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Economist: Shale gas could spell renewed success for plastics producers

By: Rachel Abbey McCafferty
CRAIN’S CLEVELAND BUSINESS

June 21, 2013

CLEVELAND — Shale field in Ohio and other states could spell renewed success for chemical and plastics manufacturers, Kevin Swift, chief economist and managing director for the American Chemistry Council, told audience members during a conference in Cleveland on Tuesday.

Swift called the increase of available natural gas due to hydraulic fracturing operations in the shale regions the biggest development in his industry in 70 years, predicting that it would lead to new investments and job growth.

"It's been a game changer," Swift said.

The "Shale Gas Promises and Challenges" conference was sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering and hosted by Case Western Reserve University.

The session Swift was part of took a decidedly positive view of shale gas and fracking. Representatives of the industrial and chemical sectors discussed how low-cost natural gas has led to lower energy costs overall for manufacturers.

But chemical manufacturers also use natural gas for raw materials, helping them realize even more savings. Swift predicted that the United States would have a big trade surplus in plastic resins by the end of the decade, going as far as to say he thinks the chemical surplus will be great enough to offset the country's deficit in pharmaceuticals.

The American Chemistry council released a study in May supporting Swift's claims. According to the study, there were almost 100 chemical industry investments in the United States from 2010 through March 2013, totaling close to $72 billion. Many of those investments have come from companies outside the United States, which the study cites as a sign of the "value and affordability" of the country's shale and ethane gas supplies.

It's an exciting time to be in the chemical manufacturing industry, which was not the case 10 years ago, Swift said. Now, the industry is growing and has a "promising future," he said.

Chad Moutray, chief economist with the National Association of Manufacturers, said all manufacturers benefit from less expensive energy, and that he advises people to wait a few years before judging the number of jobs added. Projects take a while to get off the ground, and he thinks that despite recent delays, long-term growth potential is still promising.