A Guide to Petrochemicals, the Fossil Fuel Blindspot
A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States
A complete guide to the social, environmental, and economic risks associated with the petrochemical industry in the United States
Petrochemicals are chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas.
The major petrochemicals are ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, xylene, toluene, and methanol.
Never heard of them? Petrochemicals are intermediate materials – you generally don’t buy them off the shelves but they make up things you buy off shelves, like plastic as well as many industrial products. They’re also a major blindspot in the fossil fuel debate, despite the fact that they are, according to the International Energy Agency, “becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.”
Here are a few of the common uses of petrochemicals:
By volume, the most common petrochemical produced in the US is ethylene, followed by propylene. Ethylene and propylene are made from the natural gas liquids ethane and propane. They can also be made from naphtha, a component of crude oil.
The biggest use globally for both ethylene and propylene is for plastic. Single-use packaging accounts for an estimated 40% of total plastic usage. Plastic is also the product currently driving a global petrochemical production “boom,” so this guide will largely focus on plastic’s impact on health, environment, and communities.
Oil and gas extraction is the foundation of the petrochemical industry. In the United States, there are over 900,000 producing oil and gas wells. The majority of new oil and gas wells drilled in the United States utilize hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling. Learn more about this process and its impacts.
After oil and gas is extracted, it’s transported by a network of natural gas and crude oil pipelines to another facility for processing.
Natural gas is sent to processing stations or fractionators, which separate out natural gas liquids, like ethane and propane, from methane gas.
Crude oil is set to refineries and heated in a distilling column to separate out its different components like diesel, kerosene, naphtha, and gasoline.
The refined products are transported by natural gas liquid and petroleum product pipelines to refineries, chemical plants, crackers, and other industrial facilities that process them into petrochemicals. These petrochemicals may undergo several more steps before being transformed into a range of consumer and industrial products.
Ethane crackers transform ethane, a component of the fracked gas stream, into ethylene. Ethane crackers can be a part of a larger petrochemical complex, and include facilities that transform ethylene into polyethylene plastic. Ethylene can be used to produce other chemical products, such as antifreeze.
Ethylene crackers are similar, and include facilities that produce ethylene using crude oil.
What do they produce?
Different types of plastic are produced at an ethane cracker, including:
How do they work?
After gas has been extracted (read more about that process) it’s transported via pipeline to different facilities that separate ethane from other components of the gas stream. Ethane is transported to ethane crackers via pipeline.
Step 1) Cracking After ethane arrives at the facility, furnaces use extreme heat (1500°F), to “crack” the molecular bonds in ethane, and rearrange its atoms into ethylene.
Step 2) Cooling The ethylene is moved to a quench tower, which cools the gas by spraying it with water.
Quench towers are HUGE – the tower alone weighs upwards of 2,000 tons.
Step 3) Compression Next the cooled gas moves to a compressor, which pressurizes the ethylene gas, beginning its conversion into a liquid.
Step 4) Refrigeration A heat exchanger further cools the ethylene. By the end of this step, the majority of the ethylene has been condensed into a liquid.
Step 5) Separation The ethylene is then purified in fractionation towers. In these towers, the temperature is kept higher at the bottom and lower at the top. The different boiling points of molecules force them to separate out, and pure ethylene can be extracted.
Step 6) Polymerization An ethane cracker complex can contain multiple polyethylene units on site, where ethylene is linked up in chains to form polyethylene. This process can be engineered to produce different types of polyethylene with varying degrees of strength and elasticity. Ethylene may also be transported to other facilities for polymerization or other processing.
Step 7) Shipping The output from an ethane cracker is often small plastic pellets called nurdles. One ethane cracker may produce well over a million tons of nurdles per year. This product is shipped out by rail, barge, or truck to factories that shape it into different plastic products.
This process is very energy-intensive. Ethane crackers have power plants on site to generate steam and electricity.
Where are they?
The majority of ethane crackers in the United States are in Texas and Louisiana. There is also one in Illinois, Iowa, and Kentucky, and a new plant being built in Pennsylvania.
