President Donald Trump is showcasing growing efforts to capitalize on western Pennsylvania’s natural gas deposits by turning gas into plastics, as he tries to reinvigorate supporters in the manufacturing towns that helped him win the White House in 2016.
Trump arrived in Monaca, about 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh, on Tuesday to tour Shell’s soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex. The facility is being built in an area hungry for investment.
The focus is part of a continued push by the Trump administration to increase the economy’s dependence on fossil fuels in defiance of increasingly urgent warnings about climate change.
“This would have never happened without me and us,” Trump said, speaking to a crowd of thousands of workers building the site, dressed in fluorescent orange and yellow shirts and vests. In fact, Shell announced its plans to build the complex in 2012, when President Barack Obama was in office.
Trump’s appeals to blue-collar workers helped him win Beaver County, where the plant is located, by more than 18 percentage points in 2016, only to have voters turn to Democrats in 2018’s midterm elections. In one of a series of defeats that led to Republicans’ loss of the House, voters sent Democrat Conor Lamb to Congress after the prosperity promised by Trump’s tax cuts failed to materialize.
Today, Beaver County is still struggling to recover from the shuttering of steel plants in the 1980s that surged the unemployment rate to nearly 30%. Former mill towns like Aliquippa have seen their populations shrink, while Pittsburgh has lured major tech companies like Google and Uber, fueling an economic renaissance in a city that reliably votes Democratic.
The region’s natural gas deposits had been seen, for a time, as its new road to prosperity, with drilling in the Marcellus Shale reservoir transforming Pennsylvania into the nation’s No. 2 natural gas state. But drops in the price of oil and gas caused the initial jobs boom from fracking to fizzle, leading companies like Shell to turn instead to plastics and so-called cracker plants — named after the process in which molecules are broken down at high heat, turning fracked ethane gas into one of the precursors for plastic.
The company was given massive tax breaks to build the petrochemicals complex, along with a $10 million site development grant, with local politicians eager to accommodate a multibillion-dollar construction project.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump would be touring the plant and delivering remarks “touting his Administration’s economic accomplishments and support for America’s expanding domestic manufacturing and energy production.”
But “fracking for plastic” has drawn alarm from environmentalists and other activists, who warn of potential health and safety risks to nearby residents and bemoan the production of ever more plastic. There has been growing alarm over the sheer quantity of plastic on the planet, which has overwhelmed landfills, inundated bodies of water and permeated the deepest reaches of the ocean. Microplastics have also been found in the bodies of birds, fish, whales and people, with the health impacts largely unknown.
Trump defended the investment in plastics, claiming pollution in the ocean is “not our plastic.”
“It’s plastics that’s floating over in the ocean and the various oceans from other places,” he told reporters before boarding Air Force One.
A spokesman for the company, Ray Fisher, said Shell has “dedicated a great deal of time and resources” to ensure emissions from the plant meet or exceed local, state and federal requirements. “As designed, the project will actually help improve the local air shed as it relates to ozone and fine particulates,” he said.
A pro-fracking trade group said it would “applaud” the administration’s energy policies.
“Affordable, abundant, local natural gas is powering a Rust Belt revival, as the region looks to gain a competitive edge in attracting advanced manufacturing — and the good-paying jobs that come with it,” Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Spigelmyer said.
Republicans, who worry that Trump has failed to expand his voter base beyond his 2016 supporters, are eager to shift the focus from recent controversies to economic gains made on his watch.
The project currently has 5,000 construction workers. Once operational, however, the site will employ far fewer — 600 — permanent employees.
And the area still faces other headwinds. The nearby Beaver Valley Power Station, a nuclear plant that has employed 850 people, has announced plans to close in 2021. And the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, once the state’s largest coal-powered plant, announced Friday that it would close this fall, 19 months earlier than expected, at a cost of at least 200 jobs.
More importantly, the area lacks younger workers, with college graduates moving east to Pittsburgh for better opportunities. The median age in the county is now 44.9, compared with 32.9 in Pittsburgh.
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