Import of fracking byproducts causes concerns in Europe

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Plans for a giant new plastic factory in Antwerp focus on the growing imports of by-products from fracking fields into the US by several European countries, at a time when the European Union wants to introduce far-reaching measures to reduce the amount of plastic waste and combat climate change.

The export of petrochemical by-products from the US to Europe coincides with an increasing global demand for plastic, which could further undermine European targets for reducing plastic waste and CO2 emissions.

Due to the extensive use of ‘hydraulic fracturing’, or fracking, in the US, in addition to petroleum and gas, a lot of ethane is extracted, an important ingredient for various types of plastic. The wide availability of the gas has already led to a strong expansion of plastic production in Texas, Louisiana, and Western Pennsylvania. According to the American Chemistry Council, nearly 350 fracking fields with a total value of more than $ 200 billion have been planned or completed in the US since 2010.

But the amount of ethane gas that comes up from the Earth in these projects is much larger than those factories can process, so fracking companies are selling more and more ethane at predatory prices to other countries. In 2016, a fleet of giant, purpose-built ships began shipping the gas across the Atlantic to plastic manufacturers in Belgium, Great Britain, Norway and Sweden.

The gas is processed in so-called’ steam crackers’, where the bonds between the ethane molecules are broken under high pressure and at temperatures of up to 875 degrees Celsius, so that the gas is formed ethene (ethylene). With the help of even more pressure and a catalyst, that ethene is converted into polyethylene, a widely used plastic.

Because steam cracking uses an enormous amount of energy, the CO2 emissions from this industrial process are considerable. This means that the expansion of plastic manufacturing has negative consequences for the climate, not to mention, of course, the contribution to the enormous amount of plastic that pollutes landscapes, waterways and world seas.

A report by, among others, the CIEL research and environmental group (Center for International Environmental Law) shows that global CO2 emissions from the steam cracking of ethane and nafta are as high as the emissions of 52 coal plants, and that the continued expansion of the plastics industry could increase that footprint to the equivalent of 69 coal plants in 2030.

“It makes no sense to invest in new fossil fuel-based refineries to produce even more plastic at a time when we are dealing with global warming and a global plastic crisis,” says Andy Gheorghiu, a German-based activist campaigning against the Antwerp plant. “In fact, both phenomena are part of one major crisis.”

The multinational INEOS, a petrochemical company that ships the ethane from the fracking fields in the US to Europe, plans to build a giant new steam cracker in Antwerp. According to industry analysts, the construction of the plant will double the ethane imports from the USA.

It is also the first time since the 1990s that a new steam cracker has been built in Europe. The plan has met opposition from environmental groups who are concerned about the pervasive role of plastic in everyday life and the global economy.

Belgian officials welcome the nearly three billion euro project, which would strengthen Antwerp’s position as the second most important petrochemical port in the world (after Houston in Texas). But environmental groups are much less enthusiastic, and in October 2020, the site for the intended plant was occupied by climate activists. In november, the felling of trees at the site was postponed by summary proceedings until all objections to the project have been dealt with, a process that could take a year.

Antwerp is already an important centre for the plastics industry, and the banks of the river Scheldt are littered with beads of raw plastic the size of lentils, which are called ‘nurdles’. It is estimated that in 2018 alone, two and a half tonnes of beads (many billions of pieces) were accidentally released into the environment in this area. Nurdles are very dangerous for marine life. ” They look like fish eggs, ” and birds and fish can eat them and die from them because they don’t eat other food anymore, says Tatiana Luján, lawyer at ClientEarth, an environmental group involved in the campaign against the project.

The Ineos factory would not produce ‘nurdles’, but the ethene from which they are made. The company points out that the new plant replaces older, less efficient steam crackers and that its construction is unlikely to lead to an increase in total plastic production in Europe. The improved efficiency means that the footprint of this steam cracker is only half that of the old squatters, says Ineos spokesperson Tom Crotty.

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