'Cracker' petrochemical plants hold promise of more jobs

March 7, 2012 12:40 pm

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Falling natural gas prices and campaigns from Pennsylvania lawmakers have revved up the next step of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom: the petrochemical chapter, a development phase that could promise the kind of construction and job creation not seen in the region since steel's heyday.

Numerous energy firms and chemical companies are eyeing the tri-state region for locations to build plants that can take gas and other compounds extracted from the ground and process them for use in everyday products such as clothing or carpeting.

Western Pennsylvania's ready supply of high-value natural gas liquids has hastened the development. It's even started an interstate battle, with legislators courting multinational companies such as Royal Dutch Shell with come-hither tax incentives.

But the Shell "cracker" plant -- which has governors flying to Texas to personally woo executives -- is only one petrochemical project of many signaling a new trend in Pennsylvania's gas industry. A West Virginia company also is scouting potential sites for its own plant.

Basically, cracker plants break down gas compounds into other elements. The facilities can cover hundreds of acres and bring thousands of new jobs.

This kind of development, referred to as petrochemical development, typically comes as the third phase of a drilling boom after extraction and processing, and it is sure to raise the same environmental and zoning concerns that have followed the industry since Marcellus drilling began here in 2006.

"It's going to be quite a boon to this area for the unions," said Lou D'Amico, president and executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association. "The pipe fitters and construction folks like that will find work."

The prospect of bringing jobs to regions hit hard by the shuttering of steel mills has prompted bidding wars between lawmakers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

In the case of the Shell plant, all three states have been aggressively but mostly quietly lobbying company officials to locate a plant within their borders. Some of those efforts have been in person, with governors of West Virginia and Ohio flying to Houston to talk, while the teams back home craft lucrative incentive packages.

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.
First Published 2012-03-06 23:08:52

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