Plastics industry boom brings flood of new ethylene “cracker” plants, despite frequent environmental violations

Plastics industry boom brings flood of new ethylene “cracker” plants, despite frequent environmental violations

September 20, 2022

The plastics industry in the U.S. has grown significantly in recent years, including the massive buildout of new chemical plants called ethane crackers that turn fracked gas into ethylene -- one of the primary building blocks of plastics and petrochemicals. Ethylene production capacity in the U.S. has increased by 50 percent since 2015 and is expected to reach 42.3 million metric tons per year by the end of 2022.

Ethylene is a colorless flammable gas made by “cracking” crude oil or natural gas liquids at very high temperatures. It’s used to make plastic pellets, called “nurdles,” that are processed into plastic products like plastic cups, food packaging, PVC piping, and cars. It’s also used to make a wide variety of chemicals that go into products like detergents, antifreeze, medical sterilizers, and a chemical weapon known as mustard gas. It’s the most widely produced chemical in the world.

By the end of 2022, ethylene will be made at 34 facilities in the U.S., up from 27 in 2015. Over half of these plants—18 of 34—have poor environmental track records and have been labelled by EPA as “high priority violators” of the federal Clean Air Act, according to EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Online (ECHO) database. Sixteen of these plants have been in continuous noncompliance with the Clean Air Act every quarter for the last three years.

More of these plants could be on the way. Another half-dozen projects that would add another 9.8 million metric tons of production capacity have been proposed but not yet built. Five new plants have been proposed along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, along with one in Ohio. A plant in Kentucky, Westlake Chemical’s Calvert City facility, is also expanding.

Communities around the country have been vigorously protesting these massive projects because of health, environmental, and justice concerns. Ethylene production doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It depends on wells, pipelines, and processing plants to extract, transport, and refine the products that feed a plant, and it usually involves onsite or nearby production of plastic pellets, derivative chemicals, gasoline, or all of the above. Both chemical ingredients and finished products also need to be stored until they can be used. As communities living in the shadow of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” know all too well, the health and environmental impacts of all this industrial activity pile up.

Local activists in Cancer Alley celebrated a major victory over one of these plastics plants last week, when a Louisiana court reversed a state permit approval for the massive Formosa Plastics petrochemical complex in St. James Parish.

Members of the community group RISE St. James (from left, Myrtle Felton, Sharon Lavigne, Gail LeBoeuf and Rita Cooper) in 2020 protesting the proposed Formosa plastics in St. James Parish, Louisiana. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

“This decision is the nail in the coffin for Formosa Plastics. They won’t build in St. James Parish, and we will make sure that they won’t build this monster anywhere,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “Louisiana state officials and the local parish government rolled out the red carpet for this mega-polluter from Taiwan, doing everything in their power to make sure this project would go through. Thank God for the people of St. James who stood up and provided real leadership, for the judge who made this decision, and for the incredible team of lawyers.”

Growth in ethylene and plastics production over the past several years has been spurred by the massive amount of ethane that oil and gas companies are fracking and pumping out of the ground in Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, and increasing global demand for plastic and other petrochemicals.

Researchers estimate that ethylene manufacturing emits an average of 1- to 1.5 metric tons of greenhouse gases per ton of ethylene made, but actual emissions vary by facility. Ethylene plants are usually part of other oil refining, petrochemical manufacturing, or plastic manufacturing complexes. As a whole, U.S. facilities that have ethylene crackers reported emitting a total of 70.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, up from 58.4 million in 2015 (these emissions do include other processes at each site, like oil refining or plastics manufacturing). In total, their actual emissions rival the equivalent of about 18 coal-fired power plants operating at full-tilt, 24/7.

Over half of the existing plants have troublesome compliance records, with 18 of the 34 labeled by EPA as high priority violators of the Clean Air Act according to the EPA’s ECHO database. Two more haven’t earned that distinction but have had a violation within the last year. One of those is Chemical Appalachia’s brand-new petrochemical plant in Western Pennsylvania, which has been commissioning for the past 9 months and isn’t yet fully operating.

Indorama Ventures expanded and re-started an ethylene cracker in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana in December 2018. It’s already been flagged as a high-priority violator. The plant experienced “significant start-up related issues” according to permit documents, and the whole thing had to be shut down again in 2019. It finally restarted in January 2020. Over 11,000 people live near the plant.

Legal hurdles pile up against Formosa's Sunshine Project

In the spring of 2018, a Taiwanese company called Formosa Plastics proposed a massive 2,400-acre new petrochemical and plastics plant on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The plant would border a small community called Welcome, whose residents are 99 percent people of color, many of whom are descendants of enslaved Africans. The plant would be the largest of its kind in the world, with a whopping pollution footprint to match. According to its initial permit documents, the plant would have the potential to emit over 13 million tons of greenhouse gases (as carbon dioxide equivalents) and 6,100 tons of other harmful air pollutants.

