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Pittsburgh aims to be a plastics industry hub

By: Jim Johnson

November 7, 2013

CHICAGO — Pittsburgh is known for many things. Three rivers. Six Super Bowl wins. Heinz 57 Varieties.

But Patty Horvatich, vice president of business development for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, hopes the Western Pennsylvania city and surrounding area gets to be known for one more thing.

Plastics.

With the explosion of oil and gas exploration and production in the region due to shale fracking technology, the alliance is looking to position the region as an integrated plastics industry hub.

The Pittsburgh metropolitan area, really for decades now, has worked to remake itself from the smoky steel-and-coal days when streetlights stayed on all day. Perception, to a great degree, has changed. But not completely. And plastics could help push the needle further along.

While the area already has more than 100 plastics-related companies employing more than 5,100 people, Horvatich sees the potential for so much more.

Sitting atop both Marcellus and Utica shale plays, the 10-county area represented by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, a non-profit marketing economic development effort, hopes to leverage the newly unlocked reserves into a growing plastics industry.

With exploration, production and transportation infrastructure in place, the economic developer now sees a future where plastics companies of all sorts will look to locate in the area. One key to the strategy is a proposed plastic feedstock plant in Monaca, Pa., by Shell Chemical LP.

The ethylene cracker would use ethane from local natural gas as a feedstock and serve as a lynchpin for future industry development.

"Very early on we recognized that with this natural resource, this is going to be an opportunity that we had to seize," Horvatich said. "We just couldn't wait for things to happen."

So Horvatich was at the Global Plastics Summit in Chicago talking up the region, the opportunities and the future. The summit was organized by the global information company IHS Inc. and trade association Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

"Once the ethane cracker comes, we feel there is a whole opportunity, it's not just an ethane cracker project, we're seeing it as an opportunity for a whole industry," Horvatich said.

While Shell already revealed the possibility of building an ethane cracker in the region, there also has been interest by other companies as well in similar development, she said.

"Modern day industrial revolution. That's exactly what it is. It's a game changer for us," Horvatich said. "We learned early on that we don't put all your eggs in one basket, hence, what happened in the steel industry. The steel industry is still very important to the Pittsburgh region.

"We diversified and we learned our lessons years ago and we've rebounded. We've weathered the recession much better than most areas," she said.

And sitting atop the second largest energy field in the world, only behind Saudi Arabia, certainly helps.

The plastics future Horvatich now envisions for the Pittsburgh region certainly wasn't clear even just 10 years ago, before the fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — unlocked the shale plays and revolutionized oil and gas production.

"You want to keep the value here and make sure it goes all the way through the value chain. You just don't want to just get it out of the ground, you have to keep it going," she said.