Cracker plant takes center stage at energy symposium

Posted August 15, 2012

By Christie Campbell

PITTSBURGH Although Shell Oil Co. representatives say hurdles must be overcome to build a proposed ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, interest in how it could transform the tri-state region into a chemical and manufacturing powerhouse was high Tuesday during an energy symposium in Pittsburgh.

Energy Inc. featured speakers Dr. Paul Ayoub, project manager for Shell’s new business development, Charles McConnell, assistant secretary for fossil energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, and others.

Ayoub spoke on the plant proposed for Potter Township near Monaca, which would operate using ethane produced from Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and produce more than a million tons of ethylene a year.

There are many markets within the region that use ethylene products, said Ayoub. Currently, most of those get them from Gulf Coast refineries.

Among the derivatives the plant would produce are polyethylene and mono-ethylene glycol. Common uses for polyethylene are pipe, coatings and film such as plastic wrap and food bags. Mono-ethylene glycol is used in plastic bottles, polyester fabric and antifreeze. Many soft drink bottles and fleece fabrics are made from MEG.

The region is poised to become a petrochemical and manufacturing world leader thanks to the discovery of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which McConnell said was a “game changer.”

“Just a few short years ago, this was a resource nobody anticipated,” he said.

Manufacturing is drawn to areas with low-cost energy, so McConnell also anticipates a rebirth of the American chemical industry, something no one could have imagined a decade ago.

Shell’s current stake in Appalachia includes its headquarters in Warrendale, nearly 300 employees and about 900,000 acres of Marcellus Shale property leased in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio.

Beaver County Commissioner Dennis Nichols said the plant is expected to provide 450 full-time jobs, 10,000 construction jobs and 18,000 ancillary jobs.

Typical ethane plants are divided into hot and cold sides with ethane heated to 1,600 degrees to break up carbon and hydrogen molecules and then cooled to minus-100 degrees fahrenheit. This cracked gas is compressed and separated into hydrogen, fuel gas, ethylene, propane and heavier components, which are fed to various parts of the petrochemical industry.

Although Ayoub could not say when construction would start, the plant’s projected life is between 25 and 50 years.

The preferred site is a 300-acre brownfield. Among the reasons it is being considered are road and rail transportation infrastructure, five electric plants that operate in the area and access to wet gas and water resources.

The state has provided $1.7 billion in tax incentives for the $4 billion Shell plans to invest, making it the largest private investment in the area in more than 50 years, said Nichols.

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