In late 2013, The Athens NEWS published several stories about plans for a major petrochemical plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, 32 miles east of Athens.

The project, an ethane cracker plant complex, raised substantial economic hopes and environmental fears.

Project ASCENT now appears on life support, with the company behind the plant, petrochemical producer Braskem, reportedly no longer interested in pursuing the project and instead marketing its 360-acre site along the Ohio River for sale. 

That’s a far cry from the reception the project received in late 2013 when West Virginia government and economic development leaders framed it as an economic game-changer of almost unprecedented scale. In a story in the Charleston Daily Mail on Nov. 14, 2013, then West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette declared that the ethane cracker project “represents the largest single industrial project in the history of the state of West Virginia.”

Another state official, then West Virginia Delegate Dan Poling, D-Wood County, told the Wheeling News-Register in a Nov. 15, 2013 article, “This is the biggest announcement we are ever going to have in this area as far as jobs. The whole economy of this area will change as this project goes forward… I think it is the greatest thing to ever happen to West Virginia.”

With Athens County so close to the proposed site, those economic benefits also likely would have accrued in this area and southeast Ohio in general, along with the potential for serious environmental damage.

People concerned about the environmental issues arising from a major ethane cracker facility along the Ohio River raised significant concerns about the proposed complex’s potential to increase water and air pollution in the Ohio River corridor. Athens area anti-fracking advocates also voiced concerns that having the cracker plant so close might finally spur the deep-shale fracking/oil and gas development – and its associated environmental hazards – that had yet to come to Athens County (and still hasn’t made an appearance six years later). 

According to an article in the Parkersburg News & Sentinel on July 25, West Virginia Development Office Executive Director Mike Graney indicated in a legislative committee meeting two days before that Braskem no longer plans to build the cracker plant and related facilities and is now marketing the property.

“It’s my understanding that Braskem is not prepared to move forward on the cracker plant,” Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood said Wednesday (according to the News & Sentinel). “They’re just not going to be able to do it.”

The same article, however, quoted Keith Burdette, president of the Polymer Alliance Zone and former West Virginia commerce secretary (whose glowing quote in 2013 about the ethane cracker plant project appears earlier in this article), as suggesting the project might not be dead yet.

The $4 billion Project ASCENT (Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise) was announced in November 2013 at a ceremony attended by the West Virginia governor and various state and local officials. The 360-acre SABIC property at Washington Bottom near Parkersburg was purchased in 2014. Brazil-based Odebrecht was developing the project, with affiliated company Braskem America tabbed to operate it.

The Washington Bottom industrial site is about three miles as the crow flies from Athens County’s eastern border, and six miles northeast of Hockingport. To get an idea of where it’s located, think of the big industrial park just across the Ohio River from the stretch of Ohio Rt. 7 just southwest of the new U.S. Rt. 50 bridge that crosses to Parkersburg.

After 2013, project developers took a number of steps in pursuit of permits, including environmental studies, and according to the Parkersburg News and Sentinel article, “secured ethane supplies and arranged for some of the technology that would be used in the facilities.” 

Subsequent fluctuations in the natural-gas market prompted a reassessment of the project, though state officials still hoped it would proceed.

In 2016, according to the article, Braskem indicated it would continue with the project, even after Odebrecht withdrew.

The apparently dead-in-the-water Parkersburg cracker complex project would have included an ethylene cracker plant and three separate polyethylene plastic resin plants, with separate facilities for water treatment and energy generation.

The project, if completed, would have meant that natural gas produced in the region would have the infrastructure and market to undergo the industrial, chemical transformation from liquid gas into plastic products, all at one site. Up till now, deep-shale oil and gas development in southeast Ohio has been delayed by a lack of infrastructure, including pipelines and processing plants.

A cracker plant "cracks" ethane into ethylene, a key component in the plastics and chemical industries. Before it gets to this "downstream" stage, however, the natural gas must be shipped to "midstream" processing plants, which separate the various constituents of natural gas, including methane, butane, propane, ethane, etc.

According to a 2013 article in theWeirton (W.Va.) Daily Times, "Because there is no ‘downstream’ ethane cracker in the Marcellus or Utica regions, midstreamers must now do one of three things with the ethane they extract: blend it into their regular gas streams, burn it off via flaring, or place it into pipelines for shipping to crackers along the Gulf Coast or in Canada."

Meanwhile, another ethane cracker plant appears to be moving forward in Belmont County in eastern Ohio, with Bechtel Corp. tabbed to oversee construction (as reported last Wednesday, July 24, in the Wheeling Intelligencer). Bechtel is already handling construction of Royal Dutch Shell’s cracker plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania, northwest of Pittsburgh.

How those projects might affect the potential for a major cracker plant project downriver, such as near Parkersburg, is uncertain.

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