Shell Ethane Cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA

Petrochemicals

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.

This boom in the petrochemical industry is coming at a point when there’s an increasing global awareness of the disaster that is plastic pollution. As much as 12.7 million tons of plastic waste goes into the ocean each year. In response to this crisis, hundreds of cities and many countries are instituting policies to reduce plastic consumption.

A Petrochemical Hub in the 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. 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.

FracTracker has mapped out the petrochemical build-out from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, through Ohio and West Virginia, down to Kentucky. This map series shows the entire process of “fracking for plastic,” from oil and gas extraction to plastic bag manufacturing.

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