The petrochemical industry in the United States largely grew from demand for fuels and supplies during WWI and WW2, but it took off in the 1950s when petroleum-based plastic became popular.
In the United States, petrochemical facilities are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana – states that sit above abundant oil and gas resources, attracting corporations that have heavily manipulated the states’ political and regulatory environment. Petrochemical facilities in the Gulf South often abut schools and residential areas, and take a heavy toll of communities’ health. According to the Energy Information Administration, 95% of the country’s ethylene capacity and roughly half of the country’s petroleum refining and natural gas processing capacity is along the Gulf Coast.
The expansion of fracking technology in the 21st century has propelled another petrochemical expansion, once again focused on plastic production.
The industry hopes that by continuing to supply cheap fossil fuels and petrochemical products like plastic, societies will continue to rely on them, despite the more sustainable alternatives available.
The oil and gas industry understands that it is increasingly being replaced by cheaper, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and battery power. A recent report found that demand for oil may have peaked in 2019. Petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industry’s desperate attempt to remain relevant in a post-carbon world.
According to the American Chemistry Council, the petrochemical industry proposed $200 billion worth of new and expanding projects between 2010 and 2018. These projects are largely planned for the Gulf Coast, but the industry is also planning a second “petrochemical hub” in Appalachia.
Other countries are also expanding their petrochemical capacity. While many are extracting oil and gas within their borders, others have been influenced by the fracking boom in the United States and are importing petrochemical feedstock from the shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states.
Research suggests that the industry’s bet on plastic won’t be nearly as profitable as originally expected. Meanwhile, fenceline communities are left shouldering the health impacts.
There are over 100 planned or recently completed petrochemical facilities in Texas and Louisiana alone, in addition to many more existing sites.
The Gulf Coast petrochemical expansion also includes a number of proposed and expanded plastic manufacturing facilities. Major projects include Formosa Plastic’s proposed ethane cracker complex in Saint James Parish, Louisiana which would produce polyethylene, polypropylene (types of plastic) and ethylene glycol (to make polyester and antifreeze). Another isa recently constructed ethane cracker plant (the world’s largest) in San Patricio County, Texas, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and SABIC. The project, called Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, will manufacture monoethylene glycol (for polyester and plastic products) and polyethylene plastic. These projects have faced resistance and delays from frontline communities, who are already facing negative health impacts from existing petrochemical infrastructure.
Equistar Chemicals, Dow Chemical Company, Formosa Plastics, and Ineos USA are also expanding their ethylene production capacity at existing facilities. And other types of petrochemical facilities, including methanol plants from South Louisiana Methanol and Big Lake Fuels, have also attempted to expand along the Gulf Coast.
Fracking has opened the oil and gas floodgates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Along the Ohio River, the Marcellus Shale is rich in petrochemical feedstock (natural gas liquids, or “wet gas”) and the oil and gas industry is eager to turn this region into a second major petrochemical hub.
West Virginia has a long history of chemical industries. Major chemical companies like Union Carbide, DuPont, and Dow have all exploited the region’s vast coal, oil, gas, and salt reserves. The Kanawha River Valley has one of the highest concentrations of chemical facilities in the country, earning it the nickname Chemical Valley. These facilities produce explosives, antifreeze, solvents, pesticides, PFAS “forever” chemicals, chlorine, and other chemical products.
Industry officials have called the fracking boom a “renaissance” for the state’s chemical companies, but so far the petrochemical promises have largely been smoke and mirrors. Plus, this industry has left a long legacy of pollution and a rebirth of the undrinkable water and toxic air that residents have endured for decades leaves much to be desired.
Industry leaders have paraded the potential for five ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley Region to convert fracked ethane gas into polyethylene plastic. The Shell ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, is the first ethane cracker to be built outside the Gulf Coast in 20 years. A second ethane cracker has been permitted in Belmont County, Ohio, although its owner, PTT Global Chemical, has not made a final investment decision, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. The setbacks of this project could impact another major petrochemical project in the region, the Mountaineer Storage Hub, which would store fracked gas liquids in underground salt caverns along the Ohio River.
