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Shell starts up its plastics plant in Pennsylvania

The ethylene cracker is the first in the region to take advantage of cheap feedstock

by Rick Mullin
November 16, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 41


Photograph of a petrochemical plant.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Shell's ethylene cracker on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh is scaled to produce 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene annually.

Shell Chemical Appalachia, a subsidiary of Shell, says it has started operations at a world-scale ethylene cracker that has been under construction on the Ohio River near Monaca, Pennsylvania, since 2017.

The plant, designed to produce 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene annually, is the first major petrochemical venture to take advantage of low-cost feedstock from the Marcellus shale, an underground formation rich in natural gas that spreads from southern New York through Pennsylvania and into Ohio and West Virginia.

The project, with an initial price tag of $6 billion, was completed roughly on schedule. Shell says the plant, which is expected to be in full production by the second half of next year, will create 600 full-time positions. The company is expected to apply for a final Title V air permit covering full operations early next year.

Shell touts the plant as being located within an 1,100-km radius of 70% of the US polyethylene market. It will obtain much of its feedstock from regional hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has spread widely in recent years.

“With great market access, innovative offers and connected infrastructure, Shell Polymers Monaca is well positioned and ready to serve customers with high-quality, competitive products,” Huibert Vigeveno, Shell’s downstream director, says in a press release.

Industry enthusiasm for a more extensive petrochemical build-out in the region has cooled, however. A project in Ohio by PTT Global Chemical, the only other company to select a site for an ethylene cracker in the region, is on indefinite hold.

Shell has had a mixed reception by residents surrounding the 155-hectare facility. Many welcome an expected economic boost to the region. There is also organized opposition to the plant and associated fracking led by the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community (BCMAC).

Clifford Lau, a BCMAC board member and organizer of the group’s Eyes on Shell initiative, says members have complained to Shell and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about emissions emanating from the plant during its start-up preparation. In October, the Pennsylvania DEP issued Shell a notice of violation regarding emissions from flares on Sept. 18 that exceeded the emissions limit of 5 min in a 2 h period. Shell had reported the event to the DEP.

Residents in towns surrounding the plant are also concerned about an “orange glow” effect, according to Terrie Baumgardner, the Beaver County, Pennsylvania, outreach coordinator for the Clean Air Council and a member of the BCMAC board. “You can see from quite a distance out that there is an orange glow hanging over the Shell plant, and there has been a lot of discussion about what that is, whatever chemical emissions are creating that effect.”

Baumgardner says BCMAC presented a list of concerns to Shell regarding emergency preparedness, notification of emission and spill incidents, air monitoring, light pollution, and other issues. Shell referred the group to its website after the list was sent a second time, according to Baumgardner. “But they didn’t say where on their website,” she says. “We wrote back and asked where, and haven’t heard back from them.”


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