Public concern about plastic pollution has been rising. More and more of us are choosing reusable grocery bags, metal straws, and reusable water bottles. We shake our heads at images of immense plastic garbage patches in the ocean. We see reports of birds with 15% of their body weight in plastic.
While all of this is going on, companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up production of plastic – which is mostly made from oil, gas, and their byproducts. They are doing this as a hedge against the growing possibility that the global response to climate change will reduce demand for their fuels. Plastics are part of the category called petrochemicals, which currently account for 14% of oil use. Petrochemicals are expected to drive half of oil demand growth over the next 30 years.
The World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 20 years. The fracking boom in the United States has turned this country into a big growth area for plastic production. Natural gas prices are low which is hurting profits at fracking operations. But fracking also unearths ethane, which is a feedstock for plastic production. So plastic is becoming a kind of subsidy for fracking.
The American petroleum industry’s hub has historically been the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana as well as a stretch along the lower Mississippi River. There is a slew of new projects there. The industry is also seeking to create a new plastics corridor in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where fracking wells are rich in ethane.
Society in general may be increasingly concerned about the impact of things like carbon emissions and plastic pollution, but the fossil fuel industry continues to focus entirely on growth and profits.
Photo, posted January 10, 2015 , courtesy of Daniel Orth via Flickr.