Balancing jobs and the environment

Comments Email Print

Some readers will disagree with this, but the business climate in the United States has been pretty good the past few years. Consider fracking, for example.

Coming out of the recession, most communities have been eager to do just about anything to support local jobs. Hollywood may be worried about fracking. But in places like Ohio, money and jobs have trumped concern about pollution and earthquakes.

Yes, we’ve seen places around the country that have banned hydraulic fracturing. But that’s mostly been in places without rich shale gas reserves.

In much of the nation’s midsection, fracking has been a lifeline to small communities that were dying.

Is that about to change? Recent headlines hint that it’s possible. But I think the November elections suggest we’re still in a pro-jobs, pro-energy political climate. And that’s important to the plastics industry, now that more new U.S. resin plants, fueled by inexpensive natural gas feedstocks, move forward around the country.

Consider Shell Chemicals’ plan to build a massive plastics and petrochemicals plant in Potter Township, Pa., about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. On Jan. 18, the Township Supervisors voted to allow the project to move ahead, approving a conditional use permit for the plant.

A week earlier, the board held a hearing on the issue that stretched late into the evening. I watched a video of the meeting, and I saw many residents and opponents pushing for the project to be delayed or scrapped.

It reminded me of my days covering city council and school board meetings for daily newspapers. Usually those meetings are pretty dry (lots of “motions” and “seconds,” with little debate). But every once in a while a controversial issue comes up and angry people jam the meeting rooms, ready to debate topics like closing their neighborhood elementary school or banning a book from the library.

(One of the most entertaining of my news career was a city council hearing before a vote banning topless dancing. But I digress…)

Anyway, that scene was exactly what happened at the Potter Township hearing. Maybe you consider it American democracy in action. Maybe you think it’s just another case of NIMBY (“not in my backyard.”) All the citizens’ comments were against the Shell project. And I don’t blame those residents for being concerned. I’d be worried if someone wanted to build a petrochemicals plant in my neighborhood, too.

At the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to move ahead — generating lots of negative reaction from the audience.

Now fast forward to last week: The vote was in favor of the project at the Jan. 18 meeting, too. But there was one significant difference. According to local news reports, this time the room was lined with citizens in favor of the project. Many had nicely printed placards that said “Family supporting jobs for Beaver County” and “Environmentally responsible growth.”

No doubt they’re inspired by local business interests, and by the economic opportunity that the plant represents. Shell estimates the plant will support 6,000 jobs during construction, and it will have 600 workers when it’s operational.

So, in this case, and for now at least, the scale tipped in favor of jobs.

Meanwhile, another community 1,500 miles away is having a similar debate. ExxonMobil Chemical and Saudi Basic Industries Corp. are planning a $10 billion plastics and chemicals plant near Corpus Christi, Texas.

On Jan. 17, the local school board had a hearing about a tax abatement for the project. According to news reports, at least 40 protestors came to the meeting. Some wore air pollution masks and matching T-shirts that said “Portland Citizens United.” A smaller group wore “United for Growth” shirts made by the local chamber of commerce.

The number of jobs in Texas is similar to the Shell project in Pennsylvania: up to 11,000 during construction, and 600 permanent positions.

This is a question that’s going to be asked again and again in communities all over the country in the next few years. According to the American Chemistry Council, which applauded the Potter Township move, 281 chemical projects valued at $170 billion have been announced to date, and about half have been completed or are under construction.

Will jobs trump concerns about the environment in Texas, too? I suspect that it will. Residents are doing their civic duty to question how these projects will impact the local community and the environment, and to hold the companies responsible for making sure they’re operated as cleanly and safely as possible.

That’s also the job of the state and federal authorities who eventually will be responsible for regulating these projects. Based on the November election results, I don’t expect either of those parties to be constructing roadblocks to the new polyethylene projects.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.