The shale gas fracking revolution that began in the United States a decade ago has been one of the worst disasters for the environment since our Canadian friends figured out how to extract oil from the Alberta tar sands. The gas obtained has some benefits. When burned, it emits fewer carbon emissions than coal. And it is so cheap, it has undercut the price of coal, making coal-fired generating plants unprofitable.
But the list of benefits ends there. Fracking creates millions of gallons of highly toxic wastewater which is pumped back underground, putting aquifers that millions of people depend on for drinking water at risk. It causes earthquakes in the surrounding area and makes the water from many wells undrinkable. In some cases, the gunk coming out of people’s faucets is actually flammable. Lastly, fracking releases millions of tons of methane — a greenhouse gas 12 times more harmful than carbon dioxide — into the atmosphere.
Shale gas is the poster child for an economic system that assigns no costs to the harm done to people and the environment. Fracking companies are free to rape and pillage the land to their hearts’ content without paying one penny in compensation, just like coal companies and oil companies. The result is a grossly distorted system that privatizes all the profits and socializes all the costs.
Because shale gas is so inexpensive, it has become the preferred choice for making plastics. Hydrocarbons are hydrocarbons. The same basic chemistry that makes plastics from oil can also be modified to make them from shale gas. Of course, it can also make them from plants, but where’s the profit for fossil fuel companies from doing that?
The petrochemical companies have invested about $186 billion in 318 new facilities to turn shale gas into feedstocks for plastics since 2010, according to the American Chemistry Council. Half have already been completed, and the other half are in the planning stages. As a result, production of plastics is set to rise 40% from today’s levels over the next 10 years. And who is behind all that investment? The usual suspects when it comes to the fossil fuel industry — Exxon Mobil Chemicals and Shell Chemicals head the list.
Never mind that soon there will soon be more plastics in the world’s oceans than fish. Never mind that microplastics are now found in seafood grown in parts of the ocean previously thought to be pristine. Forget the beaches of uninhabited islands thousands of miles away from shipping lanes that are heaped high with discarded plastics. Pay no attention to the treehuggers who bemoan the ever mounting piles of discarded plastics that threaten to bury whole civilizations beneath them. There are profits to be made and shareholders whose interests are more important than human health or the environment.
“I can summarize [the boom in plastics facilities] in two words,” Kevin Swift, chief economist at the American Chemistry Council tells The Guardian. “Shale gas. There has been a revolution in the US with the shale gas technologies, with the fracking, the horizontal drilling. The cost of our raw material base has gone down by roughly two thirds.” You can almost see Mr. Swift rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of all that money waiting to me made. No moral qualms will be allowed to interfere with the business of squeezing profits from one of the most polluting industries on earth — what’s left of it.
Others are less enthusiastic. Steven Feit is a spokesperson for the Center for Environmental International Law, which has researched the impact of the US shale boom on plastics. “The link between the shale gas boom in the United States and the ongoing — and accelerating — global plastics crisis cannot be ignored,” he says. “In the US, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to expand plastic production capacity. All this buildout, if allowed to proceed, will flood the global market with even more disposable, unmanageable plastic for decades to come.”
While much of the new shale gas facilities are located in the United States, the feedstocks are now finding their way to other countries. Industry giant Ineos is shipping them to Europe and plans to being transporting them to a new petrochemical cracking facility in Taixing, China beginning in 2019.
Roland Geyer of the University of California – Santa Barbara, was the lead author of a study published earlier this year that found more than 8 billion tons of plastics have been produced since the 1950s and that the majority of them have ended up in landfills and the oceans. The report warned that because most plastics need hundreds of years to break down, there is a very real risk of “near-permanent contamination” of the earth as the total amount of plastics produced climbs to a projected 34 billion tons by 2050. “We are on this enormous growth trajectory. There is no end in sight of the rate of this growth,” Geyer tells The Guardian. He says even his colleagues are largely unaware of the “sheer dimensions” of the crisis.
“We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences that we will only find out about once it is too late,” Geyer adds. “I am now all but convinced that the plastic waste/pollution problem will remain unmanageable without serious source reduction efforts. Building out production capacity is obviously the opposite of source reduction.”
Not to worry, counsels Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council. He tells The Guardian with a straight face, “Advanced plastics enable us to do more with less in in almost every facet of life and commerce. From reducing packaging, to driving lighter cars, to living in more fuel efficient homes, plastics help us reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and waste.”
The Council, spouting the same excuses that are now commonplace in the Trumpian dystopia, says plastics are responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs and contribute to vital products from medical supplies to auto parts, piping, and technology. He neglects to mention that many plastics can be made from plant-based sources which result in bio-degradable products.
Tunnel vision is the overarching hallmark of American industry. If you can dump tons of manure onto your neighbor’s lawn without financial penalty, where’s the harm, especially if jobs are created as a result? Blinded by the lure of profits, people like Russell are incapable of recognizing the absurdity of their arguments.