Monaca, Pa. — Shell Chemical believes it's found the future of the polyethylene resin market on the banks of the Ohio River outside of Pittsburgh.
That's where Shell is building a massive petrochemicals complex that will use ethane from shale gas produced in the Marcellus and Utica basins to make around 3.5 billion pounds of PE resin per year. The complex will include four processing units, an ethane cracker and three PE units.
The project, located on 386 acres in Monaca, will be the first U.S. petrochemicals project built outside of the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana in several decades. Production is expected to begin in the early 2020s.
"I've worked in the industry for years and I've never seen anything like it," business integration lead Michael Marr told Plastics News on a recent visit to Monaca.
More than 6,000 workers were at the site in early October. Most of the workers are from the Pittsburgh area, Marr said, but some of those in skilled trades like electricians, welders and pipefitters have been brought in from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Buffalo, N.Y., and beyond.
Shell selected the site in early 2012, with construction beginning in late 2017. Marr said the Monaca site was chosen not only for its access to shale gas deposits, but because of its access to a major riverway and interstate highways.
Some major pieces of equipment needed for the plant, including a 285-foot cooling tower, have been brought in on the Ohio River. "You can't bring some of these parts in on rail or truck," Marr said.
Shell removed an entire hillside — 7.2 million cubic yards of dirt — to create enough flat land for the complex. The site previously was used for zinc processing by Horsehead Corp., and the infrastructure that was already in place for that plant "gave us a head start on the footprint," Marr added.
The ethane that Shell will convert into ethylene and then into PE resin will be brought in from Shell shale operations in Washington County, Pa., and Cadiz, Ohio. Annual ethylene production capacity at the site will exceed 3 billion pounds.
Most of the PE resin made at the site will be sold into the U.S. market.
"Seventy percent of U.S. polyethylene converters are with within 700 miles of the plant," Marr said. "That's a lot of places where we can sell into pipe and coatings and films and other products."
Many North American PE makers have opened major new facilities on the U.S. Gulf Coast in the last several years in order to take advantage of low-priced shale feedstock. Shell officials have said that their project's location in Appalachia will give it advantages in shipping and delivery times over locations in Texas and Louisiana.
Shell officials have said that 80 percent of the parts and labor for the massive project are coming from the United States.
They also estimate that 80 percent of its economic benefit will be in the United States.