Recently, President Donald Trump journeyed to a new petrochemical plant now under construction in Western Pennsylvania. The plant is designed to create plastic pellets from ethane, a byproduct of natural gas. The plastics plant is going to create about 600 permanent jobs, which would not only benefit the people of the area but also the president’s chances of winning the state again in the 2020 presidential election. The plant will also provide a market for Pennsylvania’s abundant natural gas deposits, accessed by fracking.
Naturally, environmentalists are appalled. Not only will the plant contribute to greenhouse gasses, which they say is causing damaging climate change, but also to plastic pollution, now choking the world’s oceans. However, according to a surprisingly balanced article on the plant in the New York Times, the matter is not that simple.
Spokespeople for Shell, the company that is going to operate the plastic plant, point out that plastic is used to create lighter parts for aircraft and automobiles, making them lighter and more fuel-efficient. Making vehicles more fuel-efficient will, in turn, cause them to emit less pollution, including greenhouse gasses. A scientific study of the phenomenon might suggest that more plastic parts in automobiles and aircraft might more than balance out the carbon dioxide that will be emitted by the plant.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, claim that the plant is making natural gas fracking more viable, thus delaying the production of renewable energy technology. However, the use of natural gas instead of coal has caused the carbon footprint on the United States to decline compared to the rest of the world. Carbon capture plants such as the one being tested in La Porte, Texas promises to make natural gas and perhaps even gasified coal into carbon-neutral technology.
Plastic pollution of the oceans is a much more vexing problem. However, much of the phenomenon is taking place in the Asian part of the Pacific Rim, where countries such as China and Vietnam have been quite careless about dumping used plastic into the ocean.
The United States has developed an extensive plastic collection infrastructure, where used products are collected and sent to recycling plants. The problem has been developing markets for recycled plastic, not in the production of the original product, something environmentalists tend to forget.
Environmentalists have also been impeding the construction of pipelines that would take ethane from the fracking fields to plants such as the one being built in Pennsylvania. They tout safety but fail to note that transporting the product by train or tanker trucks is even less safe. The suspicion is that these activists are more concerned about ending the fossil fuel industry and, by extension, every other industry that depends on it by fiat.
President Trump is not having any of it. He noted that the problem of plastics polluting the oceans comes from outside America, according to Fox News. He was more concerned with promoting jobs and economic development in a part of the country that, despite the fracking boom, has lacked both in recent years.
“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.”
Trump’s visit was touted as an official White House occasion. However, he did not avoid the opportunity to lay into some of his Democratic opponents, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both of whom not only want to take Pennsylvania away from the president in 2020 but who has also vowed to end the fossil fuel industry. “What a group. Pocahontas and Sleepy Joe. I don’t think they give a damn about western Pennsylvania,” he said.
The president thus revealed his strategy for holding onto and perhaps expanding the number of rust belt states he carried in 2016. His opponents don’t care about working-class Americans whom Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” and Barack Obama accused of “bitterly clinging to their God and their guns.” Trump is presenting himself as the champion of working people, the creator of jobs and economic growth. The political strategy, according to some analysts, could be a potent one.