Local residents didn’t have to look much further than down the coast to Point Comfort, Texas to see what side effects could come with a plant run by Formosa. The Formosa Point Comfort plant had chronic problems with discharging plastic pellets and powder into waterways and has also been flagged as a high-priority violator of the Clean Air Act.

The proposed project sparked protests and legal opposition from nearby residents and environmental groups. Just last week, Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court ordered the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to completely re-do 14 highly flawed Clean Air Act permits issued to Formosa in 2020.

“Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of local group RISE St. James. “The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.”

After a separate legal challenge, the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits that authorize the dredging and filling of wetlands under the Clean Water Act, in November 2020 revoked the permit it had previously issued to the plant. The Corps committed to completing an environmental impact statement for the project. That environmental impact statement has not been completed.

Tiny plastic pellets, or "nurdles," are frequently found in waterways adjacent to plastics facilities (Wikimedia Commons photo).

Western Pennsylvania community bracing for Shell startup

Shell Chemical Appalachia, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, in 2016 announced it would build a new $6-10 billion petrochemical and plastics complex on the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The plant would turn up to 120 thousand barrels of fracked ethane per day into a petrochemical called ethylene, and then into polyethylene plastic pellets. Shell announced that they completed construction on the mile-long plant in August 2022. The plant has been coming to life, bit by bit, since late last year, with flaring and spills that haven’t gone unnoticed by nearby residents. Officials expect it to officially begin making plastic this fall.

Apprehensive community members have been raising concerns about the plant for nearly a decade, since Shell began publicly floating the idea. Most petrochemicals and plastic pellets in the US are made along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana, in areas like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” It would be the first plant of its kind in Pennsylvania, and the second largest emitter of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) in the state. Shell committed to the project by making a final investment decision in 2016. Construction officially began in late 2017.

The Shell Chemical Appalachia "cracker" plant in Beaver County, Pa., under construction in June 2021 (also pictured at top.) Photo by Ted Auch/Fracktracker

Community groups brought challenges to the plant’s air and water permits. As part of a settlement with the Environmental Integrity Project and Clean Air Council, Shell agreed to monitor for a number of chemicals along its fenceline and make the data public on the internet. Monitoring started in March. Community groups are also keeping a close eye on the plant.

One Beaver County resident who has been organizing her neighbors to serve as watchdogs of the Shell plant as part of a local group called Eyes on Shell, said the goal is to ensure that residents can get answers about air pollution and hold the company accountable for any health risks it creates.

“I just want people here to be aware of what it’s like to live next to a petrochemical facility,” said the volunteer organizer, who asked that her name not be used. “We have a right to be concerned and we have a right to be aware, and we want to make sure that Shell knows that.”

Before it officially begins operating, Shell must obtain a Clean Air Act operating permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. As of Sept. 15, the plant still needed to submit an application.

More announcements to watch in Texas

Two other companies, Enterprise and Energy Transfer, announced this spring that they were considering building ethane crackers in Texas, with the hopes of receiving tax abatements before a local property tax subsidy program expires at the end of the year.

Enterprise is considering building a 2-million-metric-ton-per-year plant in one of three places in Texas, either in Mont Belvieu, Nederland, or Orange. Energy Transfer is considering building a “world class” plant in Nederland, but specific information about its size have not been announced.

Below is a list of all of the existing ethane cracker plants in the U.S., along with others proposed or under construction:

Lead photo: A ethylene cracker operated by a Shell subsidiary in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, would release more than 2,000 tons of criteria air pollutants per year. Photo by Mark Dixon.

Research Manager Alexandra Shaykevich and Lottie Mitchell, research analyst, contributed to this report.

Courtney Bernhardt
Director of Research

Courtney is Co-Director of EIP’s Center for Environmental Investigations and leads EIP’s team of dedicated analysts. She manages EIP’s public databases and analyzes and visualizes data to inform and support EIP’s advocacy efforts.

Plastics industry boom brings flood of new ethylene “cracker” plants, despite frequent environmental violations

Plastics industry boom brings flood of new ethylene “cracker” plants, despite frequent environmental violations

September 20, 2022
Courtney Bernhardt
Director of Research

Courtney is Co-Director of EIP’s Center for Environmental Investigations and leads EIP’s team of dedicated analysts. She manages EIP’s public databases and analyzes and visualizes data to inform and support EIP’s advocacy efforts.