The Shell cracker plant rendering for Beaver County location

Cracker plant activity is likely to reduce retail vacancies and provide incremental benefits to mom-and-pop businesses, gas stations and grocery stores. According to Hurley, southwestern PA has already benefitted as a result of increased parking lot, hotel and restaurant revenue. In the long-term, he adds, “Local police forces will benefit, and school districts will finally have money to cover costs and fund projects that have been delayed.”

Commissioner Egley concurs. “Our region should be on the short list for businesses looking to build or relocate.”

Patty Horavitch of Shell
Patty Horavitch of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance

Patty Horavitch is the VP of business development for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA), the marketing arm of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. Since 2011, she has served as a conduit between regional interests and Shell. During her on-site visits to cracker plant facilities in Louisiana and Texas, she has had the opportunity to speak with employees, residents and other stakeholders. “We wanted to hear what Shell is doing right and what issues needed to be corrected. The feedback,” she says, “was extremely positive.”

According to Horavitch, Shell has proactively engaged the local community in discussions since 2012. “Participation has been very good,” she notes, “especially when the environment has been the topic of discussion.”

Commissioner Egley also voices confidence in Shell’s efforts. “Throughout the process, Shell has demonstrated its commitment to safety, environment, and community, and I am confident that they will maintain their commitment throughout the construction process and daily operations.”

Balancing the Environmental Scale

While environmental interests might poke some holes in what they believe to be inflated job estimates and economic benefits, they spend much more time calling attention to their environmental concerns. Most are adamant that the cracker plant is one more black mark on what they believe is the region’s poor track record of industrial pollution. Joe Minott, executive director and chief council for the non-profit Clean Air Council, explains that his group is especially concerned about the chemical emissions that can result in ground-level smog, the type of pollution that will have the most direct impact on residents.

In response, Shell spokesperson Ray Fisher says, “Shell has received approval from environmental regulators from both state and federal governments,” adding that Shell will meet very stringent technology and emission standards through a series of engineering, technology and operational practices.

Minott notes that the cracker plant “is a very, very complex facility,” and that Shell is using top-quality equipment to control some forms of air pollution. His primary argument, however, is that Shell has not honored its good-faith agreement to include “fence-line monitoring” as part of its Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) state permit. Fence-line monitoring provides a real-time analysis of emissions that would allow residents to identify and respond accordingly when emissions are most likely to hold contaminants at eye level.

“I’m not sure why Shell has been less than willing to engage the local community in discussions about air quality,” says Minott. He places blame not only on Shell but on local elected officials who he says have been more interested in wooing the energy giant than in protecting residents. “The public should have been brought into the discussion before construction was discussed. There should have been dialogue, not only about the concerns but also about potential solutions.”

Dr. Illah Nourbakhsh of CREATE Lab, a passionate advocate for cleaner air.
Dr. Illah Nourbakhsh of CREATE Lab, a passionate advocate for cleaner air.

Giving voice to the community 

At Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab, directed by Illah R. Nourbakhsh, a professor at Robotics Institute, 30 engineers and researchers are working diligently to promote a world-changing application of data. Instead of using data to advance the objectives of policy makers, corporations and other business interests, Create Lab is helping members of the community become fluent in data analysis. According to Nourbakhsh, informed community members will be more prepared to sit across from industry experts and use their voices to influence balanced decision-making.

Nourbakhsh is passionate about the expansive and detrimental impact of air pollution on the environment. Using data collected from Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley over a period of time, the Create Lab team has been able to identify times when pollutants present an immediate health hazard. “On days when bad air is trapped close to the city,” explains Nourbakhsh, “we see evidence of same-day asthma attacks.”

Turning his attention to the area’s first cracker plant, he notes that during the process of making ethylene, two types of chemicals are emitted; both result in toxicity over time and are linked to COPD, heart disease, cancer, low birth rate and other diseases. The first are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The second are nitrogen oxides (NOx) that are front and center in the creation of air pollution. Ethylene furnaces like those at the Shell cracker plant represent one of the greatest obstacles to NOx reduction.

To visualize how much the cracker plant will contribute to degraded air quality due to NOX alone, Nourbakhsh uses relative terms: Shell’s cracker plants in Louisiana and Texas give off several thousand tons of NOx each year. An output of several thousand tons from a single facility will double NOx output across the MON Valley. “The burdens on the environment will be immediate,” he says, “but the ramifications on our health and environment will not be visible for 5, 10 or more years.”

In response, Fisher says only that the proposed facility “is designed to have the lowest achievable emission rates for VOCs and NOx.”

Like other environmental voices, Nourbakhsh does not discount the economic value of the cracker plant or the region’s desire for job creation. As he sees it, politicians are hesitant to fight upstream against potential economic gain and job growth, and corporations are bound by loyalty to their shareholders. “Sometimes,” he notes, “the cost of doing what is right is more than the cost of paying fines for non-compliance.” Create Lab’s mission is to counter this resistance. “Success,” he says, “lies in a strong community voice backed by data.”

Renewable energy as part of the equation 

Some environmental interests are frustrated by tax subsidies that continue to benefit fossil fuel giants like Shell. “Pennsylvania offers no subsidies for renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind and water,” says Sharon Pillar, consultant to the Solar Unified Network of Western PA. “We were a leader in 2004, but now we are lagging behind, and the blame rests solely in the laps of policy makers.”

PA employs 66,000 people in the clean energy sector. That number sounds impressive until it is compared to Massachusetts, a state with half the population but 50% more clean energy jobs. “Investing in clean energy is a win-win,” says Pillar, “because it delivers economic and job gains while responsibly addressing immediate and long-term environmental concerns.”

She agrees that the region’s existing manufacturing infrastructure is one reason that energy companies are drawn to the region. She wonders, however, why that focus remains on fossil fuel. “The clean energy sector is growing rapidly. If we would get on the bandwagon, we could use our manufacturing infrastructure to win clean energy projects.”

Fisher says that Shell is interested in renewable energy. “Shell does invest in commercial hydrogen, biofuels, wind and solar projects. We see the potential for material scale and upside in new energies,” he says, “and we plan to continue the exploration and development of opportunities in that area.”

The Intersection of Economy and Environment

Interestingly, neither side of the cracker plant debate seems intent on mudslinging. Cracker plant proponents might appear singular in their focus on economic and job growth, but they do not discount the potential of air quality concerns. Environmental voices throw fault at the feet of government officials and policy makers, but they do not refute the economic benefits of the cracker plant and its downstream opportunities.

“We’re dealing with the collision between the economic goals of a company and the environmental concerns of the community,” says Nourbakhsh.

Today’s common ground doesn’t seem sufficient to satisfy all stakeholders, but Nourbakhsh points out that southwestern PA is a region in transition. He sees a future where Pittsburgh sets a precedent by combining an agile manufacturing infrastructure with the future of energy. “It will be hard,” he predicts, “but the result will be a resilient region that makes the future.”

A solution that satisfies all? “It is a dream,” says Nourbakhsh, “but it is the right dream.”

I love to write about the manufacturing, tech, and startup sectors; there are great stories to tell, especially in Pittsburgh.

In the past year, I have become a spokesperson on the issue of domestic violence: publishing a book, joining the board of Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence; and speaking on occasion to high school and college students, as well as community groups. A passion fulfilled!