A Lesson In How Crackers are Made

With EID programs currently up and running in both Pennsylvania and Ohio — and having great, collaborative relationships with our friends in West Virginia as well — it’s fair to say that EID is more than a little bit conflicted when it comes to our institutional position on where Shell should build its new $2-billion ethane-fed cracker facility among the several sites currently under review throughout the three-state region.

But as you might expect, the senior U.S. senator from Pennsylvania isn’t quite so torn. In a letter sent this week to Mark Quartermain, president of Shell Energy North America, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) lays out a pretty compelling case for why Shell should set-up shop in Pennsylvania, citing the state’s skilled workforce, extensive rail transportation network, and the “great potential that Marcellus Shale resources” has to offer. Not to be outdone, federal lawmakers from Ohio and West Virginia (and governors too) have weighed in as well, each hopeful that their workforce, infrastructure and shale-related geology will help put their state over the top – and snag 10,000 new jobs in the process.

As Sen. Casey alludes to his letter, the reason Shell’s in the position today to make such an enormous investment in the region is directly related to the remarkable volumes of natural gas (and especially, natural gas liquids) currently being produced from shale. What the senator doesn’t mention in his letter, though, is the fact that he’s currently the co-author and chief sponsor of legislation in the Senate that has the potential to shut down shale development all across the country, starting in his home state of Pennsylvania.

At least that’s the position of Gasland director Josh Fox, who has called for a nationwide ban on the technologies needed to harvest energy from shale, and for good measure, a global ban on all fossil fuels. Over on his website, Fox directs visitors to call their elected representatives and “let them know you support the FRAC Act.” Why that bill? Because “we can’t stop fracking without you.” Does that sound like a disclosure bill to you?

All of which sets up an interesting question: Had Sen. Casey actually passed his legislation when it was first introduced a couple years back, would Shell have decided to invest $2 billion in a facility whose entire business case is premised on continued access to affordable energy resources from the Marcellus and Utica shales? We can’t say for sure. What we do, though, is that one of the provisions included in the $41-billion merger between Exxon and XTO in December 2009 was a clause suggesting the deal could be called off if Congress were to pass a bill making “hydraulic fracturing or similar processes… illegal or commercially impracticable.” Sounds a little bit like Sen. Casey’s bill, doesn’t it?

Separate and apart from the legislation, the senator also appears to have a habit of “shooting first” and asking questions later when it comes to assigning blame in rare occasions when things go wrong. In March 2011, Sen. Casey wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy asking the agency to investigate “yet another gas-migration-related explosion” in McKean Co., Pa. – telling Secretary Chu that, to him, “it appears” the incident was caused by “extensive new deep drilling activities.” Less than a month later, PA DEP released the findings of its investigation, showing the source of methane migration to be shallow, abandoned wells drilled in the area more than 125 years ago. Not shale. And not new.

All that aside, though, Sen. Casey deserves credit for standing up for his state and fighting for thousands of family-supporting jobs at an otherwise very difficult time for our country and our economy. The good news for everyone is that, wherever the cracker is located, most experts believe that the entire region will benefit tremendously from the multi-billion dollar shot-in-the-arm that this facility portends. According to Keith Burdette, West Virginia’s commerce secretary, “the sites [are] just so closely grouped together that the impact across state lines will be significant.”

Of course, all things being equal, Mr. Burdette wants that sucker in West Virginia. Ohio governor John Kasich wants it in Ohio. And Sen. Casey? Well, he wants that cracker in Pennsylvania. As for us? We’d settle for a box of wheat thins. That, and maybe before anyone sends out any more letters – perhaps a moment of reflection on what’s made this entire conversation possible?

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