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 plans to spend over $164 billion on constructing and expanding hundreds of plastic manufacturing facilities across the country by 2023, hoping to capitalize on growing demand worldwide. Plastic consumption is highly correlated with population, so countries with large, growing populations are likely markets.

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. Researchers have found tiny bits of “microplastics” on every corner of the earth from the Mariana Trench to ice cores from the Arctic. Microplastic poisons marine life and even ends up in our own bodies. In response to this crisis, hundreds of cities and many countries are instituting policies to reduce plastic consumption.

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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