Plans for a multi-billion dollar ethane cracker in West Virginia are once again uncertain, as Braskem SA confirmed late Wednesday that it has hired a financial adviser to evaluate strategic alternatives for a nearly 400 acre site it owns in the state.
Braskem America spokesperson Stacy Torpey said the company is exploring its options for the property along the Ohio River where plans for a large cracker were announced in 2013. She said the company has received a “number of recent inquiries” about the site, prompting the company to consider a possible sale.
The project, announced by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration, was to include three polyethylene plants, water treatment infrastructure and a power plant. But it has faced persistent delays since it was announced. In 2015, Braskem said it was putting plans for the facility on hold pending further project analysis amid a severe commodities downturn that roiled the oil and gas industry.
Rumors of the cracker’s demise again began to swirl in recent days, culminating on Tuesday, when Mike Graney, executive director of the West Virginia Development Office, reportedly told lawmakers that Braskem had indicated it would not build the plant. He told state lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development that Braskem is “quietly marketing the property and that the property is for sale,” said Delegate John Kelly, co-chair of the committee.
“It’s a big deal…that’s something we’ve been pretty hopeful for for development for sometime,” Kelly, who represents Wood County where the property is located, told NGI on Wednesday. “But it’s been dragging on and on, and there hasn’t been a lot of activity. There’s been some rumors and denial of rumors as to whether it was going to proceed or not. But there really hasn’t been much activity on it.
“At least if they’re not going” to build it, “they’re trying to market it to other folks who would have a similar interest in it,” he added.
A state Commerce Department spokesman referred questions to Allentown, PA-based McGowan Corporate Real Estate Advisors. Braskem said it would have no further comment at this time.
TopLine Analytics’ Tom Gellrich, founder of the Philadelphia-based consultancy that is focused on downstream development, said Braskem’s parent company Odebrecht SA has faced trouble that likely impacted the West Virginia project. Gellrich said many in the petrochemical industry thought Braskem would be sold, but when a deal fell through, the cracker’s prospects dimmed.
Plans for the facility were complicated further when conglomerate Odebrecht was embroiled in a corruption probe involving Brazilian oil giant Petroleo Brasileiro SA, aka Petrobras. Odebrecht agreed with U.S. authorities in 2016 to pay billions in international fines for its role in a bribery scandal involving politicians and other officials to secure contracts with Petrobras.
LyondellBasell confirmed in June that talks with Odebrecht to buy Braskem had ended, stating that only after “careful consideration” did management decide “not to pursue the transaction.” Odebrecht, Braskem’s controlling shareholder, had been counting partly on a sale of the company to resolve debt issues created by the corruption charges. It filed for bankruptcy protection last month.
“Now the question becomes how does Odebrecht and its various subsidiaries come up with the money to pay these fines?” Gellrich told NGI. “They have no options” even in bankruptcy. “So, what’s going to happen with Braskem? This is very interesting. And Braskem is getting rid of some of its assets, and I suppose they will sell their rights to the land they were going to build the cracker on.”
Gellrich, who once worked as a petrochemical executive for ExxonMobil Corp. and Total SA, which over a decade ago spun-off global chemical company Arkema, said Braskem could still be sold. He said the company is more attractive than some of Odebrecht’s other holdings because of its international profile.
In the meantime, there’s still likely to be interest in the West Virginia site from other chemical manufacturers. For decades, the Braskem-owned property in Washington, WV, near Parkersburg has been home to chemical plants once operated by GE Plastics and Borg Warner Chemicals. Most recently, Saudi Basic Industries Corp., aka SABIC, had operations there.
“The property is probably one of the best shovel-ready sites that we have anywhere along the Ohio River,” Kelly said of a corridor pocked with brownfield sites that is being marketed for energy development. The site has highway access, barge loading facilities, rail infrastructure and can easily tap the electric grid.
“I think it’s a marketable site, and if Braskem doesn’t do something there, I think somebody else is going to do something there,” Kelly said. “And from what I understand, there might be some interest in the property already.”
While PTT Global Chemical pcl (PTTGC) and Royal Dutch Shell plc are further along with their Appalachian ethane cracker projects, and as polyethylene and other petrochemical exports are poised to boom with a buildout on the Gulf Coast, Gellrich said it might not appear that there’s room for another plant in the Northeast. But he noted that the basin has advantages that could still be attractive to a buyer.
Low-cost feedstock, shipping advantages, cheap energy prices and geographical benefits are all things that have attracted Shell and PTTGC to the region, Gellrich said. Shell is currently building a multi-billion dollar ethane cracker in western Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, PTTGC is thought to be close to a positive final investment decision for a large cracker in southeast Ohio as it continues to make progress on a site there.
“Shell and PTTGC, and potentially others at the Braskem site, are in an interesting position,” Gellrich said. “They can sell to the local market.” Shell has said that although the bulk of refining capacity is on the Gulf Coast, 70% of the nation’s polyethylene consumers are within 700 miles of the Mid-Ohio Valley, a region that includes parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Business manager Nathan Lord of Shale Crescent USA, which was formed three years ago to better market the region for energy development, said Appalachia can support up to four more crackers in addition to Shell’s facility, “as far as the supply of ethane is concerned.” He was referring to a study commissioned by Pennsylvania that showed the region is ripe for petrochemical development.
Smaller-scale ethane crackers that also have been proposed for Appalachia have been on the backburner for years, failing to gain any traction since they were announced. Even still, Lord told NGI that the larger Braskem site could ultimately attract a buyer.
“Does that mean it’s going to happen? Certainly not,” he said, “but when you look at the economics and the opportunities, it makes sense to build future crackers here.”