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The Top Stories of 2020: Pandemic Delays PTT Project Indefinitely

File Photo – Local leaders and national Energy Department officials tour the site of a proposed ethane cracker plant at Dilles Bottom in August.

DILLES BOTTOM — At the outset of 2020, it appeared the Ohio Valley might finally receive the news that PTT Global Chemical America was ready to commit to building an ethane cracker plant in southern Belmont County.

For more than five years, the company has been investing in property, permitting, engineering and design work, and site development for the proposed petrochemical complex, and all signs pointed to an official announcement being made in July.

However, as it became clear that COVID-19 would become a major pandemic and PTTGCA’s partner, Daelim Chemical USA, withdrew from the project, its future became less certain.

Despite securing the necessary permits from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency more than a year ago, PTTGCA has made little forward progress on the planned facility since the global disease outbreak began.

And those permits have failed to convince opponents of the development that it will not degrade local air and water quality or have negative health impacts on area residents.

Members of those local and national activist groups have remained vocal in their opposition, and in some cases they have filed court actions in an effort to halt the development.

The cracker plant would “crack,” or break apart, ethane molecules from the local natural gas stream to produce feedstock for plastics manufacturers and other petrochemical products. It would do so inside massive furnaces heated by natural gas. Ethane is a “natural gas liquid” that is found in abundance “wet” in the natural gas stream pumped from the Utica and Marcellus shales that lie beneath Eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia.

In February, PTTGCA and Daelim responded to those concerns, saying they are committed to address the threats of climate change and the proliferation of single-use plastics. They pointed to their efforts to protect the environment in their respective home countries of Thailand and South Korea.

In April, the firms reiterated their commitment to the project, saying that the pandemic was slowing it down. Its impact on international travel, for example, was complicating efforts to secure the needed financing, they said.

Although a summertime announcement concerning a final investment decision was expected, on May 31 PTTGCA instead announced a new timeline for the FID — saying the decision would be delayed for another six to nine months. It said site work was continuing but that efforts to protect the health and safety of employees and stakeholders must take priority.

By mid-July, Daelim announced that it was withdrawing from the project, citing COVID-19 and volatility of oil prices and the petrochemical market as factors in its decision. PTTGCA responded that the project remained a “top priority” and that the company was already seeking a new investment partner for the project.

Before the month was out, PTTGCA announced it had struck an agreement with Mountaineer NGL Storage to provide some infrastructure and feedstock for the proposed cracker. Mountaineer would store about 1.5 million barrels of ethane in underground caverns about 8 miles from the plant site and transport it to the facility via pipeline.

Another agreement was struck in September with Range Resources Appalachia LLC to provide feedstock for the plant. That arrangement calls for Range to provide 15,000 barrels of ethane per day.

Mark W. Menezes, the new U.S. deputy secretary of energy, chose to make Belmont County his first official stop in that capacity. He participated in an August roundtable discussion with company and local government leaders about the future of the project before visiting its proposed site along the Ohio River where the former FirstEnergy R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant once stood.

In November, however, plans for the ethane cracker were delayed again — this time indefinitely.

Columbus, Ohio-based PTTGCA spokesman Dan Williamson said plans to announce the FID in the first quarter of 2021 were no longer realistic, mainly due to the ongoing pandemic and its impact on the global economy. Although the Bangkok Post reported that CEO Auttapol Rerkpiboon said the victory of President-elect Joe Biden and uncertainties about his future energy policies were factors in the delay, Williamson said the CEO’s comments in that interview were “misconstrued.” He noted that Biden was vice president when the project was initiated and said project leaders were not discouraged by the results of the election, blaming COVID-19 as the biggest obstacle to its progress.

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