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E&E NEWS: Meet America’s new superpolluters: Plastic plants

Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter

A recent study identified 88 petrochemical projects along the Gulf Coast that are either in the planning stage or under construction. If all are completed, their combined emissions output could reach 150.8 million metric tons, the equivalent of 38 coal plants.

The same oil and gas boom that helped clean up the power sector has also made it cheaper to turn natural gas into plastics, fertilizer and other products. The process is emissions-intensive. Large quantities of natural gas liquids like ethane and propane are fed into enormous furnaces and heated to extremely high temperatures, creating smaller hydrocarbon molecules that can be separated and turned into different plastic products.

Most of the new plants are along the Gulf Coast, where the infrastructure exists to transport gas to petrochemical facilities. But there are notable exceptions. Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s construction of an ethane cracker outside Pittsburgh drew considerable attention last year after President Trump visited the facility.

That plant was built to capitalize on the torrent of gas coming out of the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, which underlie parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. It will be allowed to emit 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, roughly the emissions output of a combined-cycle natural gas plant.

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