Appalachian Basin

New Report Mischaracterizes Pa. Ethane Cracker Plant to Attack Petrochemical Industry

A coalition of environmental groups ignored environmental and quality-of-life improvements coming from Shell’s multibillion-dollar petrochemical project in Pennsylvania in favor of overblown claims of potential air pollution, in a report aimed at raising fear about plastics. The report from groups led by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), along with supportive coverage from environmental media, is the latest in a series of moves by activists seeking to damage Appalachia’s prolific energy industry by attacking the related petrochemical sector.

Shell is building an ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The facility was once the site of a zinc smelting plant which has since shut down; Shell’s decision to invest there – creating 6,000 construction jobs and a permanent workforce of 600 – represents a major opportunity for economically revitalizing the region, which is still rebounding from the loss of steel industry jobs and related manufacturing.

In fact, even an InsideClimate News story that repeated some of the CIEL claims included necessary context on the benefits Shell is bringing to Beaver County. It quotes a local township supervisor on how the zinc smelter “had become a real environmental burden, and we do feel like Shell has been a real partner in lifting that burden.”

Overstated air emissions claims

The InsideClimate story still attempts to portray Shell’s investment as bad for the region, claiming that the plant’s expected air emissions would “wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh… is planning to achieve by 2030.”

The claim was based on data in the report by CIEL, Earthworks and others. However, the groups can’t say for sure that the ethane plant will offset Pittsburgh’s emission reduction aspirations.

In actuality, the report lists the ethane cracker’s annual “potential to emit” based on legal and regulatory limits in permits granted by Pennsylvania state regulators. “Emissions from the Facility shall not equal or exceed the following in any consecutive 12-month period,” states the permit granted to Shell by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Pennsylvania’s limits are already quite stringent, and Shell has repeatedly stated its intent – and taken action – to make the plant more environmentally friendly than necessary.

The plant will fire its furnaces with recycled fuel, eliminate the need for flaring by using a “first-of-its-kind ethylene storage unit,” and Shell has voluntarily committed to invest in making improvements to the environmental conditions of the nearby Ohio River watershed to protect wildlife habitats. It is unreasonable to assume that its actual emissions will reach the numbers advertised by the CIEL report. Its claims about potential hazards posed to nearby residents and other nearby communities do not account for the safety and environmental features that Shell will be installing at the site.

The CIEL report further ignores what regulators have to say about Shell’s commitments. According to reporting by PRI, they have been impressed by Shell’s installation of world-class safety and environmental controls:

“Mark Gorog, head of the air quality program for the Pittsburgh regional office of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Shell is installing modern pollution controls and a leak detection system in the plant. In addition, the company had to show the DEP that its plant wouldn’t make the air unhealthy in surrounding areas. ‘Basically, they modeled to show they will not cause or contribute to an exceedance of national ambient air quality standards,’ Gorog says, ‘and they did a risk assessment for air toxics, which showed there was not going to be an undue risk to the public.’” (emphasis added)


Instead of demonizing projects like Shell’s ethane cracker, CIEL and like-minded organizations would be wiser to view this industry-leading environmental performance and commitment as a model for sustainable economic development.

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