Natural gas from shale, tapped via horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, has dramatically changed the U.S. energy picture and the competitiveness of the U.S. petrochemical industry in only a few short years.
Now people are considering putting steel in the ground to take advantage of the new resource. Jim Crews, from the pipeline firm Columbia Gas Transmission, seems to be shopping around the idea of building an ethylene steam cracker in West Virginia that would be fed with ethane from the Marcellus Shale—a deposit that stretches from New York State down through western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Other firms have proposed shipping the liquids to Chicago, down to the Gulf Coast, or up to Sarnia, Ontario.
I’ve heard this sort of thing before: a company planning a mid-sized ethylene cracker, say 500,000 metric tons per year, and a polyethylene plant based on a local natural gas deposit that has just enough resources to support it. I am sympathetic to the rationale. Every ethane molecule that is burned for fuel rather than upgraded into a chemical is a tiny little tragedy.
The trouble is such projects don’t usually get off the ground. Keltic Petrochemicals isn’t going ahead with plans to build a cracker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, based on offshore Sable Island gas. Westlake put plans to build a cracker in Trinidad on hold. Nova Chemicals, which is planning the pipeline to Sarnia, considered a Trinidad cracker about a decade ago. And Rio Polímeros built one in Rio de Janeiro based on offshore gas from Petrobras, but production difficulties related to feedstock supply have been a nightmare for that young facility and probably contributed to Quattor’s downfall.
Why? Don’t know, for sure. Such facilities aren’t world scale. They have only one option for raw materials. And if their polyethylene plants are offline, they have nowhere to put their ethylene. Plants on the Gulf Coast and other petrochemical hubs are much more interconnected.
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