Even as more signs emerge that the natural gas bubble is heading for a colossal bust, Exxon Mobil shale gas is officially a thing. The company plunged into the shale gas market in 2010 with the acquisition of XTO Energy and weirdly enough, the recent drop in gas prices only seems to have whetted its appetite for more. Rumors are flying that Exxon Mobil is set to buy out mega-giant shale gas developer Chesapeake Energy, and in the mean time Exxon Mobil has announced that it will expand its Baytown, Texas chemical facility to convert natural gas to polyethylene, the world’s most common plastic.
It might look like the decision-makers at Exxon Mobil are off their collective rockers, but it seems to us that they have an end game. As competition in the fuel market heats up from solar and wind energy, Exxon Mobil is tapping into a huge non-fuel market for natural gas with the Baytown gas-to-plastic expansion.
Polyethylene is perhaps best known for its use in plastic bottles, but it has many other applications including kitchen bags and wraps, industrial tubing and piping, and any number of plastic parts and products.
The Exxon Mobil Baytown Expansion
Though much better known for its oil activity and for its intense (and sometimes bizarre) lobbying against climate action, Exxon Mobil also happens to be the largest natural gas producer in the US. That’s even before the Chesapeake acquisition, assuming that happens.
Baytown, not coincidentally, is also already the largest refinery and integrated petrochemical operation in the US.
Exxon Mobil announced plans for the Baytown expansion last spring and expects the gas-to-plastic operation to be humming away by the end of 2016.
According to a report in Chron.com, the company’s natural gas assets were already the main driver behind the Baytown expansion last year, so if the Chesapeake acquisition goes through this year it will add more fuel to an already hot fire.
The Chesapeake Angle
Chesapeake is notorious in its own right. Its long trail of financial troubles has tilted a business media spotlight on the shale gas boom-turned-bust, leading to a great deal of frayed nerves among pension funds and other major investors, as noted by our friends over at Fuel Fix.
Just yesterday, Fuel Fix noted that top investor Carl Icahn, who reportedly owns about ten percent of Chesapeake, is one of the shale gas investors pushing for a shakeup of the industry.
For Chesapeake, that seems to mean a sale is in the works. As recently as last month, the Dallas Business Journal (bizjournals.com) reported that Icahn is seeking a cash bid for Chesapeake, with Exxon Mobil among the short list of potential buyers.
Exxon Mobil Shale Gas
All of this activity is taking place against a backdrop of increasing public attention to natural gas in general, and shale gas in particular, due to the controversial shale drilling method called fracking (short for hydrofracturing).
We’ve previously noted that natural gas has been vigorously promoted as a cleaner alternative to oil or coal in terms of global warming emissions, which has gone a long way toward creating a favorable public image for natural gas as fuel.
Also helping things along to a significant degree is an exemption to the Clean Water Act that then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a former oil industry executive, won for the fracking industry during the Bush Administration.
Fracking is a drilling method that involves injecting a chemical brine deep underground. It involves massive quantities of water and contaminated wastewater, so it would seem to be an imperative for disclosure regulations under the Clean Water Act, but due to the Cheney loophole the industry has been insulated from public reaction to the contaminants it is introducing into local environments.
Fugitive emissions refers to the unintentional release of natural gas all along the lifecycle, from drilling and transportation on up to storage and distribution.
Since the primary component of natural gas is the powerful greenhouse gas methane, that’s a huge issue, and evidence is beginning to emerge any earth-friendliness that natural gas can claim compared to other fossil fuels is at least counterbalanced, if not entirely overwhelmed, by fugitive emissions.
The fugitive emissions issue is bad enough when applied to natural gas as a fuel but at least in that sector, natural gas can truthfully claim that it involves far less greenhouse gas emissions than oil or coal when burned. That’s an especially important point in its favor when you consider the new generation of highly efficient “combined cycle” gas-fired power plants.
However, when you get into gas-to-plastics, then you have to consider the emergence of bioplastics and other earth friendly alternatives including renewable biogas from human wastewater.
In that context, the advantages of fossil natural gas, especially fracked gas, completely disappear and the controversy over fracking is bound to create even more uncertainty in an already shaky market.
Hey, don’t trust me, trust Fox News. That network’s Sacramento affiliate covered the massive anti-fracking rally in California last weekend and heaped attention on the protesters at the expense of the fracking industry.
I dunno, maybe the folks at Exxon Mobil really are off their rockers. However, Exxon Mobil shale gas is a thing that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future, so maybe we all need to consider that gas-to-plastics thing when we buy our next plastic bottle.
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