The Plastics/Fracking Connection

Thanks to the hard work of environmental groups, most of us are highly aware of the downstream (post-consumer) threats posed by discarded plastics. But did you know plastics pose upstream (pre-consumer) environmental and climate threats as well?

• Sourced from fracking, plastics are made from ethane
Fracking that brings us the methane in “natural gas”, also brings up large amounts of ethane. Ethane is then heated to over 1,500°F (850°C), a process known as “cracking”, to generate ethylene, propylene and other products that are then turned into plastics.
The extraction, cracking and manufacturing processes all have strong environmental impacts.
Screen Shot 2020-08-24 at 5.11.11 PM

• Environmental impacts
Impacts of the extraction process are high. Fracking releases methane (a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than CO2) into the atmosphere, causing a boom in climate changing emissions.
Impacts from the cracking, processing and manufacturing are high as well. As cited by California’s Berkeley Plastics Task Force, creating plastic resin from ethylene is highly impactful:
“As ethylene is polymerized, the reactive mixture is scrubbed with dilute aqueous caustic solutions that become high-volume pollutants. The refining process uses waste-minimization methods, but point-source air emissions are still high because of inherent difficulties in handling large flows of pressurized gases. Manufacturing PET resin generates more toxic emissions (nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, benzene) than manufacturing glass. Producing a 16 oz. PET bottle generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass.”

• The plastics boom
The fracking and petrochemical industries are looking to plastics to maintain their market share. As attorney Stephen Feit of the Center for International Environmental Law puts it, “You can think of plastic as a kind of subsidy for fracking.”
The heavy duty industry of “cracker plants” have until recently mostly been located in the US south, but now the industry is looking to expand greatly, building near the Marcellus and Utica shale plays in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, investing in over 330 plastics production projects in the US since 2010.

As stated by Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and former regional director for the EPA, “If even a quarter of these ethane cracking facilities are built, it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.”

As estimated by CIEL, current planned plastics industry expansion could undo many of the current efforts to limit emissions in other sectors,  “… if plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.*


» How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled
By Laura Sullivan, NPR
September 11, 2020

» Oil industry lobbies US to help weaken Kenya’s strong stance on plastic waste
Environmentalists fear changing Kenya’s resolve would lead to all of Africa becoming a plastics dumping ground
By Associated Press, in The Guardian
September 1, 2020

» Big Oil Is in Trouble. Its Plan: Flood Africa With Plastic.
Faced with plunging profits and a climate crisis that threatens fossil fuels, the industry is demanding a trade deal that weakens Kenya’s rules on plastics and on imports of American trash.
By Hiroko Tabuchi, Michael Corkery and Carlos Mureithi, New York Times
August 30, 2020

» For the Ohio River Valley, an Ethane Storage Facility in Texas Is Either a Model or a Cautionary Tale
The massive petrochemical complex in Mont Belvieu outside Houston has a long history of environmental violations, leaks, fires and explosions.
By James Bruggers, InsideClimate News
April 10, 2020

» In the most polluted part of America, residents now battle the US’s biggest plastic plant
Plastics factory will not only contribute to pollution in Louisiana town of Gramercy, but will also be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions
Oliver Laughland and Emily Holden, The Guardian
April 1, 2020

» Market Headwinds Buffet Appalachia’s Future as a Center for Petrochemicals
A proposed $5.7 billion ethane plant in Belmont County, Ohio, was seen as a likely casualty even before coronavirus cratered oil prices and collapsed the economy.
By James Bruggers, InsideClimate News
March 21, 2020

» Planet Plastic
How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades
By Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone
March 3, 2020   

» Congressional Democrats Join the Debate Over Plastics’ Booming Future
A new bill would impose a three-year moratorium on new plant construction in parts of Appalachia and the Gulf Coast.
By James Bruggers, InsideClimate News
February 21, 2020

» A surge of new plastic production is on the way
By Beth Gardiner, Yale Environment 360 via GreenBiz
January 17, 2020

» Pennsylvania Communities Grow Wary of Worsening Air Pollution as Petrochemical Industry Arrives
By Julie Dermansky, DeSmog Blog
November 27, 2019

» With Coal’s Decline, Pennsylvania Communities Watch the Rise of Natural Gas-fueled Plastics
By Julie Dermansky, DeSmog Blog
November 22, 2019

» Boom Goes the Plastics Industry
With demand for oil expected to slow, oil companies seek a lifeline in plastics
By Antonia Juhasz, Sierra Magazine / Sierra Club
June 30, 2019

» The hidden relationship between the plastics industry and fracking in the US
“We need to cut emissions by 45 percent by 2030. Plastics are poised to do almost exactly the opposite.”
Sarah Sax, GreenBiz
Friday, May 24, 2019

» New Warnings on Plastic’s Health Risks as Fracking Industry Promotes New ‘Plastics Belt’ Build-Out
By Sharon Kelly, DeSmog Blog
March 5, 2019

» Secretary Perry Announces Appalachian Ethane Storage Hub Report
By U.S. Department Of Energy,
December 10, 2018

» Why Plans to Turn America’s Rust Belt into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate
By Sharon Kelly, DeSmog Blog
October 28, 2018

» A Field Guide to the Petrochemical and Plastics Industry
By Sharon Kelly, DeSmog Blog
October 28, 2018

» Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Plastics Are Predicted to Rise
By Kendra Pierre-Louis, New York Times
October 4, 2018

» Pipeline that exploded in Pennsylvania part of push to build fracking-reliant petrochemical network
The 24” diameter pipeline responsible for the blast had gone into service just seven days earlier.
Sharon Kelly, DeSmog Blog
September 14, 2018

» Did Plans to Export US Ethane Help Fund Accused Russian Spy Maria Butina?
Sharon Kelly, DeSmog Blog
July 30, 2018

» As Industry Pushes Billion-Dollar Fracked Petrochemical Projects, State Regulators Struggle To Keep Up
By Sharon Kelly, DeSmog
July 1, 2018

» $83 Billion West Virginia Petrochemical Deal with China on Skids Due to Trade War, Corruption Probe
By Steve Horn, DeSmog Blog
June 25, 2018

» Plastics, Pipelines, Fracking & Our Planet Webinar
By Food & Water Action
Recorded June 20, 2018

» Oil Pipeline CEO Tells Federal Energy Conference: ‘It’s a Great Time to Be in the Business’
By Justin Mikulka, DeSmog Blog
June 13, 2018
“The U.S. is not only exporting oil and natural gas as fuel but also as feedstock for the growing global petrochemical industry, which includes the plastics industry. While the world is coming to terms with the issue of plastic pollution, the energy industry sees plastics as a huge growth opportunity. Oil and natural gas don’t have to be burned; they also can be made into plastic.”

» Dustin White: Petrochemical complex not good for WV (Gazette)
By Dustin White (Opinion), Charlston Gazette-Mail
June 8, 2018

» We Are Drowning In Plastic, and Fracking Companies Are Profiting
By Wenonah Hauter, EcoWatch
February 15, 2018

(Short link for this page: