After delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, construction crews have resumed work on the Pittsburgh region’s first ethylene cracker plant on the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County.
The plant will eventually benefit Pittsburgh International Airport, less than 15 miles away.
Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex in Potter Township, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, originally was targeted to open this year. That won’t happen after construction temporarily halted last March, when pandemic-related lockdowns went into place.
Work resumed at a reduced rate in April and has intensified since then.
“The chemicals project in Pennsylvania, of course, has had its challenges,” Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said in a recent earnings call. “But there we are back to almost a full complement on site.”
The plant, which van Beurden said in the earnings call was about 70 percent complete, will use low-cost ethane from shale gas producers in the Marcellus and Utica basins to produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene each year. Polyethylene is used in a range of products including food packaging and auto parts.
Shell decided to build the plant in the region for strategic reasons. According to the company, more than 70 percent of North American polyethylene customers are within a 700-mile radius of Pittsburgh. That could provide the company with a strategic advantage over Gulf Coast operators.
Shell expects to employ 600 people full-time at the plant, but Mark Anthony Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, expects the development to create many more jobs outside the facility.
“This is not just about petrochemicals,” he said. “What is happening there will send a much broader message about economic development for the entire region.”
Some of that development could occur at the airport. Businesses that support the plant could locate in the airport corridor, officials have said.
David Storer, director of business development at the Allegheny County Airport Authority, said the agency has a strategy in place to capitalize on development opportunities.
Additionally, airlines may also see passenger increases with additional traffic between Shell’s global headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, and Pittsburgh, as well as between domestic cities with energy company headquarters such as Dallas, Denver and Houston, the location of Shell’s U.S. headquarters.
Beaver County business officials believe the future also will be bright locally when the plant is operational.
“It’s very exciting for the county,” said Helen Kissick, president of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce. “We are thrilled to have the construction work happening now, and are looking forward to welcoming businesses that support the plant’s operations rather than its construction.”