Washington — The shale-gas fueled expansion of the North American plastics industry could be hurt by capacity problems in the U.S. transportation system, including within ports, rails and roads, according to a new report from the American Chemistry Council.
The March 1 report said plastics could be among the most impacted sectors. It notes that polyolefin capacity is projected to grow by 68 percent through 2021, and that a lot of that investment will be in places like the Gulf Coast, where transit networks are already congested.
“The U.S. business of chemistry is growing like never before, but limitations across all modes of transportation are getting in the way of fully realizing this American manufacturing success story,” said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of Washington-based ACC.
At a March 1 briefing in Washington, Dooley, lobbyists for the trucking industry and Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said they welcomed plans by the Trump administration and others in Washington to spend $1 trillion on new infrastructure.
“We're very encouraged that President Trump did talk about the need for a major infrastructure funding bill,” Dooley said. “What we're trying to do here with this study is help people connect the dots.”
The report, which surveyed 68 chemical manufacturers, reported significant worries in the industry about whether the Gulf Coast will be able to handle big increases in plastics shipments, particularly for export.
“The Gulf ports will be attractive for new exports, particularly for the polymer production coming online in that region,” the report said. “However, significant concerns persist over whether infrastructure in and around these ports (particularly in Houston), can support added volume.”
Dooley said half of the investment in manufacturing last year came in the chemical industry.
”We're looking at more than a doubling in the net balance of trade in chemicals by 2025, but there are some major impediments to that if we don't get the infrastructure in place,” he said.
According to the report, since 2010, 264 projects worth an estimated $161 billion have been announced in the chemical industry, which will create an estimated 426,000 new jobs.
Beyond polyolefins, that new investment includes a 43 percent increase in production capacity in other plastics by 2021.
But the report estimates significant extra costs for industry to handle the transportation bottlenecks.
It projects $29 billion in additional operating costs over 10 years for the chemical industry to cope with logistical inefficiencies, and another $23 billion in direct infrastructure investments that chemical companies will have to spend on their own transit infrastructure.
“That's money that could be invested in profitable new projects,” said Mark Lustig, one of the authors of the report and a principal in the chemical advisory practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which wrote the report for ACC.
Lustig also said chemical companies are projecting a doubling of the delays in rail shipments, from four to eight days.