In 2008, my boss, C&EN editor in chief Rudy Baum, asked me to write the opening story for a special issue of the magazine devoted to sustainability. My piece laid out the chemical industry’s argument that while the industry had caused a lot of society’s environmental problems, it was also the source of many of the solutions.
Fifteen years later, we still have a lot of environmental problems. Plastic waste, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and chlorinated solvents are just a few products of the chemical industry that society is grappling with today.
Yet, more so than 15 years ago, there’s general agreement that our world’s most overarching environmental problem is the buildup of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Global warming was on the radar back then, and it was a problem that industry executives said they could address. But today, it dominates public discussion of the environment like no other topic.
Likewise, companies are talking about it—and seeking to make money from it—like never before. That fact became clear to me when I edited C&EN’s ranking of the top 50 US chemical producers. Researched and written by senior correspondent Alex Tullo, it appears on page 18 of this issue.
Alongside the eagerly awaited ranking, Tullo provides capsule summaries of major developments at 25 of the companies, compiled by scouring corporate websites, press releases, and annual reports. What’s remarkable is how often chemical companies’ efforts to decarbonize—lower their carbon dioxide footprint—feature in those capsules.
Dow was the biggest US chemical company in 2008, and it still is today. It is also taking some of the industry’s most audacious steps to decarbonize its business, including plans to build a modular nuclear reactor at a US site to provide carbon-free energy for cracking hydrocarbons and other chemical operations. In Alberta, Dow is building what it says will be the world’s first carbon-neutral ethylene cracker. It will heat the facility with hydrogen, rather than fossil fuels, and capture and sequester CO2 generated during the process.
Similarly, ExxonMobil, the number 2–ranked US chemical maker, is building a hydrogen plant at its Baytown, Texas, facility that will capture by-product CO2. It will use the hydrogen to make low-carbon ammonia and run other operations in Baytown. Air Products and CF Industries are also pursuing multibillion-dollar low-carbon hydrogen and ammonia projects on the US Gulf Coast.
Other companies are investing in plastics recycling, an effort they say addresses the plastic waste problem, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. For example, Eastman Chemical, number 10 in the ranking, is building three facilities that will use methanolysis to break down polyethylene terephthalate into raw materials that can be used to make new plastic.
When I talked with Dawn Rittenhouse, DuPont’s director of sustainable development, for the 2008 story, she said unapologetically that the goal of sustainability at DuPont is profits. Executives are no different today. In announcing the Alberta project, Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said the company’s goal for this decade is to reduce carbon emissions by 15% while increasing output by 20%. And Eastman expects to reap $450 million per year in pretax profits from its recycling projects.
Most of the world has hitched its wagon to capitalism, an economic system dominated by companies like those in the US top 50. And in that system, companies will always pursue profits, even as they claim to practice good environmental, social, and corporate governance, or ESG in corporate parlance.
It may be that corporations can help solve many of our environmental problems while making money. Still, they need robust oversight by regulatory agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency and the vigilant eyes of watchdog groups like Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund. We as journalists, chemists, and citizens also need to keep watch.
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