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Business Group Again Touting Petrochemical Benefits of Appalachian Basin

A group of business leaders from the Appalachian Basin on Tuesday unveiled a study it commissioned that shows the region has significant advantages for ethylene cracker projects compared to the Gulf Coast, including low-cost feedstock and market proximity.

The group, which was formed to brand the Mid-Ohio Valley in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania as Shale Crescent USA, has been working since 2016 to attract global attention and top energy-consuming businesses. It unveiled the study during another appearance at IHS Markit’s World Petrochemical Conference in Houston to raise more awareness about what Appalachia can offer the industry.

The study, conducted by IHS Markit, found that ethane costs are 32% lower in the Shale Crescent region, compared to the Gulf Coast. More important it said, polyethylene, the manufactured pellets used to make a variety of plastics, cost 23% less to deliver from Appalachia compared to the Gulf. Royal Dutch Shell plc has said that about 70% of the North American polyethylene market is within a 700-mile radius of the ethane cracker it is constructing in western Pennsylvania.

Based on an initial plant investment of $3 billion, the study found that over a 20-year period from 2020-2040, a petrochemical project in the Shale Crescent region would generate $11.5 billion of pre-tax cash flow, or $3.6 billion more than the $7.9 billion created by a similar Gulf Coast project.

“The financial advantages for a Shale Crescent USA project are robust under different feedstock price scenarios, even when considering a range of capital costs and operating rate conditions,” said author Ron Whitfield, who is IHS Markit vice president of applied economics.  “This ultimately leads to lower delivered costs of polyethylene…”

Shell’s facility would consume about 100,000 b/d of ethane to make ethylene and polyethylene. PTT Global Chemical pcl also plans to make a final investment decision later this year on a similarly sized facility that it wants to build in Belmont County, OH. While the companies have not revealed a price tag for the plants, it is estimated that they will cost about $5-6 billion each. Other crackers also have been proposed for the region.

While Shale Crescent has its work cut out for it in competing with the Gulf Coast, a region that is witnessing a massive petrochemical expansion with several facilities in various stages of development in Texas and Louisiana, the group’s representatives have acknowledged that Appalachia can’t overtake the Gulf Coast petrochemical sector.

Instead, Shale Crescent said the two regions can complement one another, with the Northeast suited to manufacture more domestic petrochemical supplies and the Gulf Coast focused on a growing exports market.

Indeed, slightly more than half of all U.S. refinery capacity is on the Gulf Coast, according to the Energy Information Administration. The region also provides about two-thirds of the nation’s petrochemicals for use in plastics and other manufacturing.

“This report challenges conventional wisdom and corroborates the decision by several international energy companies that have already selected our region as the location for major, multi-billion dollar projects,” said Shale Crescent spokesman Jerry James, who also serves as president of Ohio-based Artex Oil Co. “Our message to any other companies that are considering similar investments either here in the United States or internationally, is that the Shale Crescent USA region offers unparalleled advantages for petrochemical manufacturing and is open for business.”

Since Shell announced in 2016 that it would move forward with a cracker, local, state and federal officials have stepped up their efforts to overcome a variety of challenges they see standing in the way of petrochemical growth in Appalachia. Land for large manufacturing operations must be identified, a major storage hub for natural gas liquids, which the region lacks, is considered key, and a workforce must be developed to compete with the Gulf Coast, which has distinct advantages with regard to construction and labor costs. 

Another Pennsylvania-commissioned study was released last year showing that the Appalachian Basin is uniquely positioned to compete in the global petrochemicals market. That study, which was also conducted by IHS, found that there’s enough ethane available in the basin to support up to four more crackers in addition to Shell’s facility. 

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