Sunoco Pipeline Projects In the News

It’s Time We Stop Missing the Point About the Mariner East Pipes

Marcellus Drilling News
Jan. 4, 2018

[Earlier this year] the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection suspended all work on the Mariner East 2 NGL Pipeline project. The project has been vigorously opposed by antis in the greater Philadelphia area from the beginning. Their opposition stems from a deeper philosophical preference to end the use of fossil fuels.

Last September, Marcellus Drilling News editor Jim Willis had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Garland Thompson at the Shale Insight event in Pittsburgh. Garland, who lives in Philly, has written for the Career Communications Group of publications, including US Black Engineer & Information Technology, Hispanic Engineer & IT, and their siblings Woman of Color and Science Spectrum, for many years. He’s covered the shale revolution for those publications since 2008–before MDN began writing about it! Jim had an interesting conversation with Garland, about the need to educate folks, particularly the folks in the greater Philly area, about the benefits of pipelines.

Garland has written a great opinion piece pointing out that opposition to the Mariner East pipelines (plural) is misguided and shortsighted. Garland builds a case for why everyone in the Philly region should want to see these important projects get built…

By Garland L. Thompson
The distressing news that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has, yet again, ordered a halt to all work on the all-but-finished Mariner East pipeline should disquiet many people in the Tri-State Region, and not just those employed in the construction business. That’s because this transmission line, like its nascent sibling Mariner East 2x, carries with it the potential for enormous industrial growth in the Delaware Valley. And it is long past time we in the Keystone State recognized where our industrial future really lies.

It’s hard for many Southeast Pennsylvanians to see that these days, in the storm and clash of arguments by environmental activists seeking to “keep it (oil and gas) in the ground,” buttressed by scientific-sounding reports by other activists claiming harm to everyone’s drinking water, air, and even the meat from hunters’ prized game animals, but the kind of truthful, unbiased reporting we once took for granted from local media outlets is sorely lacking if those bogus reports come from official-sounding sources. Never mind if the hard truth that the researchers peddling those less-than scientific pronouncements later see their methodologies challenged and their claimed results thoroughly debunked.

The headline of the hour seems to support the opponents, and “Big Oil” is not to be trusted anyway, right? Here’s the deal too many in the Delaware Valley are missing: This region where so many of us live, work and are building careers needs new industry to support its growth, and the potential to supercharge such growth is at hand. Several recent developments, properly considered, should open many eyes.

Item One, Governor Tom Wolf’s release of the Team Pennsylvania Foundation report (found here at on the potential for petrochemical industry growth in the Commonwealth, prompted by Shell Chemical’s decision to build the Northeast’s first-ever ethane “steam cracker” at Monaca, north of Pittsburgh, should have drawn major attention in engineering and business circles all over the Southeast Region. Why? Because, among other things, it points out that the market for petrochemical products in the U.S. and Canada is so big there’s room for up to four more “crackers” to break down the ethane flowing out of Marcellus Shale gas wells in Southwest Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio and supply it to makers of plastics, synthetic fibers, and agricultural chemicals everywhere.

Up to now, those petrochemical feedstock customers, so many of whom are located around Chicago in the Midwest and, not incidentally, around Philadelphia, have been supplied by rail from the Gulf Coast. But because of so much Natural Gas Liquid bounty now is pouring out of the Marcellus and Utica shales, Shell Chemical saw big advantages to building a “cracker” plant closer to the customers, here and in Canada. Readers of that Team Pennsylvania Foundation report might have noticed that Shell plans to export some of its feedstock products to foreign buyers. And to do that, those products have to reach the Delaware River ports. At Shale Insight 2017 in Pittsburgh, Shell’s people said they planned to ship more by truck than by rail across the region, but it’s plain that rail transport makes more sense for loading ocean-going vessels.

Item Number Two came when the IHS Markit analysts who prepared that report, speaking at Shale Insight, argued that they saw no good prospects for adding a propane de-hydrogenator – a “cracker” for that other bountiful liquid flowing out of the shale wells – to the developing Northeast petrochemical industry mix. Observers in the audience could clearly see that this proposition made sense in the Ohio Valley, where most of IHS Markit’s attention was focused. But in the Delaware Valley, different conditions obtain. Recall that Braskem America, whose Trainer, PA, chemical plant uses propylene feedstock to make products for thermoplastic molding, anti-freeze and other uses, first made and then scrapped plans to spend $1 billion building a new de-hydrogenator next door at Marcus Hook, and chose instead to take its billion-dollar investment plan to Houston. Recall also that Sunoco, the builders of Mariner East pipelines and developer of the Marcus Hook Industrial Center, had held out hopes that another chemical firm might want to build a propylene feedstock-maker on the Industrial Center’s grounds instead.

And look at Item Three: A Dec. 21 notice on the “Seeking Alpha” investment newsletter site that the Canadian company Inter Pipeline has pulled the trigger on a four-year, $3.5-billion project to build our northern neighbor’s first-ever integrated propane de-hydrogenation and polypropylene complex, planning to “consume 22,000 barrels a day of local propane and convert it to 525 kilotonnes of polypropylene annually.” Charts accompanying Seeking Alpha’s report note that polypropylene is the world’s largest polymer, putting global demand at 67,000 kilotons per annum in 2016, and forecasting demand to increase 25 percent to 84,000 kilotons by 2021, three years from now.

Now look again at Sunoco’s plan to bring megatons of propane to Marcus Hook, where underground caverns already exist to hold industrial quantities of the natural gas liquids – ethane, propane and butane – that its pipelines, Mariner East 1, Mariner East 2 and 2x, are designed to bring to the Delaware Valley. According to the Team Pennsylvania Foundation’s well-researched report, 21 percent of the nation’s plastics makers are located in the Greater Philadelphia region, with almost all of the Commonwealth’s petrochemical feedstock users located within an hour’s truck-haul drive from the city.

Looking across the Delaware to New Jersey, it’s clear that plants as far north as BASF’s Linden facility might profitably be able to use petrochemical output from Delaware Valley “crackers” and propane de-hydrogenators. And looking south across the Delaware State Line, agricultural products makers such as the DuPont works now being sold to FMC and the plastic packaging maker now moving into the Wilmington area could also make profitable use of locally produced petrochemical feedstock as well. Inter Pipeline’s polypropylene complex, to be located in Alberta, is targeting feedstock users in the U.S. Midwest, and would incur shipping-cost and turnaround-time disadvantages trying to compete with feedstock-makers located in the Delaware Valley, who’d also see competitive advantages selling feedstocks overseas to plastics makers in Europe. That all depends on Sunoco’s completing the Mariner East pipeline system.

Shell Chemical’s decision to locate its ethane cracker in Allegheny County, near the Ohio Valley shale wells, makes entirely good sense, from this vantage. But just as well, it also makes eminent good sense for industrial leaders in Southeast Pennsylvania, who’ve been meeting regularly at Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce “Energy Hub” breakfasts and parleys such as its Nov. 28, 2017 “Mobilizing the Region” confab to explore “Transportation Strategies to Improve Greater Philadelphia Connectivity,” to recognize the advantages Mariner East brings to this region.

Time for them to get on the stick and make the business case for a fair regional share of the petrochemical industry growth possibilities envisaged in the Team Pennsylvania Foundation report’s projections. From this vantage, that more profitable, better future for Southeast Pennsylvanians and indeed, people and businesses all over the Delaware Valley, is there to be had. If we in this contentious, urbanized region can get our act together to move forward and grasp it.

— Garland L. Thompson, a longtime contributor to US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine, covers energy issues as part of his extensive reportage on technology developments.

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