There are many other signs that point towards the petrochemical industry’s predictions for the Ohio River Valley being overly ambitious. An ethane cracker proposed by Braskem and Odebrecht fell through after Odebrecht filed for bankruptcy and its CEO was sentenced to prison for corruption. While public officials have been courting ExxonMobil to build an ethane cracker in southwest Pennsylvania, in late 2020, an Exxon spokesperson has stated that there are no active plans for an ethane cracker in the state.
In 2017, China Energy Investment Corp. signed an agreement to invest $83.7 billion in oil, gas, and petrochemical development in West Virginia. West Virginia’s public officials touted the likelihood of new projects breaking ground within a year, but as of early 2022, there’s been no news on what happened to that $83.7 billion. The details of the agreement have not been made public, but it’s not legally binding.
The Appalachian Development Group sought a $1.9 billion loan from the Department of Energy, and an additional $1.4 billion from private investment to develop a petrochemical storage and trading hub. However, the loan in question was designed for clean energy projects, and a recent amendment solidified that this loan could only go towards projects that “avoid, reduce, or sequester” greenhouse gasses.
Petrochemicals can be toxic —you’d never want to inhale benzene or take a gulp of toluene. For one, they’re often highly flammable so there’s an explosion risk when it comes to transporting and processing them. For another, they contain toxic chemical characteristics that pose short and long term risks.
The process of turning toxic chemicals into consumer products presents health threats. And when these products break down back into those original components, either during use or disposal, there’s the potential for a health threat to emerge once again.
Petrochemical facilities are major sources of air pollution.
Like most industries, petrochemical plants are large sources of many of the criteria pollutants regulated under National Ambient Air Quality Standards (particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide).
Another class of pollutants emitted by petrochemical facilities are volatile organic compounds (VOC), a class of compounds that vaporize into a gas at normal temperature and pressure.
When you walk into a freshly painted room, you’re breathing in VOCs; you’ll probably feel ok for a little bit, but if you stay in the room for a while, you’ll likely develop a headache. While some VOCs are harmless or safe at low doses, VOC exposure from petrochemical plants like ethane crackers pose a real health risk to frontline communities. Health outcomes include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea, as well as chronic impacts at high doses like kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage.
It’s important to note that many of these pollutants are invisible – making it critical that fenceline air monitors are in place and that residents have access to this information in a way that is easy to understand. Additionally, biomonitoring in conjunction with air monitoring can better assess health risks the public is exposed to (for example, testing for toxins in residents’/workers’ urine or blood).
For more on this topic, check out:
Petrochemical facilities are built near bodies of water because they require a lot of water for their operations and because they need to ship products and equipment by barge.
For example, at an ethane cracker site, a giant structure called a quench tower uses large volumes of water to cool ethylene. The water becomes contaminated with hydrocarbons, benzene, styrene, and other VOCs in the process. While water must be treated before being discharged into waterways, all ethane crackers are still permitted to discharge dozens of contaminants. For example, Shell’s ethane cracker in Pennsylvania is permitted to release various amounts of toxics into the Ohio River each day: an average of 0.39 pounds of benzene per day, 0.22 pounds of chloroform, and 3.41 pounds of trichloroethylene. These small amounts add up, and combined with neighboring polluters, can lead to dangerous levels of chemicals entering downstream water intakes.
Another pathway for pollutants to enter waterways is through the (sometimes highly concerning) ways the industry disposes of waste, and the leachate or runoff created at landfills that could contaminate ground or surface waters.
Wastewater discharges and water runoff are regulated in an effort to protect public health and ecosystems. However the experience of frontline communities calls into question the adequacy of regulations and enforcement of water pollution measures:
The rivers most threatened by recent petrochemical expansion, the Ohio and the Mississippi, are already the country’s most polluted rivers. Yet discharge permits generally fail to assess the cumulative impacts of the industry on these rivers.
