If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Top of the agenda at the World Petrochemical Conference were energy abatement and plastics circularity

At big conference, petrochemical executives talk competitiveness and energy transition

by Alexander H. Tullo
April 10, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 12

A group of panelists at a conference.
Credit: Barron & Barron Photography, S&P
(From left) Adriano Alfani, CEO of Versalis; Nadia Bader Al-Hajji, CEO of Petrochemical Industries Company; and Peter Huntsman, CEO of Huntsman.

At the World Petrochemical Conference 2023, held in Houston last month, Larry Tan, a consultant with S&P Global Commodity Insights, delivered a presentation about the propylene market. Producers are building too much capacity, Tan said—some 11 propane dehydrogenation projects were opening in a single year—and profitability would be meager in 2023.

But prospects should start turning around in 2024, Tan predicted. “All this is conditioned on there being no black swan event,” he said, using the term for an unexpected scenario that upends expectations. “We have seen over the past couple of years—let’s call it what it is: we have been under attack by a squadron of swans.”

Tan’s talk, in a session toward the end of the conference, wasn’t meant to be a keynote address, but it did nail down one of the event’s main themes: the chemical industry, like the broader economy, has been beleaguered by obstacles and setbacks. Another theme was the industry’s aim to turn one of those obstacles, the public’s demand for better environmental performance, into a robust business.

Among recent obstacles and setbacks, the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the globe in 2020. A rebound in 2021 precipitated a shipping crisis that clogged the flow of goods. Countries posted their highest inflation rates in decades.

Then, just over a year ago, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove up oil and gas prices, shutting down about a quarter of Europe’s chemical capacity. And in recent weeks, the US government had to head off a financial meltdown by bailing out Silicon Valley Bank and other shaky financial institutions.

You can’t have brownouts and blackouts when you run the equipment that we run.
Jim Fitterling, CEO, Dow

Coming out of this difficult period, the chemical industry is planning for the long term. Executives from some regions, notably Europe and Japan, fretted about competitiveness. But the biggest theme was sustainability. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions and plastic waste was the subject of most of the talks from consultants and company executives.

BASF, the world’s largest chemical maker, was hit directly by the run-up in gas prices. Its flagship site in Ludwigshafen, Germany, uses as much natural gas as all of Switzerland. At the conference, the firm’s chairman, Martin Brudermüller, said economic recovery as the pandemic eased helped set financial records for the company in the first half of 2022, while the subsequent energy price spike and demand slowdown made the fourth quarter its worst quarter since 2008. BASF managed to reduce its gas consumption by 30%—largely by idling plants.

Brudermüller is concerned about Europe’s future in chemicals. Even though natural gas prices have retreated from the peaks seen last year, they are still six times as high as they are in the US. This makes it impossible for European firms to compete in gas-guzzling sectors like ammonia.

“It will have structural effects. Some energy-intensive production, not only in the chemical industry but other industries, will go down in Europe and will not be replaced,” Brudermüller said. “So Europe has to think about what are the future industries and what we put our bets on in terms of building new industries.”

Jean-Marc Gilson, CEO of Mitsubishi Chemical Group, shared similar concerns about Japan. He said his company’s specialty chemical units, which sell into markets like food and electronics, have struggled recently but will “bounce back.” The same can’t be said for the firm’s petrochemical business. “Energy prices combined with the weaker yen is really hammering the industry,” Gilson said.

In 2021, Mitsubishi announced that it was exiting petrochemicals. The US and Middle East, with their petroleum wealth, will increasingly have an advantage. But Gilson said that the situation will get “tougher and tougher” for petrochemical makers in Japan—a nation that, like Europe, has limited access to hydrocarbons. “It’s forcing consolidation in Japan because four or five players can’t survive there,” he added.

Carbon emission considerations are indeed adding cost and complexity to chemical projects, said Mark Eramo, senior vice president for fuels, chemicals, and resource solutions at S&P Global Commodity Insights. When planning new projects, chemical companies have always had to consider variables such as access to energy and feedstocks, proximity to markets, and production technology. Executives must now consider “the carbon management strategies that need to be put in place,” Eramo said.

