For years, plastics were manufactured from oil. These days, they’re increasingly being made from ethylene, derived from ethane. To make this switch, petrochemical companies are investing wads of cash in building ethane cracker plants.
Plastics overwhelm landfills, kill marine life, and are a major contributor to the carbon emissions that drive climate change. It’s estimated that plastics production will generate over 56 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. That’s approximately 50 times more greenhouse gas emissions produced by all the coal-fired plants in the US in a single year.
Petrochemical companies invest in ethane cracker plants because it’s an easier way to extract ethylene than other methods. The problem is that once all these facilities get built, it’ll be a thousand times more difficult to wean ourselves off natural gas.
This makes ethane cracker plants one of the dirtiest tricks fossil fuel companies inflict on the planet. They’re par for the course for an industry fixated on using energy production methods that pollute instead of pivoting to the renewable energy future that’s our only real hope.
These facilities aren’t only horrible for the planet — they’re terrible for our health because they spew an endless stream of carcinogens into our atmosphere.
What’s an ethane cracker plant?
An ethane cracker plant takes ethane, a component of natural gas found in shale, and turns it into ethylene.
Ethane is flared high into the air at fracking sites. Petrochemical companies capture this ethane and send it to an ethane cracker facility by pipeline.
Intense heat is applied to the ethane until the chemical bonds holding it together are broken apart. The resulting compound is transformed into tiny little pellets, which are shipped all over the world to make plastic products.
A typical ethane cracker plant costs approximately five billion dollars to build and creates about 10,000 jobs during construction. However, because operations are so heavily automated, there won’t be too many permanent jobs.
Some people believe that constructing ethane cracker plants is a sneaky way to increase natural gas demand, and they’re probably right. Ethane cracker plants need a steady supply of natural gas so they can continue to run.
Fracking has made natural gas cheap, which causes more ethane cracker plants to be built. Ethane also happens to be a byproduct of the fracking process. So, a boom in ethane cracker plant construction virtually guarantees fracking will continue unabated.
The dangers of methane
A few would-be experts who think they know a thing or two about climate change might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Natural gas gives off a lot less carbon dioxide than coal does.”
However, carbon dioxide, while being the greenhouse gas that contributes the most to global warming, isn’t the only carbon emission driving the climate crisis.
The average fracking site emits over 4.2 metric tons of methane into the air every week. All this methane can trap incredible amounts of heat, helping to speed up climate change.
Fossil fuel companies are responsible for approximately 25% of all the methane emissions produced worldwide. Even though methane doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide, it traps about 84 times more heat over a two-decade period.
The dangers of fracking wastewater
To go into the fracking business, you need massive quantities of H2O. This kind of demand tends to quickly deplete local water sources. To get the fracking process started, you combine water with chemicals and inject this hazardous mixture into the shale layers underneath the earth’s surface.
The water you remove after you’re done fracking is loaded with deadly volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including xylene and radioactive materials. You can’t just dump this wastewater into barrels and call it a day.
Instead, you must pump it back into the ground, which can contaminate groundwater. This practice has been known to cause lifelong mental impairment in children and increase seismic activity.
Health impacts of ethane cracker plants
Ethane crackers aren’t only bad for the planet — they’re also bad for human health.
Individuals working in these facilities are subjected to all kinds of health risks, increasing the elevated risk of brain cancer.
Employees and people around ethane cracker plants are exposed to VOCs such as propylene and ethylene, which form ozone when combined with sunlight. Ground-level ozone (also known as smog) increases asthma, respiratory infection, and cardiovascular risk.
Here are a few other dangerous atmospheric contaminants lurking in these facilities:
- Benzene (linked to cancer and childhood leukemia)
- Toluene (causes brain, liver, and kidney problems, infant mortality, and birth defects)
- Formaldehyde (something that’s carcinogenic)
- Particulate matter (causes cardiovascular and respiratory disease and lung and bladder cancer)
How ethane crackers perpetuate the poverty and pollution cycle
Most US ethane cracker plants are located along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. These places already suffer from air pollution levels significantly higher than the national average. In fact, the people call the region between New Orleans and Baton Rouge “Cancer Alley” because of extensive chemical contamination.
New facilities are being proposed in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to serve as a replacement for coal. Areas in these states are used to dealing with pollution and heavy industrial activity in their communities, which is probably why fossil fuel companies are trying to put their plants here.
Unfortunately, ethane cracker plants are only proposed for economically disadvantaged areas, not affluent neighborhoods. The poorer sections of these states don’t seem to have elected officials willing to fight for their constituents. This makes an already bad environmental justice problem even worse.
Why are fossil fuel companies building so many ethane cracker facilities?
Fossil fuel companies see the handwriting on the wall in the form of reduced demand for fossil fuels. The world is increasingly turning to renewable energy to power automobiles and generate electricity, and the big petrochemical conglomerates feel like they’re being left in the dust.
They need a different way to rake in profits. There’s an insatiable demand for cheap single-use plastic packaging, which can be met by the ethylene produced in ethane cracker plants. That’s why fossil fuel companies are investing billions in ethane cracker infrastructure.
Our societal responsibility
The trend is to do away with single-use plastic, and the plastic bag and straw bans worldwide are evidence of this.
However, the voracious hunger for cheap plastics is fueling the rise in ethane cracker plant construction. Cheap plastic discourages companies from using recycled plastic in their products because virgin plastic is more inexpensive.
This is more than a little disturbing when you consider we have over nine million metric tons of plastic finding its way into the ocean each year. Unfortunately, plastic manufacturers bear zero financial responsibility for what happens after making their products.
This shouldn’t deter us from our responsibility to work tirelessly towards banning single-use plastics in every city and town in the nation. The downside is that if there’s a reduced plastic demand, petrochemical companies will simply export their product to other countries. Hopefully, individuals in these places will find a way to turn these short-sighted American industrial polluters away.
A report by the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania found that since 2007, companies profiting from fracking have spent more than 70 million dollars promoting the idea that ethane cracker plants are safe. Of course, we know this safety isn’t accurate.
Even worse, tax dollars are being used to boost ethane cracker construction, which is unconscionable. We need to find a way to stop both this and public subsidies for the petrochemical industry if we’re going to turn the insidious tide of global warming.
It’s taken years to gain traction on moving towards renewable energy sources. To have all that effort canceled out by a dramatic spike in carbon emissions from ethane cracker plants would be a shame.
Move boldly toward a carbon-neutral future with Aspiration
Ethane cracker plants emit thousands of metric tons of planet-killing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every single day. To counteract environmentally destructive practices like these, we need an army of committed individuals to be fierce warriors who’ll fight for the earth.
That’s where you come in.
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