For more on this topic, check out:
Air and water pollution from petrochemical plants are permitted by public agencies, with the goal of keeping emissions at healthy thresholds. However, public agencies have repeatedly demonstrated a failure to protect public health:
Lack of Guidelines – For example, plants may emit pollutants that aren’t fully understood or lack regulatory guidelines. In Louisiana, a DuPont petrochemical facility was emitting chloroprene (a chemical used to manufacture neoprene) for decades before the EPA categorized it as a “likely carcinogen” in 2010. It took another 6 years before regulators established an air monitoring plan for chloroprene and began updating the plant’s chloroprene permit.
Self Policing – There’s also the fact that the regulatory framework in place largely relies on industries to self-police. That same petrochemical facility, now owned by Denka, regularly exceeds its emission standards. Meanwhile, residents living near the facility face the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the country.
Exceeding emissions isn’t a unique occurrence for petrochemical plants. A recent investigation found 10 oil refineries releasing benzene at levels above the federal action limit and at levels that could cause as many as four additional cancers per 10,000 people exposed to them. For some plant operators, violating permits and paying a fine if caught may simply be written off as the cost of doing business.
Leaks & Fugitive Emissions – “Fugitive emissions” through leaks are an additional concern. According to the EPA, leaking equipment is “the largest source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and volatile hazardous air pollutants (VHAPs) from petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities.” The EPA reports “approximately 70,367 tons per year of VOCs and 9,357 tons per year of HAPs have been emitted from equipment leaks.”
Weak Existing Regulations – Finally, there is the question of whether existing regulations are stringent enough to protect our health. A 2020 study found that “strengthening U.S. air quality standards for fine particulate pollution to be in compliance with current World Health Association (WHO) guidelines could save more than 140,000 lives over the course of a decade.”
In some cases, facilities aren’t even required to meet modern standards. The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is using a water permit that was grandfathered in from the previous industrial facility at the site, which is not up to current standards. The state limit for total dissolved solids (TDS) in wastewater discharged into a waterway was updated in 2010 to be 2,000 mg/L. Shell’s permit estimates that the TDS concentrations for the wastewater it is discharging into the Ohio River will be 4,690 mg/L to 7,375 mg/L.
By allowing the Shell ethane cracker to skirt these regulations, the DEP is not adhering to their own guidelines, accommodating Shell instead.
As large industrial facilities that handle flammable materials, petrochemical facilities are at risk of explosion. The possibility for emergency incidents and “plant upsets” (forced shutdowns caused by mechanical problems, power outages or some other unplanned event) can release sizable amounts of toxic pollutants, seriously threatening public health and safety.
For residents of the Houston, Texas area petrochemical accidents are more a question of when and not if. In 2019, a number of industrial incidents hit the region. In March, there was a chemical fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery and a fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company, a chemical storage facility, which reignited days later. Then there was an explosion at the KMCO chemical manufacturing plant that killed a worker and injured two others. In July, a fire at an Exxon Mobil refinery sent over 30 people to the hospital with injuries. In November, an explosion at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant forced residents within a half mile to evacuate, and many more to shelter in place.
Many industrial accidents can be attributed to inadequate enforcement of environmental and safety regulations. An analysis of hazardous liquid pipeline incidents by FracTracker Alliance found that 60% of incidents over the past 10 years were caused by equipment failure or incorrect operation (hazardous liquids include natural gas liquids, refined petroleum products, and crude oil).
Another factor impeding safety is the industry’s lack of transparency. Oftentimes, emergency management personnel are not informed about what type of chemicals are stored on industrial sites. They’re also often not consulted in the permit approval process – leaving out the expertise of those who best understand a community’s safety needs.
Climate change exacerbates the risks of emergency incidents. As mentioned earlier, Hurricane Ida resulted in some of the worst chemical releases ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.
To learn more about emergencies at ethane crackers, view our article Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure.
Even if you don’t live near a petrochemical plant, you’re still in contact with petrochemical products like plastic every day (even you, cryptopygus antarcticus!). Using certain plastic products exposes us to toxins that have been associated with adverse carcinogenic, developmental, and endocrine-disrupting impacts. In addition to plastic, the petrochemicals that make up products in things like pesticides, paints, perfumes, and carpeting have health impacts too. Synthetic fertilizer (which is made from combining natural gas with nitrogen to form ammonia, the basis of nitrogen fertilizer), can run off into surface water during rain events, leading to oxygen depletion in waterways and fish kills.
