Wanted: Ethane Cracker

The natural gas industry will take center stage in Charleston this week for the second annual “Marcellus 2 Manufacturing” conference at the Charleston Civic Center.

Scheduled conference speakers include West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette, American Chemistry Council Chief Executive Officer Cal Dooley, Executive Vice President of the American Petroleum Institute Marty Durbin, as well as numerous natural gas and oil industry leaders including Appalachian Resins Chief Executive Officer James Cutler. The conference is set for Wednesday and Thursday.

Appalachian Resins reportedly is planning a plastics plant/ethane cracker in Marshall County. The project, if constructed, could bring 125 permanent chemical jobs to the area.

Joe Eddy serves as chairman of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, which is the chief sponsor of the M2M conference.

He also is president and chief executive officer of Eagle Manufacturing in Wellsburg.

“It is my opinion that we have a better chance to have a smaller, regional ethane cracker built in West Virginia than Pennsylvania has of getting that Shell cracker,” said Eddy. “We are not talking about a multibillion-dollar platform. We feel confident we can get something that will allow us to keep the value of the ethane local.”

Global oil giant Shell announced plans last year to construct its ethane cracker at a site in Monaca, Pa. The company has yet to acquire the needed land for the facility.

Registration for the Charleston conference begins at 8 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday. The event is free for general attendance. There are more than 400 exhibitors signed up for the gathering.

The liquids-rich natural gas being extracted from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio makes the Upper Ohio Valley a prime location for an ethane cracker, according to industry officials. In addition to ethane, other natural gas liquids found in the Marcellus and Utica shale include propane, butane and pentane.

All of these elements must be stripped away from the dry methane natural gas at processing plants so the methane can be sold by utility companies. Because there is no ethane cracker in the Utica and Marcellus regions, some companies are now shipping the product for cracking at facilities in Canada or along the Gulf Coast. Others are simply burning it off via flaring.

Eddy said most of what would come out of the ethane cracker would be ethylene, the basis for the plastics industry.

This ethylene would then need to go to another plant that would further process it before this product could go to plastic companies.

This means that new plants and jobs would be created all along the way. He said the process could call for the following:

  • Companies such as Chesapeake Energy, Chevron or others would drill for and capture the natural gas and ethane.
  • Firms such as Williams Partners, Dominion and MarkWest Energy would separate the natural gas liquids from the methane and fractionate the ethane from the other liquids.
  • The ethane would then be sent to a cracker where it would be transformed into ethylene.
  • Those same companies that build the cracker – or other firms – could operate the plants to further process the ethylene into polyethylene.
  • Companies such as Eddy’s Eagle Manufacturing would take the polyethylene and turn it into plastic pipe, plastic containers, toys or other items.

“All of this can happen here if we get this cracker,” said Eddy.

If built in Marshall County, the ethane cracker would likely be somewhere along the Ohio River, as the petrochemical plant would then have easy access to the river, the CSX railroad lines and W.Va. 2 – as well as the steady supply of ethane coming from local Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas operations.

“The newfound abundance of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale is reinvigorating manufacturing. Significant progress has been made over the past year, and we now want to take it to the next level,” Eddy added.