Trump pro­motes Shell plant that will turn gas into plas­tics

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jill Colvin and Josh Boak

MONACA, PENN­SYL­VA­NIA >> Try­ing to hold sup­port in the man­u­fac­tur­ing towns that helped him win the White House in 2016, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is show­cas­ing grow­ing ef­forts to cap­i­tal­ize on west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia’s nat­u­ral gas de­posits by turn­ing gas into plas­tics.

Trump ar­rived in Monaca, about 40 min­utes north of Pitts­burgh, on Tues­day to tour Shell’s soon-to-be com­pleted Penn­syl­va­nia Petro­chem­i­cals Com­plex. The facility, which crit­ics claim will be­come the largest air pol­luter in west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, is be­ing built in an area hun­gry for in­vest­ment.

The fo­cus is part of a con­tin­ued push by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to in­crease the econ­omy’s de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els in de­fi­ance of in­creas­ingly ur­gent warn­ings about cli­mate change. And it’s an em­brace of plas­tic at a time when the world is sound­ing alarms over its ubiq­uity and im­pact.

Trump’s ap­peals to bluecol­lar work­ers helped him win Beaver County, where the plant is lo­cated, by more than 18 per­cent­age points in 2016, only to have vot­ers turn to Democrats in 2018’s midterm elec­tions. In one of a se­ries of de­feats that led to Repub­li­cans’ loss of the House, vot­ers sent Demo­crat Conor Lamb to Congress af­ter

the pros­per­ity promised by Trump’s tax cuts failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize.

To­day, Beaver County is still strug­gling to re­cover from the shut­ter­ing of steel plants in the 1980s that surged the un­em­ploy­ment rate to nearly 30%. For­mer mill towns like Aliquippa have seen their pop­u­la­tions shrink, while Pitts­burgh has lured ma­jor tech com­pa­nies like Google and Uber, fu­el­ing an eco­nomic re­nais­sance in a city that re­li­ably votes Demo­cratic.

The re­gion’s nat­u­ral gas de­posits had been seen, for a time, as its new road to pros­per­ity, with drilling in the Mar­cel­lus Shale reser­voir trans­form­ing Penn­syl­va­nia into the na­tion’s No. 2 nat­u­ral gas state. But drops in the price of oil and gas caused the ini­tial jobs boom from frack­ing to fiz­zle, lead­ing com­pa­nies like Shell to turn in­stead to plas­tics and so-called cracker plants — named af­ter the process in which mol­e­cules are bro­ken down at high heat, turn­ing fracked eth­ane gas into one of the pre­cur­sors for plas­tic.

The com­pany was given mas­sive tax breaks to build the petro­chem­i­cals com­plex, along with a $10 mil­lion site de­vel­op­ment grant, with lo­cal politi­cians ea­ger to ac­com­mo­date a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar con­struc­tion project.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump would be tour­ing the plant and de­liv­er­ing re­marks “tout­ing his Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s eco­nomic ac­com­plish­ments and sup­port for Amer­ica’s ex­pand­ing do­mes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing and en­ergy pro­duc­tion.” Shell an­nounced its plans to build the com­plex in 2012, when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was in of­fice.

But “frack­ing for plas­tic” has drawn alarm from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and other ac­tivists, who warn of po­ten­tial health and safety risks to nearby res­i­dents and be­moan the pro­duc­tion of ever more plas­tic. There has been grow­ing alarm over the sheer quan­tity of plas­tic on the planet, which has over­whelmed land­fills, in­un­dated bod­ies of wa­ter and per­me­ated the deep­est reaches of the ocean. Mi­croplas­tics have also been found in the bod­ies of birds, fish, whales and peo­ple, with the health im­pacts largely un­known.

While many in town see the plant as an eco­nomic life­line, other lo­cal res­i­dents, com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions and pub­lic health ad­vo­cates are plan­ning a protest Tues­day to co­in­cide with Trump’s visit. Cheryl John­cox, a lo­cal or­ga­nizer with the Sierra Club who lives in Ohio, said she ex­pects sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple to at­tend to voice op­po­si­tion to the plant, as well as demon­strate against Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion and gun poli­cies.

In ad­di­tion to con­cerns about the safety of their air and ground­wa­ter, her group has heard from res­i­dents “dis­mayed these fa­cil­i­ties will cre­ate sin­gle-use plas­tic,” she said.

“Of all the things we could in­vest in, of all the things we should be pri­or­i­tiz­ing, of all the com­pa­nies we should be giv­ing our tax­payer money to, this seems like the worst of all worlds,” said David Ma­sur, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Pen­nEn­vi­ron­ment, a statewide environmen­tal ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, who called the project “a pretty big tax­payer boon­dog­gle for a pretty dirty project.”

A spokesman for the com­pany, Ray Fisher, said Shell has “ded­i­cated a great deal of time and re­sources” to en­sure emis­sions from the plant meet or ex­ceed lo­cal, state and fed­eral re­quire­ments. “As de­signed, the project will ac­tu­ally help im­prove the lo­cal air shed as it re­lates to ozone and fine par­tic­u­lates,” he said.

A pro-frack­ing trade group said it would “ap­plaud” the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­ergy poli­cies.

“Af­ford­able, abun­dant, lo­cal nat­u­ral gas is pow­er­ing a Rust Belt re­vival, as the re­gion looks to gain a com­pet­i­tive edge in at­tract­ing ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing — and the good-pay­ing jobs that come with it,” Mar­cel­lus Shale Coali­tion pres­i­dent David Spigelmyer said.

Repub­li­cans, who worry that Trump has failed to ex­pand his voter base be­yond his 2016 sup­port­ers, are ea­ger to shift the fo­cus from re­cent con­tro­ver­sies to eco­nomic gains made on his watch.

The project cur­rently has 5,000 con­struc­tion work­ers. Once op­er­a­tional, how­ever, the site will em­ploy far fewer — 600 — per­ma­nent em­ploy­ees.

And the area still faces other head­winds. The nearby Beaver Val­ley Power Sta­tion, a nu­clear plant that has em­ployed 850 peo­ple, has an­nounced plans to close in 2021. And the Bruce Mans­field Power Plant, once the state’s largest coalpow­ered plant, an­nounced Fri­day that it would close this fall, 19 months ear­lier than ex­pected, at a cost of at least 200 jobs.

More im­por­tantly, the area lacks younger work­ers, with col­lege grad­u­ates mov­ing east to Pitts­burgh for bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties. The me­dian age in the county is now 44.9, com­pared with 32.9 in Pitts­burgh.

EVAN VUCCI — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talks to re­porters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. Trump is show­cas­ing the grow­ing ef­fort to cap­i­tal­ize on west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia’s nat­u­ral gas de­posits by turn­ing gas into plas­tics.

SU­SAN WALSH— THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talks to the me­dia be­fore board­ing Air Force One at Mor­ris­town Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port in Mor­ris­town, N.J., Tues­day. Trump is head­ing to Monaca, Pa., about 40 min­utes north of Pitts­burgh, to tour Shell’s soon-to-be com­pleted Penn­syl­va­nia Petro­chem­i­cals Com­plex. The facility, which crit­ics claim will be­come the largest air pol­luter in west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, is be­ing built in an area hun­gry for in­vest­ment.

SU­SAN WALSH— THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talks to re­porters at Mor­ris­town Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port in Mor­ris­town, N.J., Tues­day.

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