Finally, there’s the issue of disposal. Since only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, dealing with the incredible volume of waste from plastic and other petrochemical products is a major occupational and public health concern. There is no country with the resources or system in place to properly deal with all of the trash that comes from single-use plastic. While countries like the United States can ship plastic trash to other countries to keep the problem “out of sight, out of mind,” it has to end up somewhere, and often that is in rivers, oceans, city streets, and incinerators.
The Center for International Environmental Law, with input from FracTracker, produced a report on the health impacts of plastic across its lifecycle – from fracking to microplastic pollution to incineration. Key health impacts from each stage are in the graphic below.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about the toxics in our environment. We need regulatory agencies to invoke the precautionary principle to protect our health and to stop permitting new plastic facilities. Getting involved in local efforts to support zero waste systems in your community is a great way to take action to prevent these harmful impacts.
For more on this topic, check out:
Roughly a decade ago, around 2009-2013, global markets were looking favorable for petrochemical manufacturing. Advancements in fracking technology had led to an oversupply of oil and gas, keeping prices low, and global demand for plastic was increasing.
The oil and gas industry has lost billions of dollars from the fracking industry, and is facing increased competition from renewables. Companies began looking towards investment in petrochemicals as a way to profit from the surplus of oil and gas. Multinational corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, Formosa Plastics, and ExxonMobil drew up plans to build over a dozen new ethane crackers in the United States to turn oil and gas into polyethylene plastic.
But the expansion wasn’t limited to the United States. Petrochemical companies planned to build new ethane crackers in China, Iran, India, Russia, Indonesia, and South Korea as well.
The expansion led to an oversupply of ethylene in the global market. The ambitious plans made by the petrochemical industry were based on the price of plastic being $1/pound, yet soon after, prices began to drop.
Meanwhile, cities, states, and countries have been working to ban single-use plastic, reducing demand for ethylene. While recycling plastic has in many ways been a failed endeavor, recycled plastics do take an additional hit at demand for virgin plastics.
Complicating factors is the coronavirus pandemic. Near the beginning of the pandemic, many oil, gas, and petrochemical companies announced setbacks. PTTG, a petrochemical company looking to build an ethane cracker in Ohio delayed their decision until 2021, and then delayed it indefinitely, and their partner, Daelim Chemical, backed out. Sasol Chemicals stated its Lake Charles Chemical Project will be a $50-100 million loss on the company’s balance sheet instead of the $50-100 million gain that was predicted. Royal Dutch Shell announced it would reduce its spending by $5 billion over that year.
At the same time, corporations have used the pandemic as an excuse to promote single-use plastic and halt plastic bans, despite the fact that health experts have stated reusables are safe and important for preventing other public health risks. The price of plastic has increased since the onset of the pandemic, however as IEEFA reports, with a small number of companies controlling the majority of the market there is a lack of transparency and regulation over prices.
In sum, the economic opportunities created by the petrochemical industry’s expansion are not on track to be nearly as profitable as once predicted.
How does the petrochemical industry impact a local economy?
Let’s start with the foundation of petrochemicals—oil and gas. While the oil and gas industry can lead to large GDP growth, a relatively small percentage of that money makes its way to the community and even the state where drilling occurs, compared to other industries. This is for several reasons:
The petrochemical industry builds off these factors. Despite the large GDP generated, a small percentage stays in the community where development is taking place, and the number of local jobs is also relatively small given the size of the investment. For example, the $1.65 billion tax break that Pennsylvania gave to Shell to build an ethane cracker will only employ 600 workers (that means that the state is spending $2.75 million for each permanent job created). Food and Water Watch found a similar investment in wind or solar industries would create 16,500 jobs.
In addition to receiving the largest tax break in Pennsylvania’s history, the Shell ethane cracker also received a 15-year exemption from state and local taxes – which brings up another important factor—the large tax-payer subsidies given to petrochemical companies.
