Indiana Gazette - RANDY WELLS
The Shell Chemical Appalachia Ethane Cracker Plant, still years away from operation, will be about 65 miles west of Indiana, but Indiana County can have a share in supplying the thousands of professionals and skilled tradesmen needed to build and operate the facility, according to natural gas and petrochemical industry experts who spoke Friday at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The Indiana County Center for Economic Operations brought the panel together to discuss how Indiana County can benefit from the cracker plant and other downstream and manufacturing opportunities anticipated because of an abundant supply of relatively cheap natural gas.
Dr. Nate McElroy, an IUP chemistry professor and analytical chemist, told the audience at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex that cracker plants use extreme pressure and heat to break larger molecules into smaller molecules. The cracker plant to be built in Potter and Center townships of Beaver County will take liquid derived from the ethane gas captured in the Marcellus shale formation and use it to create polyethylene pellets, which in turn will be used in manufacturing plastics.
“We are on top of the largest natural gas field in North America,” Craig Neal, vice president of operations for CNX Gas Company, a subsidiary of CONSOL Energy, said. He added that companies in southwest Pennsylvania have the ability to drill for the gas and capture it at lower costs than elsewhere in the nation. The abundant, low-priced gas will contribute to businesses ramping up, he said.
Discussion moderator Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said southwest Pennsylvania was one of three regions that led the country out of the 2008 recession, and the energy sector then, too, was a driver of job creation.
David Rupersberger, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, said Shell chose Beaver County as the site for the new cracker plant because it is within 700 miles of 70 percent of its customers, and the 1,200-acre flat parcel of land there is near river, rail and highway transportation systems.
But, he said, Shell also wanted assurances that a regional workforce pool of about 40,000 lived within a one-hour drive of the site and would be available to help build the plant.
David Brocious, director of business development and membership of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said construction of the cracker plant will require many professionals, such as engineers, project managers and safety specialists, but also skilled tradesmen, including boilermakers, electricians, carpenters, heavy equipment operators and crane operators.
“It’s a very diverse, wide workforce that’s needed,” Neal agreed.
It is projected that between 2,000 and 6,000 workers will be required annually to build the Beaver County cracker plant, and then 600 permanent operational positions will be created there.
Construction of the plant is expected to start in the fourth quarter of 2017, and production of polyethylene pellets there is not anticipated until 2022.
Neal said some industry officials believe the southwest Pennsylvania region can support two more cracker plants of the same capacity as the Beaver County facility.
Flanagan asked the panel what might get in the way of southwest Pennsylvania’s economic resurgence through abundant natural gas.
Taxes and regulatory policies must be handled carefully, Brocious answered. “There are other shale plays (in the nation) that are competing for capital. … Getting the economic equation right” will be important, he said.
Joe Bozada, CEO of Environmental Service Labs and Environmental Land Surveying & Solutions, said insufficient pipeline capacity to move the abundant gas could also pose a challenge.
However, the panel members agreed a pipeline construction boom could also create more employment opportunities.
The discussion several times touched on the types of education today’s students should be receiving to prepare them for coming jobs in the natural gas and petrochemical industries.
Neal said opportunities for STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education are extremely important.
Brocious said today’s students should not perceive the natural gas industry as “a bunch of rough-neck wildcatters.”
“It’s a very technologically advanced industry,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of science and technology involved.”
But, he added, there’s also a wide range of skilled labor that’s needed.
PHOTO: Participating in a panel discussion Friday on the impact of a proposed cracker plant in Beaver County were, from left, Nate McElroy, an IUP chemistry professor; Craig Neal, vice president of operations for CNX Gas; and Joe Bozada, CEO of Environmental Services Laboratories. (Tom Peel/Gazette)