The industry is starting to come to terms with the price of carbon management. Eramo presented a case study of an integrated refinery and petrochemical complex that S&P modeled in the Middle East. A 16% increase in capital expenditures would be needed to achieve a 34% decrease in carbon emissions. The additional costs would reduce pretax profits from the complex by 39%. To offset this decline, the developer would require tax incentives or a “low-carbon” premium of about 9% on products made at the complex.

Dow CEO Jim Fitterling profiled a couple of his favored methods for reducing CO2 emissions. One is carbon capture and storage (CCS). In Alberta, Dow is building the world’s first ethylene cracker to employ CCS to reach net-zero emissions. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and its incentives for CCS will create a wave of similar projects in the US, Fitterling predicted.

“The progress that we’ll make in the next decade, 2 decades, on hydrogen and carbon capture will be enormous in reducing CO2 emissions,” he said.

A photo of Tony Potter, a consultant with S&P Global Commodity Insights and Bruce Chinn, CEO of ChevronPhillips Chemical at the world Petrochemical conference 2023.
Credit: Barron & Barron Photography, S&P
Tony Potter (left), a consultant with S&P Global Commodity Insights, talks sustainability with Bruce Chinn, CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical at the World Petrochemical Conference 2023.

Fitterling also wants to bring back nuclear energy. In what might prove to be an industry first, Dow is working with X-energy to install one of that company’s modular nuclear reactors at a Dow facility on the US Gulf Coast to supply electricity and steam.

The Dow CEO finds nuclear power’s consistency appealing, especially compared with more intermittent sources of energy such as wind and solar.

“You can’t have brownouts and blackouts when you run the equipment that we run,” said Fitterling, who is intrigued by the potential scalability of nuclear power. “You could put a cluster of those small reactors on the site and take the entire site to net zero,” he added.

In contrast to the business-minded ideas floated at the conference, Huntsman CEO Peter Huntsman railed at what he sees as frivolous thinking about sustainability. “This whole energy transition that’s going on, whether it’s from an investor point of view, political point of view, scientific point of view, a societal point of view, it’s largely off track,” he said.

For example, Huntsman bemoaned activist and policy maker hostility to hydrocarbons, as they are needed to produce energy-saving materials like epoxy resin for windmill blades or polyurethane foam for insulating attics.

Huntsman ridiculed as “nonsense” ideas such as a project to build solar-powered water electrolyzers in Namibia and ship the resulting hydrogen to Europe.

For the petrochemical companies that produce polymers, circularity is just as important as carbon management. LyondellBasell Industries, for example, recently founded a circular business unit. The company aims to establish a complex in Cologne, Germany, that will integrate mechanical polymer recycling with its new catalytic plastics pyrolysis process.

Ken Lane, executive vice president of olefins and polymers for LyondellBasell, told the audience that such a holistic approach will be essential for plastics makers. “We want to transition to a lower carbon footprint for manufacturing our products, but let’s face it, our products are carbon, and the value of that carbon is going to continue to be there for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Lane estimated that the demand for recycled and renewable plastics will be enormous, potentially 15 million metric tons (t) per year by 2030. But the challenge for the industry will be ramping up to meet that demand. In addition to more recycling capacity, he said, better collection of waste plastic is needed. Otherwise, industry won’t be able to close the gap between supply and demand.

Bruce Chinn, CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical, had a similar message. His company aims to produce 450,000 t of recycled resins per year by the end of the decade. To do that, it is working with the Atlanta-based plastics pyrolysis firm Nexus Circular to acquire feedstocks. “The next few years will be a critical window for action because that will set the stage,” Chinn said.

Boosting production significantly will require collaboration between industry, regulators, waste collectors, and even product designers. “It’s a team sport,” Chinn said. “We really have to have everybody, all entities involved, to create a circular economy.”


This story was updated on April 14, 2023, to correctly spell the name of the CEO of Petrochemical Industries Company. It is Nadia Bader Al-Hajji, not Nadia Badrer Al-Hajji.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.