Shell Ethane Cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA

Shell Ethane Cracker


Petrochemicals are chemicals derived from oil and gas. While these synthetic chemicals weren’t widely used until after the 1950’s, their impact today is enormous. They make up toiletries, electronics, building materials, and synthetic fertilizers that grow our food. The most ubiquitous use of petrochemicals, however, is to make plastic.

Petrochemicals are often left out of the global discussion on energy, but they are a rapidly expanding part of the oil and gas industry. Companies are taking advantage of cheap shale gas and investing heavily into petrochemicals, particularly plastics, “the fastest-growing group of bulk materials in the world.”

In other words, the fracking boom is creating a plastic boom.

The chemical industry has planned to spend over $164 billion on constructing and expanding hundreds of plastic manufacturing facilities across the country by 2023, hoping to capitalize on expanding markets worldwide. Higher-income countries like the United States use 20 times as much plastic per capita compared with lower-income countries. As nations with less developed or emerging economies (such as India and China) grow, there is a “huge potential for growth” in demand for plastic. In fact, this growth is already happening, evidenced by the fact that half of the plastic pollution in the ocean comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam – countries with growing economies and limited waste infrastructure.

Below are resources and articles related to petrochemicals on our site, listed in descending order by date.

A Petrochemical Hub in the Ohio River Valley

Map of Petrochemical Development in Ohio River Valley

Petrochemical infrastructure in the Ohio River Valley. Click on photo to expand.

In the United States, petrochemical facilities are currently concentrated along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana, states that sit above abundant oil and gas resources. Before 2017, there were only 3 ethane crackers (which “crack” ethane into ethylene to make plastic) outside of these states. Development in this region has come at significant cost to the health of local residents, earning it the nickname “Cancer Alley.”

However, now that fracking has opened up shale gas resources elsewhere, manufacturing is moving north towards the Utica and Marcellus shale regions. The Ohio River Valley is on its way towards becoming a new petrochemical hub. Construction of an ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pennsylvania began in 2017 and four additional ethane crackers are planned for the region. Industry is also working on building underground storage facilities for natural gas liquids, cryogenic and fractionation facilities, and a network of hundreds of miles of pipelines (map left).

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