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Pollution potential of Beaver County plant sizable

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Thursday, June 19, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

A petrochemical plant and related operations that Royal Dutch Shell might build in Beaver County would have the potential to rank among the top 10 air polluters in an area struggling with federal limits, based on estimates in its application for a state air permit.

The company's estimate of the plant's potential to emit volatile organic compounds is nearly double what any nearby facility emitted in 2012, the latest data available from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“It is a big source with some pretty significant levels of pollutants,” said Joe Osborne, legal director for the Garfield-based Group Against Smog and Pollution, who met with Shell officials this week. “We're already struggling to meet ozone limits in this area.”

Potential emissions of carbon monoxide, fine particulates and carbon dioxide would put the multibillion-dollar ethane cracker among the top 10 in those categories, though observers note the plant's emissions could be lower than the estimates.

If Shell decides to build the complex in Center and Potter, it must meet heightened regulatory requirements and buy pollution credits from companies that closed plants or reduced air emissions. Those credits would offset emissions from the plant.

Nevertheless, Shell said it would use the latest technology and newest equipment to reduce pollution and its overall impact. That includes burning natural gas to produce its own electricity and steam.

“We are designing this to minimize emissions,” said company spokeswoman Kimberly Windon. “That's using a combination of design, engineering and operational controls, and focusing on energy efficiency.”

Shell outlined its proposed designs and emission controls in a 715-page application that provides a detailed overview of what it might build on the site of the former Horsehead Holding Corp. zinc smelter. The DEP this month began its technical review.

The plant's potential emissions of carbon monoxide and particulates are below those Horsehead's smelter produced, state records show.

“This would be a brand new plant with all new technology,” said Beaver County Commissioner Joe Spanik, who with other leaders visited two Shell chemical plants in Louisiana. “Hopefully that will keep (emissions) down to the lowest possible levels.”

State of the art

Analysts said the permit application outlines a state-of-the-art facility that would take ethane from natural gas from the Marcellus shale, crack it in furnaces to produce up to 1.5 million metric tons of ethylene each year, and then process that chemical into 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene, which companies use to make products ranging from diapers to bottles.

“That's more or less the standard size that we're seeing being built” on the Gulf Coast, said Russell Heinen, director of technology and analytics for the chemicals group at industry analyst IHS in Houston. “It looks like they're planning the best available technology.”

Like most new facilities, the Shell plant would use the gas from which it's harvesting ethane to fire its furnaces. It would use gas in a cogeneration plant to make electricity and steam. Stephen Zinger, head of America chemicals for analyst Wood Mackenzie, said that is less common but beneficial to Shell and its neighbors.

“They can make that electricity in a more environmentally clean way,” he said.

The company would sell excess electricity to the grid.

Credit check

If Shell decides to build, the 400-acre plant would start operating in 2018, according to its application. Shell needs the DEP to sign off on its plan to purchase emission reduction credits.

Companies establish credits for certain pollutants by closing plants that emit them or agreeing to lower limits in new permits. Those who want to open major sources of pollution such as the Shell plant must buy credits if they will emit certain substances, often at multiplied rates. The credits help ensure that companies do not exceed aggregate limits on pollution in some areas, and are intended to lower greenhouse gasses and mitigate climate change.

“They are not able to use them to violate any standard,” said Vince Brisini, the DEP's deputy secretary of waste, air, radiation and remediation. “We see these as suspenders on top of the lowest achievable emission rate. This is to make sure you are not going to exacerbate the problem.”

The state confirms the credits are valid, maintains a registry and approves plans to use them but does not monitor sale prices. Heinen said those credits have gotten expensive on the Gulf Coast, and Brisini said credits for fine particulates are sometimes in short supply in Pennsylvania.

Shell said it needs credits for nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile organic compounds. Windon said the company has not explored the market for credits.

Osborne identified those pollutants as some of the most worrisome for the region's air because they cause dangerous ozone.

Heinen and North Hills attorney Harry Klodowski said the emission numbers in Shell's application are not cause for concern.

“From having practiced air pollution law for 30 years, in general these numbers don't look too high,” Klodowski said.

David Conti is a Trib Total media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or

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