In Louisiana, a statewide program (ITEP) exempts nearly all manufacturing companies from paying property taxes that would support local budgets, leading to decades of disinvestment from schools, local services, and social safety nets. Between 2006 and 2016, an estimated $13 billion was diverted from local governments because manufacturing companies weren’t paying property taxes. The program was changed in 2016 to allow local officials to reject a company’s request for tax breaks, however, in 2020, Governor Edwards backed a process that allows companies to appeal a local government’s decision to the state board.
Despite the generosity of many state governments, there is limited evidence to support that these large tax credit programs are effective.
In addition to tax breaks, ethane crackers often receive funding from public grants and economic development organizations in the public or non-profit sector. For example, Jobs Ohio gave PTT of Thailand and Daelim Industrial of South Korea $30 million for the PTT ethane cracker, and Texas Enterprise Fund granted $1.35 million to SABIC and $5 million to Exxon for the Exxon-SABIC ethane cracker.
To make up for these large tax breaks, companies may pledge money to make large investments in a state, repair local infrastructure, support colleges, or fund other community projects. Yet this takes power away from local government and into the hands of international corporations whose bottom line is profit, not the public’s well being.
The agreements corporations make with the state are designed to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the public, yet they play a major role in influencing the opportunities available for future generations.
Many of the ways oil, gas, and petrochemical companies invest in our communities —such as an oil rig display in the New Orleans aquarium, or pro-oil K-12 curriculum—are designed to influence the public’s perception and acceptance of them.
These types of industry investments also make local governments dependent on multinational corporations and throw communities onto a boom-and-bust roller coaster. Communities throughout Appalachia based around coal and steel can attest to the devastating impacts that come when a local economy is based around one company or natural resource, and what happens when that company goes bankrupt or the natural resource is no longer profitable.
But why do those in power choose petrochemicals, when state leaders could choose companies that manufacture renewable energy, reclaim brownfields, or build out our public transportation system?
States like Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas sit above the natural resources that companies like Shell and Exxon require, and as some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, they will engage in all of the lobbying and campaign funding necessary to get what they want.
For example, an investigation by Global Witness found that Pennsylvania representatives who voted for a bill that would provide millions in tax breaks to petrochemical companies (HB 1100) received over six times more campaign funds from the oil and gas industry than those who voted no (learn more about updates on this bill).
There are also costs that don’t show up on a budget. As mentioned in previous sections, ethane crackers put a tremendous burden on their environment and therefore a community’s health. Corporations don’t have to pay the healthcare costs for increases in asthma, heart disease, or cancer associated with petrochemical facilities. A 2019 study found that the air pollution in the Appalachian Basin has been responsible for 1,200 to 4,600 deaths and comes at a cost of $12 billion to 94 billion in climate impacts.
Petrochemical plants also prevent the land from providing ecosystem services —services that we depend on to breathe, eat, drink, and play.
Picture a healthy, forested acre of land along a river. The plants are sequestering carbon, providing shade, filtering the air, soaking up rain to prevent floods, and regulating the climate; the soil is cycling nutrients and filtering rainwater that drips into aquifers; the land provides habitat for animals and opportunities for people to grow food and medicine and to recreate. The more industrialized the land becomes, the more these services are lost.
You can’t put a price on clean air, water and soil.
The petrochemical industry has a long history of building in low-income communities, communities of color, or otherwise disenfranchised regions. These racist practices have led to areas like Cancer Alley, in Louisiana—an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River, where the risk of developing cancer from air toxins here is 95% higher than the average American’s. Residents now call it Death Alley.
The petrochemical industry here is built on a legacy of racism: in a literal sense, as the petrochemical plants literally sit atop former plantations where enslaved people worked and were buried, and symbolically, as the industry benefits from the systemic oppression of Black people that has continued since.
Beyond race and income, age plays into environmental injustices. West Virginia, home to major chemical companies like Dow and Union Carbide, has one of the highest percentages of its population over 65 in the country. Older people are also more likely to develop chronic or serious health outcomes from exposure to pollution.
The second aspect of environmental justice—the meaningful participation in decisions that impact one’s environment—is also violated by the petrochemical industry. The decision to permit a petrochemical plant ultimately comes down to a small group of elected officials and doesn’t guarantee the meaningful participation of all residents.
