Shell’s ‘Silent’ Partner in Building Cracker Plant: The EPA

Shell will decide whether or not to build an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, PA over the next two years (see this MDN story). If they decide to build, which seems likely, it will take between four and 10 years and $3 billion to build it. It’s a massive project. And Shell will have the federal Environmental Protection Agency looking over their shoulder the whole time, according to an EPA rep from Texas:

The ethylene cracker facility that Shell Chemical wants to build in Beaver County to process "wet gases" from the Marcellus and Utica shales has the potential to add significant emissions to the area’s industrial air pollutants.

As a result, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, such an industrial facility would need to utilize "best available control technologies" to meet strict air emissions regulations and offset any emissions increases with equal or greater reductions from other facilities.

The EPA said petrochemical facilities that use heat and pressure to "crack" wet gases — such as ethane, propane and butane to produce ethylene, propylene and other shorter chain hydrocarbons used to make plastics — also can emit a wide range of air pollutants.

Those emissions — nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, fine particulates and greenhouse gases — are produced mainly from burning fuels to heat furnaces where wet gases are cooked under pressure to produce basic building blocks for a variety of petrochemical-based products.

"Such a plant is going to have nitrogen oxide and VOC emissions that play into ozone creation and airborne particulates that add to what is already in the area," said Jeff Robinson, section chief for air permits at EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, who has extensive experience reviewing cracker facilities (27 of the country’s 44 crackers are in Texas). "Regulators will have to assess the air impacts from the facility when Shell sends a construction permit application to the state."

"When Shell builds this, it will trigger a review to determine what the best available control technologies are, and Pennsylvania will have to look to other states to determine what those should be for that facility," Mr. Robinson said. "The cracker in Pennsylvania will be built in line with what is built in Texas and Louisiana."*

*Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Mar 26, 2012) – Shell plant attracts watchful eyes