America’s oil and gas rush is now coming to Europe, polluting both sides of the pond, contributing to climate change and threatening coastal wildlife. Over the past decade, the U.S. fossil fuel industry has surged by employing new techniques and technologies that combine horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) to extract oil and gas from shale and other underground rock formations. Fracking, which causes many negative public health and environmental impacts, injects large quantities of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to release oil or gas tightly held in rock layers.
The boom, combined with low-priced fossil fuel- based natural gas, also spawned a resurgence in North American petrochemical and plastics manufacturing — and the pollution that comes with it. Wall Street investor-funded U.S. fracking produced an oversupply of cheap gas and ethane in the past few years. The volume of gas pumped out of U.S. wells has risen by one-third and the industrial price for gas fell by half over the same period from 2007 to 2016. Collapsing prices undermined the profitability of oil and gas companies, but all that additional gas has been a boon to the U.S. plastics industry.
Ethane is a hydrocarbon present in gas and a primary raw material for petrochemical manufacturing. Due to its low costs, in 2012 chemical companies began aggressively investing in petrochemical plants and export facilities to capitalize on the ethane glut. Less than four years later, ethane derived from U.S. fracked gas was exported to Europe for the first time.
The new ethane export route connects Pennsylvania fracking with European petrochemical manufacturing. The Europe-bound ethane is produced in Pennsylvania by the U.S. oil and gas companies CONSOL Energy and Range Resources, and is carried by Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline to its Marcus Hook export facility near Philadelphia.
From there, large vessels dubbed “dragon ships” carry the ethane more than 3,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to ethane crackers in Norway and Scotland owned by Ineos, a European chemical company founded by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe. The crackers turn ethane into ethylene for the production of finished petrochemicals – such as plastics.
In May 2017, Ineos’ Grangemouth petrochemical facility in Scotland had a substantial ethylene leak that forced the evacuation of employees, scrambled emergency responders and caused the lockdown of a local elementary school. The resurgent plastics production fueled by Pennsylvania fracked gas could put even more communities at risk of industrial accidents.