There are many factors impeding meaningful participation. Permit documents for petrochemical facilities are long and complicated, and nearly impossible to interpret without advice from experts. Permits for some proposed facilities are pushed forward without public hearings and/or with a short window of opportunity to provide a comment. Even when the public does voice strong opposition to a facility, it can be greenlighted anyway.
These barriers are exacerbated for non-English speakers, as hearings and notices are often not offered in other languages, even in regions where many of the residents don’t speak English.
Despite the power of the petrochemical industry, frontline communities have achieved major victories. They have forced the nation to wake up to environmental racism perpetuated by the petrochemical industry, particularly in the Gulf Coast, changing policy at the federal level. Volunteer and grassroots groups have achieved victories fighting for language justice and public participation, and taken responsibility to conduct air and water monitoring that is vital for public health. Collectively, these efforts have stopped and delayed plans for polluting infrastructure, while also fostering important conversations about how to restore environments and communities impacted by decades of extractive industries and systemic oppression.
The construction of petrochemical complexes like an ethane cracker bring an influx of workers to the region. You’ve probably heard stories about “boomtowns” throughout United States history—the gold rush in California, oilfields in Texas and Oklahoma, fracking in North Dakota. They’re stories of wealth and opportunity for some, and oppression and violence for others. The gold rush in the Western United States relied on labor of enslaved people and accelerated the genocide of Indigenous people. Sadly, these patterns continue today. Indigenous women and girls have faced increased crime and sexual violence since North Dakota’s fracking boom began in 2006, a reality that is widespread throughout North America. So-called “man camps”—temporary communities established for oil and gas workers—have been associated with increased rates of sexual violence and sex trafficking.
A sudden rise in population can strain community services and infrastructure, including human and social services. This can be a bigger issue in rural areas where public services cover large expanses of land.
Protecting marginalized communities from exploitation and violence is a much larger issue than stopping a petrochemical plant. But as a first step, communities experiencing rapid population growth must take social justice concerns seriously, and leaders should work with community members to address their concerns.
The petrochemical industry is an extension of the fossil fuel industry, and as such, it is a major threat to the climate. In fact, the petrochemical industry is the fastest growing oil consumer, and the International Energy Agency predicts the sector will make up half of oil demand by 2050.
The Gulf Coast is vulnerable to hurricanes which are increasing in intensity due to climate change. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey disrupted over one-third of the country’s chemical production. When Hurricane Ida hit in 2021, it flooded Louisiana and damaged homes, but it also impacted petrochemical plants, which as a result polluted the environment even more through spills, leaks, flaring, and venting; in fact these chemical releases may be some of the worst ever recorded, compounding the hardships felt by communities on the frontlines.
The petrochemical industry is eager to increase its production capacity elsewhere, namely the Ohio River Valley, simultaneously fleeing and causing climate change.
Not only does the petrochemical industry create a demand for operators to extract more oil and gas, but the entire petrochemical lifecycle emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.
The Center for International Environmental Law produced the report Plastic & Climate with contributions from FracTracker, analyzing emissions from the entire plastic lifecycle, from extraction to the disposal of plastic. It found that in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced over 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s equal to emissions from 189 coal power plants.
The same report found that if plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions would be 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030 and by 2050, plastic could be responsible for 10 – 13% of the entire global carbon budget.
The images below from Plastic & Climate show the permitted greenhouse gas emissions from the petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley and the greenhouse gas emissions from ethylene crackers in the Gulf Coast.
There are also a number of hidden ways petrochemical manufacturing impacts the climate: clearing trees for pipeline right-of-ways and petrochemical infrastructure releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and keeping this land clear stops the land from capturing more carbon. When plastic pollution degrades in the environment, it releases methane and other greenhouse gases once again.
Many politicians and industries tout the ways plastic is part of a sustainable future, saying that
plastic is a lightweight material that makes cars more fuel efficient. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the expansion of the industry will be catering to just cars or reusable items. In fact, with the biggest use of plastic being packaging, the buildout will contribute to the growing crisis of single use plastic pollution.