Ethylene Cracker Would Contribute Jobs, Air Pollution

Last year, Shell Chemicals announced its intentions to build a multi-billion dollar ethylene cracker “in Appalachia”, effectively setting the stage for a bidding war between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. There have been numerous other plans for such plants in the area, including a recent partnership trying to get Aither Chemicals catalytic cracking process up in running, once again, “in Appalachia.”  The interest in the region is mostly due to the Marcellus and Utica shale gas produced in the region, which contains mostly methane (so-called natural gas used for heating, cooking, etc.), as well as other hydrocarbons that must be removed from the methane before the gas is put into pipelines.  These other hydrocarbons are mostly ethane, propane, and butane, which are converted into ethylene, propylene, and butadiene, respectively, through a process called cracking, and are then used for the creation of plastics, synthetic rubber, and other petrochemicals.

Whichever state lands these massive facilities stands to gain several thousand temporary construction jobs and several hundred permanent positions at the facility.  It seems reasonable to take a look at other similar facilities in the country, not only to get a reasonable idea of the economic contribution, but also to gain insight on the facility’s contribution to air pollution in the region.

I have chosen to look at the cracker in Norco, Loisiana, also run by Shell Chemicals. Norco is the ultimate company town, named for the now defunct New Orleans Refining Company, it contains not only the Shell plant, but also major petrochemical facilities owned by Dow, Hexion, and Valero. There is also a presence by Motiva, but all indications are that this is functionally part of the Shell plant that is simply owned by a different company.

Norco, LA as seen from Google Earth

According to the Shell page linked above, the facility employs 600 full time workers and 160 contractors for an annual payroll of $50 million. It also contributes $22 million in state, local, and property taxes to the community. That’s all very significant, albeit a far cry from the 17,000 jobs, $1 billion in wages, and $169 million in tax revenues that the good people of Ohio are being promised–perhaps those figures are over the estimated life of the facility, who knows? I’m guessing the proposed facility in Appalachia won’t be 22 times larger than the one in Norco, Louisiana though.

In terms of air emissions, it is hard to know what to expect. Emissions may wind up being quite different from Norco’s due to a different chemical composition of the feedstock, for example.  However, to get the conversation started, I have compiled the EPA’s 2008 National Emissions Inventory (NEI) estimated emissions for Norco, as well as a well known polluter that’s already in the area, Clairton Coke Works. I should mention that based on my experience, I don’t have a lot of faith of the validity of NEI data, especially for data in Pennsylvania (see this discussion about Clairton, for example), but it is what’s available.  Also, I need to mention that the data for Shell is aggregated between the Norco East, Norco West, and Motiva facilities, because from looking at the the websites for Shell and Motiva, the whole operation seems to be focused around cracking.  Let’s take a look:

2008 USEPA National Emissions Inventory for the Coke Works in Clairton, PA and the Shell ethylene cracker in Norco, LA

Now before you go to the EPA site to research these 84 pollutants, I didn’t put these up for direct comparison, since the facilities are obviously quite different. The point is that in an area that still largely in nonattainment for fine particulate matter and just recently re-entering attainment for ozone, the prospect of adding another major emitter of particulates and ozone and particulate precursors (as well as a whole host of other junk) isn’t going to help.

7 replies
  1. Anon
    Anon says:

    I live next to a petrochemical plant (2.3km) which is an Ethylene plant. Regarding jobs, our local communities were promised to be turned into a boom town with jobs galore, however in our local area only 1 person is employed at the plant, as a cleaner. All the rest of the jobs are sourced from outwith the several communities surrounding the plant.

    The plant has been in operation for over 25 years, and the countryside surrounding the plant has been negatively impacted. While everything looks green and fine, trees have stopped their growth for several years, there is no strength in their trunks and twigs have lost their elasticity. Twigs and thick branches are easily snapped and can be quite easily be broken up and smaller branches ground into dust just by rubbing the twig between thumb and forefinger.

    Local health issues, specifically cancer and breathing related illnesses are all on the increase, however, it is always denied that the plant is responsible, they will not even accept that they may be a contributing factor.

    Expect to have many sleepless nights from noise and light pollution. At times there may be excessive flaring events, which often indicates an emergency, do not expect to be told the nature of the accident unless you have good Freedom of Information laws to obtain the information from Government regulators.

