Massive Petrochemical Investments Could Lock In Flood of New Plastics for Decades
The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) just launched an ongoing investigative series, Fueling Plastics, examining the deep linkages between the fossil fuels and plastics industries and the products they produce, and exposing how the U.S. shale gas boom fuels a massive buildout of plastics infrastructure in the United States and beyond. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and the release of air pollutants and toxic substances from petrochemical facilities across the Gulf region, these reports shed new light on the harmful impacts of fossil fuels at every stage of their lifecycle.
Fossils, Plastics, and Petrochemical Feedstocks outlines the role of fossil fuels in plastics production, detailing how over 99 percent of plastics are produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. Because fossil fuel production is highly localized to specific areas, plastics production is also concentrated in specific regions where fossil fuel development is present, especially in the US Gulf Coast. Because plastics production is part of the fossil fuels supply chain, many fossil fuel companies own plastics producers and many plastics companies own fossil fuel operations.
“Fossil fuels and plastics are not only made from the same materials, they are made by the same companies,” says Steven Feit, Staff Attorney at CIEL. “Exxon is both the gas in your car and the plastic in your water bottle.” If trends in oil consumption and plastics production continue as expected, plastics will account for 20% of total oil consumption by 2050.
How Fracked Gas, Cheap Oil, and Unburnable Coal are Driving the Plastics Boom warns of the enormous influx of investment to expand or construct new petrochemical facilities in the Gulf. The availability of cheap shale gas in the United States is fueling a massive wave of new investments in plastics infrastructure in the US and abroad, with $164 billion planned for 264 new facilities or expansion projects in the US alone, and spurring further investment in Europe and beyond. In as little as five years, these investments could increase global plastics production capacity by a third, driving companies to produce ever greater volumes of plastics for years to come. In so doing, this wave of investment increases pollution risks to frontline communities throughout the plastics supply chain and directly undermines efforts by cities, countries, and the global community to combat the growing plastics crisis.
“Many projects, including the largest, are still in the construction or planning stages,” continues Feit. “If they succeed in attracting investment to build all these new facilities, a new generation of cheap plastics will flood markets around the world, exposing frontline communities to toxic risks and the world’s rivers and oceans to an endless stream of plastic waste.”
“There is no question that the plastic pollution crisis has become a pervasive and pernicious global problem threatening the integrity of the global commons, if not life itself,” says Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic Movement. “It is the ugly twin of climate change – both are spawned, perpetuated, and buttressed by fossil fuel interests. The way out of both crises is to reduce our reliance and dependence on fossil fuels – and that means applying the brakes on the reckless, devil-may-care expansion of the petrochemical industry in the United States and in other countries.”
The release of these papers coincides with a joint statement by more than 135 organizations highlighting the toxic links between fossil fuels, plastics, and climate change exposed by Hurricane Harvey. The groups demand that recovery and redevelopment efforts remedy the systemic failures that led to Hurricane Harvey, not serve as an excuse to accelerate fossil fuel and plastics infrastructure in the Gulf. “The continued rapid expansion of plastics production and related natural gas production not only creates more toxic hazards, plastic-related pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, but also ensures that continued climate change will make extreme weather events more likely and even more dangerous,” the groups state.
“Hurricane Harvey demonstrated the danger of building such concentrated petrochemical capacity in the Gulf,” says Feit. “Industry’s plans to double down on those dangers is unconscionable.”