What is petrochemical production?
Texas and Louisiana are home to the largest petrochemical complexes in the United States and some of the largest in the world. Much of the methane gas and oil extracted across the Permian and other shale plays do not go towards domestic energy use but rather used as the base for petrochemical products such as plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins. As the market for methane gas and oil continues to crash, petrochemicals are the fossil fuel industries’ desperate attempt to continue profiting.
Types of Plants
Across Texas and Louisiana, there are over 20 ethylene cracker complexes. These ethylene cracker plants separate ethane from the methane gas fracked in the shale fields to create ethylene, the building blocks of plastic products. To create ethylene requires high temperatures to “crack” the molecules in ethene and create the small plastic pellets known as “nurdles”
Ethylene is the most commonly produced petrochemical product as it is the root chemical for a variety of plastics, resins, adhesives, and synthetic products. It is the basis for the plastic pollution we encounter every day such as beverage containers and food wrap as well as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyester, and chemicals like those found in antifreeze, solvents, urethanes, and pharmaceuticals.
Risks and Impacts
Petrochemical facilities are dangerous for communities, workers, and the climate.
Petrochemical complexes’ air emissions include nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter—all pollutants which are regulated by the Clean Air Act. Additionally, ethane crackers have the potential to emit massive quantities of ethylene, propylene, and other highly reactive volatile organic compounds – these compounds when interacting with sunlight create ground level ozone or smog.
Ethylene crackers are also huge polluters of waterways. From production, storage, transport, and process nurdle pollution is insidious and near impossible to completely clean up. When spills do take place such as the 2020 Bianca Spill in Louisiana there isn’t any agency tasked with cleaning up and the company is not held responsible so the nurdles stay in the waterways – polluting the beaches, filling up the bellies of fish and other wildlife, and acting as carriers for other toxins. Federal regulators have given the petrochemical industry agency to hold themselves accountable resulting in a voluntary, industry led program “Operation Clean Sweep” which has no monitoring, enforcement, or metrics to gauge its progress. Members of Operation Clean Sweep continue to be some of the largest polluters such as Formosa Plastics.
While petrochemical facilities are celebrated as a job gain for communities, petrochemical jobs are not good jobs. Studies have found that certain petrochemical workers and employees handle or are exposed to a number of toxins including volatile organic compounds, and “priority pollutants”. The toxic emissions at the plant have long term negative impacts including but not limited to benzene, a known carcinogen and mutagen that can increase the risk of leukemia, methanol, a colorless, flammable liquid that can cause dizziness, insomnia, gastric issues, headaches, nausea, blurred vision and blindness, and lead, nickel, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are all believed to be endocrine disruptors – chemicals that can alter hormone functions and negatively impact the metabolism and the neurological, immune and reproductive systems.
Accidents at plants are also a large risk to workers and nearby communities. In June 2013 an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Louisiana killed 2 workers and injured 167. The fire burned for 3.5 hours releasing over 30,000 pounds of hydrocarbons and the resulting damage was so bad the plant had to close down for a year and a half. As tropical storms and hurricanes in the Gulf increase intensity due to the climate crisis, the plants along the coast are damaged posing even larger risks to the local community.
The final product of these toxic plants is plastic. There is no doubt we are living in a plastic crisis as plastics fill up our oceans and our landfills, kills fish and wildlife, and even has appeared in our bodies. However, the companies behind petrochemical production are deep in a PR campaign to make individuals feel that the plastics crisis is our fault. The plastics crisis is not just one of waste – the entire cycle of plastics is toxic and harmful to communities from extraction and transportation to processing to use and then to disposal. The plastic crisis is not one we can recycle our way out of, the most important thing to do is stop producing it in the first place.
While the Gulf is home to an overwhelming amount of petrochemical complexes, communities on the ground are fighting back and winning. In 2019 Diane Wilson in Point Comfort Texas won a huge lawsuit against Formosa Plastics, winning the largest settlement ever in a citizen clean water suit with the company agreeing to spend $50 million on local environmental projects.
After nearly 3 years of collecting pellets and 2,500 samples, a Texas federal judge found Formosa Plastics to be “a serial offender” and the company has committed “enormous” violations of both state law and the federal Clean Water Act. The victory against Formosa was a landmark victory for frontline communities and proof of the power communities have when organizing together.