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The PTTGC cracker retreats further into mystery

Once upon a time, the headline, “Cubs Favored to Make World Series Next Year!” appeared annually in a Chicago newspaper, which regular readers understood was the paper’s way of reporting that, in the current season, the woeful Cubs had yet again been statistically eliminated from the pennant race.

Something like that same spirit pervades news coverage given to the much talked about, but never realized ethane cracker plant proposed in Belmont County, Ohio. In its most recent iteration, news that the cracker’s sponsor, the Thai oil company PTT Global Chemical, had allowed an air quality permit to lapse due to the company’s failure to begin construction or even announce its intention to do so, was transformed into headlines reading, “PTT is keeping its Ohio project alive” and “Modified Air Permit Sought for Proposed Ethane Cracker Plant”. This despite the company having neither submitted an application for a new permit nor taken any other action to maintain the project.

The difference between the Cubs’ headline and the PTT headlines is that the former was written tongue-in-cheek while the latter were written with complete credulity … a credulity that also seemed to prevent reporters from asking what should have been obvious questions such as, “When does the company plan to submit its new application?” and “Will the new application be for the same project design or for a new one?”

The question about whether there will be a new project design arises because, in announcing its intention to allow the old air permit to lapse and submit a new application, PTT also stated that the new permit would, “… be consistent with the ambitious environmental protection goal announced last year by GC, PTTGCA’s Thai-based parent company. GC announced in October it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030 and achieve a net-zero emissions goal by 2050 in order to fight climate change.”

Does this mean that the original project design was not consistent with the company’s new emission reduction goals? Does it mean that the new application will be for a less polluting facility or one that is nearly emission-free? That possibility was raised last October in a Times Leader story, which reported that, “… (PTT) GC is exploring new possibilities in carbon capture and storage technologies that will be used in the local project if a final investment decision is reached.”

First it should be pointed out that the technology mentioned in the story, carbon capture and sequestration, is still developmental and years away from commercial viability.

Moreover, CCS would do little if anything to abate the proposed plant’s other forms of localized pollution or the considerable upstream damage caused by fracking. But the most bizarre aspect of this pollyannish speculation about an emission-free cracker is the concept’s financial absurdity.

For at least seven years, since the proposed cracker was first discussed, PTTGC and its partners (two have come and gone) have been unable to make the economics work. Hence the company’s repeated failures to meet many self-imposed deadlines for a final investment decision. Adding carbon capture technology would increase the capital cost of the project by well over $1 billion and would significantly reduce the plant’s operating efficiency. That means the proposed plant’s cost to produce ethylene and polyethylene would be much greater than its competitors’. In short, if PTTGC couldn’t make the proposed project’s finances work before measures to reduce emissions were considered, it will be even less able to do so when they are.

The costliness of CCS is also relevant to the larger issue of recent proposals to construct CCS-based carbon and hydrogen hubs in the region. Even if the massive pipeline networks that sit at the center of these envisioned hubs were constructed, their expected users — power plants, manufacturing facilities, and other emitters of carbon — would still have no incentive to take on the added cost of implementing CCS and using the networks unless they could be certain that their competitors would also have to do so as well. That would require some kind of government mandate and it would result in major price increases for many of the products and services produced by these plants. For instance, a recent ORVI analysis found that implementing CCS in the nation’s remaining coal and gas power plants would more than double their cost to generate electricity and would cause the average residential electric bill to go up by nearly $300 per year nationally. In states whose electric systems are very heavily dependent on coal, such as West Virginia, the increase would be more than $600 per year.

In any case, that’s all far in the future and, if we make the facts known, it’s unlikely to happen at all. Meanwhile, here in the present, as we continue to deal with the proposed PTTGC cracker, It’s good to remember that demise of previous ethane crackers that were proposed for the Ohio Valley, such as the ASCENT project in Wood County, West Virginia and the so-called “Baby Cracker” in Monroe County, Ohio, haven’t been marked by dramatic announcements. Instead, they just gradually faded from the scene and from consciousness.

Seven years in, the proposed Belmont County cracker has taken more than a few steps down that path and in time it may vanish from consciousness as well. But a decision by PTTGC to go forward can’t be completely discounted. Nor can the possibility that PTTGC could pivot and propose another, more financially viable but equally polluting kind of project for the site.

In that case, continued, aggressive advocacy will be all the more important.

O’Leary is a researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, an independent, nonprofit think tank. It was founded in 2020 and focuses on the Ohio River Valley and western Pennsylvania.

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