Ohio Vies For “Cracker” Plant

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An ethylene cracking plant in Singapore.(Photo: Shell (Flickr))
An ethylene cracking plant in Singapore.(Photo: Shell (Flickr))

This month, Shell Oil Company’s Chemicals Division is set to announce where it will build a petrochemical refinery that is part of the growing “shale gas” industry. Some experts say billions more in related investment dollars and thousands of jobs will follow. Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are competing hard for the plant.

It’s time, we thought, for a chemistry lesson.

“Cracking means you take hydrocarbons which are oil and gas, and they’re molecules made of carbon and hydrogen, and you break them up into smaller molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen,” says Case Western Reserve University geologist Beverly Saylor.

And companies crack hydrocarbons – oil and gas extracted from deep underground – to turn them into products that are used to make the things we buy and use everyday.

“In some cases, you could use cracking to make gasoline out of heavier crude oil. And in other cases you could use cracking to take ethane, which is a natural gas, and use it to make ethylene,” Saylor says.

Ethylene is used in everything from plastic bags and bottles to antifreeze. Huge multinational companies like Dow Chemical, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell are looking to build ethane crackers around the US. These would be the first “crackers” to be built in the US in ten years.

Why now?

Saylor says it’s the plentiful new supply of natural gas here at home. Here’s where we get to “fracking”” Controversial techniques often called “fracking” are now being used to release gas trapped underground. This is opening up US natural gas fields.

“A few years ago, people didn’t really crack here because it was too expensive to make plastic. Plastic was made overseas and that’s because there wasn’t enough natural gas. But now with all the shale gas development the price has come down on that and so it’s now worth it,” Saylor says.

In June, Shell Chemicals, a subsidiary of multinational giant Royal Dutch Shell, announced it would build an ethane cracker in Appalachia. Jack Pounds is President of the Ohio Chemistry Technology Council. He helped put together the numbers used in the pitch to try and bring Shell to the Buckeye state. He says even though shale drilling is newer here than in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Ohio offers some advantages.

“We have the river, the Ohio river is an incredible transportation resource. We also have an experienced workforce in Ohio. Plus the ability to be located right in the middle of the shale fields in the eastern part of the asset would be a tremendous asset.”

Pounds admits though that having a “cracker” anywhere in the region will be a serious boon to Ohio’s chemical industry.

“This is a state that will probably have the most competitive global position in terms of raw materials for its chemical industry and that should help reverse a couple of decades of decline in the industry in the state.”

But Pounds – and Governor John Kasich – say the first choice would be to have a cracker here at home. A study by the American Chemistry Council found that construction of a new petrochemical plant like an ethane cracker could generate 17,000 Ohio jobs in the chemical and chemical supply industries.

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