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As Shell studies plant project, Beaver County officials wait with hope

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

No news is good news for everyone hoping oil giant Shell builds a petrochemical plant in Beaver County.

State, business and local officials said on Wednesday that they have not hit any stumbling blocks and have had only positive interactions with Shell executives in meetings in recent weeks and months. Shell leaders met with state officials two weeks ago and lauded them for their help and the support from local people, said C. Alan Walker, secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

“I think they've liked everything they've seen about Pennsylvania,” Walker said after speaking at a gas industry research conference on Wednesday in Cecil. “I haven't heard any negatives.”

The project is 85-90 percent likely to happen, said Gene Pash, who runs an 80-acre business park in Ambridge from his New York offices. His real estate company is preparing for a flood of new companies to come from out of state if Shell fulfills its commitment to build the plant in Center and Potter townships, an announcement that could come early in 2013, he said.

“We do feel it's not a done deal, but it has a high potential,” said Pash, president of Value Ambridge Properties Inc., which owns Ambridge Regional Distribution & Manufacturing Center. “Every month that goes by where they don't say, ‘No,' takes it up another 5 percent.”

“It's premature to start talking in percentages,” Shell spokeswoman Kimberly Windon said. “We've had good conversations with officials, but we still need to confirm the suitability of the site.”

Company executives are evaluating everything from the supply of ethane that will feed the plant to state permits, customers, engineering plans and global competitiveness, she added.

The global company's chemical arm has a land deal with Horsehead Corp. and could build a plant to process ethane into raw plastic on the industrial site after the zinc company moves in 2014. The project would take several years and billions of dollars to build, employing as many as 10,000 construction workers and then 400 full-time workers, according to company and expert estimates.

State leaders and industry experts have touted the plant's spinoff potential, likely to generate billions of dollars of local spending and thousands more full-time jobs at gas companies that supply the plant, plastic companies that work with its products and other potential business partners. Shell is doing due diligence to decide whether and how big to build, and that now includes scouting for potential customers within 500 miles, Pash said.

Some experts have questioned the project, noting competition from similar projects on the Gulf Coast that are further along than Shell's. Other experts and Pennsylvania boosters claim the region's supply of shale gas and its expert labor and construction force will help the project happen.

The company has environmental advisers and engineers working constantly at the Horsehead site on the Ohio River even as the zinc smelter operates, County Commissioner Joe Spanik said. Local officials have met with a steady stream of Shell executives from Texas, Europe and even Asia visiting the site, they said.

Most of the meetings have been informational, they said. The next step is to get details on the site's footprint, so local elected officials can vote to approve a tax-free zone the state offered Shell, locals said.

“We're just in the watchful waiting mode right now,” Commissioner Tony Amadio said. “I feel good. We also feel things are progressing, moving forward each and every time we meet with them.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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