Shale gas is only good for plastics, not transportation fuels

Preface. The oil industry is making more plastic because electric cars have cut gasoline use, but because shale “fracked” gas is so light plastic is about the only use. It is not a transportation fuel that can save us from the coming peak oil energy crisis. 

But the plastics boom may be abruptly stopped in its tracks. The fracking industry may not last as long as many believe (Miller 2019) for geological reasons. Fracking may also fail the pandemic financial crash since most companies are in debt. 

Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Gardiner, B. 2020. A Surge of New Plastic Is About to Hit the Planet as major oil companies ramp up their production. wired.com

Petrochemicals, the category that includes plastic, now account for 14 percent of oil use and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. The World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 20 years.

And because the American fracking boom is unearthing, along with natural gas, large amounts of the plastic feedstock ethane, the United States is a big growth area for plastic production. With natural gas prices low, many fracking operations are losing money, so producers have been eager to find a use for the ethane they get as a byproduct of drilling.

“They’re looking for a way to monetize it,“ Feit said. “You can think of plastic as a kind of subsidy for fracking.”

Shell is building a $6 billion ethane cracking plant—a facility that turns ethane into ethylene, a building block for many kinds of plastic—in Monaca, Pennsylvania, 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It is expected to produce up to 1.6 million tons of plastic annually after it opens in the early 2020s. Pennsylvania granted the Shell plant a tax break valued at $1.6 billion—one of the biggest in state history—and officials in Ohio and West Virginia are wooing firms eager to build more ethane crackers, storage facilities, and pipelines.

Since 2010, companies have invested more than $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects in the US, including expansions of existing facilities, new plants, and associated infrastructure such as pipelines.

If you aren’t going to use plastics, what are you going to use instead?” Alternatives like steel, glass, and aluminum have negative impacts of their own, including carbon footprints that can be greater than plastic’s. It makes cars lighter and therefore more efficient, insulates homes, reduces waste by extending food’s life, and keeps medical supplies sanitary, among many other uses.

Alter, L. 2019. Oil industry is spending billions on increasing plastics production. Treehugger.com

The increase in the production of petrochemicals, spurred by the abundance of shale gas as feedstock and the demand for ethane – a key component in plastics – has prompted energy companies to continue investing billions of dollars in the petrochemical sector. “The global petrochemical sector continues to expand exponentially as developing nations’ demand for petrochemical/chemical products continues to increase,” says Petroleum Economist.

Consultants note that oil producers are pivoting to plastics, away from gas or diesel, and that demand for petrochemical feedstocks will increase by 50%. Petrochemical manufacturers are building 11 new ethylene plants on the Gulf Coast, with capacity for polyethylene growing by 30 percent. The director of the trade association says, “You are going to see over $200 billion in investment in the Gulf Coast specifically related to petrochemical manufacturing.”

Harbors are being dredged, methanol complexes are being built, giant warehouses for pellet storage are under construction. “The Port of Greater Baton Rouge had its fortunes boosted recently with the announcement that ExxonMobil will spend $469 million to add a polypropylene manufacturing unit to its vast greater Baton Rouge petrochemical complex.”

Another $9.4 billion manufacturing complex on the Mississippi River will produce MDI or methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, which goes into our favorite products: polyurethane, spray-foam insulation, furniture, and textiles.

References

Miller, A. 2019. David Hughes’ Shale Reality check 2019. Postcarbon.org

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2 Responses to Shale gas is only good for plastics, not transportation fuels

  1. Rice Farmer says:

    More plastic — just what we need!

  2. Abulkhasib says:

    Plastics-are-all-what-Fracking-does – is bad news in the times of the current pandemic, too.

    It might be that stopping air travel for 13 million passenger a day globally has saved some fuel, for example, but keeping more millions and millions locked-down would require even much more energy resources than prior to the pandemics.

    In Iraq, for example, the government is not happy seeing villages and towns not obeying current street curfews – putting dirt and rubbish barriers between a street and another to help – making the pandemic situation in that dusty hot country even worse.

    The government does realise, though, that if it doesn’t spare its own fleet of vehicles and trucks, using it wisely patrolling and enforcing the curfew, wear and tear will soon leave nothing to control bigger cities – as importing endless new trucks, spare parts, consumables and lubricants – is a process that is slower to execute than the rate of the wear and tear.

    The video clip below inspires how the more energy-saturated a community is (like the posh Green Zone in Baghdad, where the Iraqi government and the American embassy are settled) the longer energy-intensive emergency measures will last (in comparison to a poverty-ridden town in southern Iraq).

    Would it be extreme to assume, then, that lockdown orders will outlast the political systems issuing them – owing to hunger and physics, including the physics behind why Fracking-is-only-good-for-plastics?

    (the video is taken in Abulkhasib, Iraq. The GM-riding military force warns the community with loudspeakers not to group and gather)