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Plastics Plants Are Poised to Be the Next Big Carbon Superpolluters

carbon emissions

A boom in petrochemical plants driven by cheap natural gas could lock in greenhouse emissions for decades to come

The Sunshine Project, a gargantuan petrochemical complex planned on 2,500 acres along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge, La., will be one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in America when it becomes fully operational in 2029.

Earlier this month, Louisiana regulators approved an air quality permit that will allow the facility to pump 13.6 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That’s equivalent to adding 2.6 million cars to the road annually.

No industrial facility in the United States reported emissions of that magnitude between 2011 and 2018, according to an E&E News review of EPA data. In 2018, only 13 coal plants emitted more.

Sunshine is at the forefront of an often-overlooked boom in America’s petrochemical sector, one that climate advocates worry could undo recent greenhouse gas reductions by locking in a new source of planet-warming pollution for decades to come.

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.

“It is not something that has been on people’s radars. When it comes to the oil and gas sector and emissions, we talk about upstream methane, and we talk downstream end use, tailpipes, electricity, etc.,” said Andrew Waxman, an economics professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and a lead author of the study. Petrochemicals, he added, are “not as big as a focus, and it should be part of the conversation.”

American greenhouse gas emissions have trended downward in recent years, largely thanks to the greening of U.S. power plants. The advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has unleashed a wave of cheap natural gas, prompting power companies to switch out their old, dirty coal units in favor of cleaner natural gas-burning replacements. Preliminary estimates suggest that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 were down 2.1%. The decrease is almost entirely attributable to coal plant retirements.

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.

“A lot of these petrochemical companies said, ’This is great; we have this cheap feedstock in our backyard,’” said Jennifer Van Dinter, an analyst who tracks the sector at S&P Global Platts.

A first wave of projects proposed around 2012 is now nearing completion, she said. The Sunshine Project complex is among the second wave of new petrochemical facilities.

Global plastic demand is increasingly driving the world’s consumption of oil and gas. In 2018, the International Energy Agency reported that global petrochemical demand had nearly doubled since 2000, outpacing consumption of other bulk materials like steel, aluminium or cement.

It found that petrochemical feedstocks accounted for about 12% of global oil demand. That figure is expected to rise in future years. Petrochemical demand is projected to account for a third of the growth in global oil demand by 2030 and rise to half by 2050.

Traditionally, plastics have been seen as a conventional environmental concern, with greens focusing much of their efforts on waste. But climate hawks are increasingly alarmed by the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. A 2019 study by the Center for International Environmental Law concluded that emissions from global plastic production and incineration could reach 1.34 gigatons annually in 2030, roughly the amount of carbon dioxide released by 295 coal plants in a year.

“Plastic is fossil fuel in another form. Everything that happens before you see that plastic on the shelf is emissions intense. It releases all manner of pollutants and toxic chemicals,” said Steven Feit, a lawyer at CIEL and contributor to the report. “At the top level, dealing with the climate crisis requires dealing with the plastics crisis.”

Industry officials push back against those arguments. They note that plastics are used in everything from solar panels to car casings, helping make automobiles lighter and improving their fuel efficiency. The industry has backed a series of studies showing plastics do less environmental damage than alternatives like aluminum, glass and tin.

One recent study by Trucost found that replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually. The American Chemistry Council, the industry’s main lobbying arm, did not respond to requests for comment.

In Louisiana, state and local officials have greeted petrochemical projects like Sunshine with open arms. With a price tag of $9.4 billion, the complex represents one of the largest private investments in the state’s history.

Formosa Plastics Group, the Taiwan-based petrochemical conglomerate behind the project, promises a jobs bonanza. Some 8,000 jobs are expected during construction. An additional 1,200 jobs paying an average wage of $84,500 will be created once it goes into operation, according to the company. The first stage of the project is expected to be completed by 2024, followed by the second stage in 2029.

The complex will include a collection of ethane crackers and ethylene glycol, propylene and polypropylene plants designed to fabricate the plastic parts used to manufacture everything from water bottles and grocery bags to infant car seats and playground equipment.

Janile Parks, a spokeswoman for the project, said Formosa’s proposal represents a response to growing global demand for plastic and the falling cost of producing it.

“Low natural gas prices, coupled with Louisiana’s extensive pipeline infrastructure, ensure that the natural gas that will be used as feedstock for the project will be abundant and competitively priced,” she wrote in an email.

The project highlights one of the difficulties in cutting emissions from the petrochemical sector. While power companies can turn to wind and solar and motorists can choose electric vehicles, there is no ready-made way to reduce greenhouse gases associated with the production of plastic. Nearly all of Sunshine’s emissions stem from the combustion of natural gas, which is needed to operate the complex.

Louisiana regulators determined that carbon capture and sequestration was technically feasible but concluded it would render the project uneconomical.

Formosa has sought to downplay Sunshine’s potential emissions impact. In a filing with state regulators, it noted that a rising tide of renewable energy is likely to green the facility’s power supply. The company also said it is unlikely to hit its 13.6-million-ton permitting limit. That figure is based on running the facility at maximum capacity for a year.

“The expected contribution of the facility, when compared to national and global emissions, is miniscule,” lawyers for Formosa subsidiary FG LA LLC wrote in comments to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. “Thus it is logical to conclude that FG’s potential contribution to climate change is also miniscule, assuming there are any effects at all and assuming FG’s contribution could be accurately quantified.”

State regulators agreed. In their decision to approve Sunshine’s air quality permit, they said it is difficult to determine the impact of an individual project on climate change. Carbon dioxide is drawn from sources worldwide and added to a swirling mix of gases in the atmosphere.

“As a result of this global mixing, GHGs emitted anywhere in the world affect climate everywhere in the world,” the Department of Environmental Quality wrote. It added that the project will “in effect have no more impact on Louisiana (relative to GHGs) than if the facility was constructed elsewhere, but will provide the social and economic benefits.”

A spokesperson for the state agency declined to comment.

Sunshine’s air quality permit puts it in an emissions class usually reserved for large coal plants. In 2018, only three industrial facilities reported carbon dioxide emissions in excess of 10 million tons, according to EPA data.

They were a petrochemical plant operated by Ascend Performance Materials in Pensacola, Fla. (11.5 million tons); Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Baytown Complex, a refinery and petrochemical operation outside Houston (10.7 million tons); and an ArcelorMittal SA steel mill in Burns Harbor, Ind. (10.7 million tons).

Environmental and local opposition to Sunshine has largely centered on its emissions of toxic pollutants, which include benzene, ethylene oxide and other cancer-causing gases. The project is sited next to a predominantly African American community in St. James Parish and is 1 mile from an elementary school.

“Formosa’s planned complex is a disaster on several fronts, including climate change because it is a greenhouse gas giant, environmental justice given its decision to locate in a predominantly African American community already overburdened with industrial pollution, and public health due to the enormous amounts of cancer-causing emission,” said Corinne Van Dalen, an attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental group opposed to the project. “And for what? Plastic.”

Sunshine has now received its state and federal permits. Parks, the company spokeswoman, said it is now turning its focus to construction.

But environmentalists are girding for a fight. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in federal court last week challenging the plant’s permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. More legal challenges are expected once Louisiana completes the formality of issuing Sunshine’s air quality permit.


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