    Flaring can last from 30 mins to several days and weeks, which causes excessive light pollution and is often backed by a low rumbling sound from the steam process used to mask the black smoke emitted from the plant. This also leads to excessive vibrations in the local communities.

    I have posted anon because our communities are scared of the plant operators, however, if you want to know more about any of the specific issues of the cracker plant we live next to, I can provide further information, including pictures of some of the worst moments of the plant, just use my email address.

  2. Cara
    Cara says:

    First, I think it’s difficult for people without advanced chemical education to understand the environmental impact of this proposed facility. It would be helpful for some of the contributors to explain in simple language what these chemicals do to the environment as well as to human and animal health. Oil companies involved in fracking continue to decline disclosing all the components in their “proprietary formulas” to evade EPA control of their practices. In light of the controversy surrounding this method of drilling, I think it speaks volumes to the corporate stance when health clinics dealing specifically with the health issues related to these drilling sites are established and maintained at the expense of the local constituency and patrons with adequate resources.

    Second, improving economic conditions seems to be the drum that bangs the loudest in making the decision to bring these facilities into a community. What concerns me is that the long-term effects of these drilling operations appear to be dismissed in favor of the immediate financial benefit. The offer by state negotiators to waive taxes for a period of 15 years boggles the mind, when it is established that drilling companies already pay a large tax burden to other states and their local municipalities. What happens when the people working at, and living nearby, this facility develop health issues affecting their ability to contribute productively to the plant and community?

    I wonder how many people who have signed land-lease agreements for drilling sites would go back in time and say no, now that they are experiencing the negative consequences of drilling on their land. We may never know due to the non-disclosure agreements they also signed. It would be wonderful to have some of those people share their stories so Pennsylvanians would really know what we’re in for.

    • Matt Kelso
      Matt Kelso says:

      Cara, I agree that the chart of air pollutants above is not really for general consumption. I just wanted to get the conversation started by getting data out there–to go through the whole list of criteria and hazardous air pollutants is a pretty tall order for this post, but curious readers can find an amazing amount of information at or the USEPA website.

  3. Sam Malone
    Sam Malone says:

    Three recent news articles on this issue:

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that discusses the potential for the facility to add significant emissions to the area’s industrial air pollutants – Read more

    Pittsburgh Tribune Review article that explains how PA landed the cracker facility – Read more

    Allegheny Front also discusses the potential air emissions from the ethane cracker facility- Read more

  4. Matt Kelso
    Matt Kelso says:


    Thanks for your comments.

    As you say, it will not be possible to know what the emissions of a new facility until we have much more information. This post was a “stab in the dark”, if you will, meant to get the conversation started about emissions when most people seem to be focused only on the economic impact. I did try to make that clear by writing, “In terms of air emissions, it is hard to know what to expect. Emissions may wind up being quite different from Norco’s due to a different chemical composition of the feedstock, for example.”

    Your comments go a long way towards advancing that conversation.

    In terms of ozone attainment, most of the region around Pittsburgh is, as mentioned, just moving out of non-attainment, which is a very positive development that I do not want to see jeopardized with the addition of large quantities of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the area, or upwind for that matter. If the emissions from a cracker facility are far less than what is produced at Norco, then that is good news. Do you happen to know of a more appropriate facility to compare it to?


  5. Tim
    Tim says:

    Matt, this is a very misleading article. I don’t work for Shell or any other petrochemical company, but I am a chemical engineer and know a good bit about these type of plants.

    As I understand,the proposed Shell project will be a gas-cracker and one or more ethylene derivatives units. They have not announced the type of derivative unit, but indicated that polyethylene is a likely contender. Shell Chemical has a strong position in ethylene glycol, which may be another possibility.

    There will not be a refinery. The ethylene plant will not be a liquids cracker. And, there will be no epoxy, solvents, or other derivatives that do not come directly from ethylene. And, there will be no coke production. Like all new petrochemcal plants, the facility will be required to use best available technology.

    Thus, the emissions inventory for the proposed project will contain only a fraction of the chemicals listed for Norco and Clariton and the volume of emissions will most certainly be significantly smaller than that of the Norco and Clariton operations. For example, butadiene and benzene emissions are likely to be very small, if any. Until the required environmental studies are completed, it is not possible to assess the impact upon regional ozone attainment.


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