding the economy,” said Mr. Corbett, who left office in
2015 after one term.
Plastics is also solving a challenge for the state’s fracking industry.
The western part of the Marcellus Shale produces not just methane gas
that is used for heating homes and cooking, but also so-called wet gases
Ethane has a higher energy level, measured in British thermal units, or
BTUs, than methane. There are regulatory limits on how many BTUs can be
safely used in homes and businesses. So, much of the ethane is stripped
out of the gas before the methane is shipped. Plastic production is one
of the few viable uses for the ethane, and without it some fracking
executives say they would not be able to operate many of their wells.
“What became apparent to me and the governor is that there needed to be
an outlet for the ethane,” said Patrick Henderson, Mr. Corbett’s top
energy adviser. He helped persuade the legislature to approve the tax
credit, which will benefit Shell and any other petrochemical company
that agrees to buy locally produced ethane and create a certain number
Mr. Henderson now works on the government affairs team at the Marcellus
Shale Coalition, which represents the state’s fracking industry.
[Read about how beverage companies have fought for decades against
“bottle bills” aimed at increasing recycling.]
When burned, natural gas emits less carbon than oil and coal, but some
people worry it is preventing the widespread adoption of renewable
energy sources and that gas production will only be increased.
The cracker plant itself is allowed by the state to emit 2.2 million
tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is the equivalent of about
480,000 cars. Shell says the plant is likely to emit less than that.
“Will you eventually see everything renewable? Probably in 100 years,”
Mr. Corbett said. “But right now natural gas is giving a future to your
‘What is life going to be like’
Around Beaver County, the cracker plant is creating opportunities for
some and deep concerns for others.
Kristin Stanzak is the owner of Don’s Deli in downtown Beaver, which she
opened with her husband in 2016, just before construction of the Shell
plant took off. On many afternoons, Ms. Stanzak runs out of sub rolls
largely because of the orders from Shell — as many as 100 orders a day.
When that happens, she posts a picture of herself on Instagram dressed
as Little Orphan Annie that reassures: “The subs will be back tomorrow!
Betchyer bottom dollar that tomorrow ... we’ll have suuuubsss.”
At the local union hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical
Workers, Larry Nelson oversees about 380 electricians working on the
plant, including many who have relocated from 28 states. After decades
of decline, union membership is growing again.
“The guys are tickled pink to be working on this thing,” Mr. Nelson said.
But there will only be about 600 permanent jobs at the plant, about 12
percent of the construction workers at the site now. A company spokesman
said the plant was expected to open “in the early 2020s.”
Some residents say their worries about the cracker plant and fracking
over the long term are already coming to bear. The impact of climate
change, for example, can be seen around Beaver County, and at the
plastics plant in particular.
This spring, the huge furnace that will heat the ethane was being
shipped on the Mississippi River, but had difficulty fitting under some
bridges because the water was so high from flooding. At the construction
site, Shell has installed giant tarps to keep the workers dry in the
frequent rain, which hit a record last year in Pittsburgh.
Some residents see other signs of trouble. At a community meeting Shell
held in late June, Barbara Goblick quizzed a company representative
about the safety of its pipelines that will feed ethane to the plant.
Ms. Goblick explained that she lives in a neighborhood, about two miles
from the plant, where a pipeline exploded in September. The fire
incinerated a nearby house and the blast cracked walls and ceilings in
Ms. Goblick’s home. A landslide, partly caused by heavy rains, is
believed to have set off the explosion.
The damaged pipeline was not operated by Shell, but a new ethane
pipeline is being installed about 800 feet from her house.
“I worry it could happen again,” she said.
Amanda Miller never paid much attention to the cracker plant rising 16
miles from her home in Franklin Park, an affluent suburb.
“That was going too far,” said Ms. Miller, an occupational therapist at
a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh.
The company’s proposal was rebuffed. But it has leases on private land
in the area that is rich in ethane.
The morning after the meeting, Ms. Miller woke up early to feed her
14-month-old daughter. Her other three children were still asleep. They
had just celebrated her husband’s grandmother’s 99th birthday. In that
quiet moment, alone with her daughter, Ms. Miller thought of the
plastics plant and the fracking that was increasing around her.
“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “I looked at her and wondered what is
life going to be like when she is 99. And for the first time I wasn’t
hopeful. I actually started to cry.”
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