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Ethane Cracker Plants: What Are They?

Ethane cracker plants are the fossil fuel industry’s latest attempt to lock us into a dirty energy economy, bringing extensive and expensive infrastructure that fills our air and water with toxic chemicals while contributing to the climate crisis and slowing the transition to renewables.


Think of it as the fossil fuel industry’s sneak attack.

Right when all the recent climate-fueled heatwaves, wildfires, and hurricanes should be making everyone jump on the clean energy train as fast as possible, fossil fuel companies are introducing a new tactic to lock us into a dirty energy economy.

That tactic: Building ethane cracker plants.

The name sounds kind of funny, but climate activists are taking them deadly seriously. Especially because – according to the American Chemistry Council – industry is looking to invest over $200 billion on new ethane cracker facilities and projects in order to capitalize on the abundance of cheap natural gas.

Once all those plants get built (alongside all the pipelines and infrastructure to support them), leaving natural gas behind gets a whole lot harder. Politically and practically. No wonder fossil fuel companies are all in on ethane cracker plants.

The worst part is that these plants aren’t just bad for the planet. They’re bad – really, really bad – for our health, spewing all kinds of dangerous chemicals into the air. But before we get there, let’s start with the most basic question: What is an ethane cracker plant anyways?

What Is an “Ethane Cracker”?

Ethane crackers are plants that perform the first step in the process of transforming ethane – a component of natural gas – into plastics products.

First, the plants separate ethane from natural gas to produce ethylene, the building block of plastics and other industrial products. The plants use extreme heat to “crack” the molecular bonds in ethane to produce ethylene. Ethylene is further processed into a resin, which is used to produce plastics products.

At a time when some 10 million tons of plastic already goes into the ocean each year, ethane crackers coming online mean we’re going to see a growth of plastic waste in our landfills, oceans, and waterways.

More Natural Gas Fracking, More Climate Change

Building ethane crackers is a shortcut to creating more demand for natural gas – pure and simple. Ethane crackers depend on natural gas for their ethane supply. They also use natural gas to generate electricity. Plus, building more ethane cracker facilities will increase the construction of fracking infrastructure. All of which slows down the transition to clean energy.

And just in case the wildfires in California, shattered heat records, and climate-fueled storms like Hurricane Florence haven’t made it clear enough, we really need to stop burning fossil fuels. 

Look, facts are facts, and there’s no denying that natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide when burned than dirty coal. But CO2 also isn’t the only greenhouse gas driving the climate crisis – and there are many other pollution concerns related to this bridge to nowhere.

Fracking also leads to emissions of another powerful greenhouse gas, methane. Natural gas drilling, extraction, and transportation through pipelines allow methane to leak into the atmosphere, trapping more heat and driving more climate change.

Research shows that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for up to 25 percent of total global methane emissions. And while methane doesn’t remain in the air as long, it does trap about 84 times more heat than CO2 over a 20-year period, making it an extremely powerful greenhouse gas.

Natural gas isn’t clean, nor is it environmentally friendly. Fracking natural gas requires massive volumes of water, which can seriously strain local groundwater supplies.

Then there’s all the dangerous chemicals that go into our air and water, thanks to fracking. In the process of fracking, water is mixed with chemicals and injected deep into layers of shale underground. When the water is removed from the well, it’s full of highly dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like xylene, other toxic chemicals, and radioactive materials.

Naturally, this water can’t be disposed of easily. So it’s then taken to Class II injection wells, where it’s pumped at great pressure back into the ground. Not only can this process contaminate groundwater with chemicals linked to serious and lifelong mental impairment in children, but it’s also has been linked to increased seismic activity (aka, earthquakes).

Ethane Crackers and Health Impacts

In addition to their climate and environmental impacts, the construction of ethane cracker plants, pipelines, and other fracking infrastructure is extremely dangerous for the health and well-being of those employed in these facilities and the surrounding communities.

While proponents celebrate the construction of ethane cracker facilities as job creators, people working in petrochemical facilities face significant health risks. Studies show that petrochemical employees that are exposed to toxins tend to have a higher risk of brain cancer compared to employees in other professions.

Remember those VOCs in fracking fluid? Emissions from ethane cracker plants can expose workers and the surrounding community to VOCs like ethylene and propylene, which when combined with sunlight rapidly form ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone, or smog, has been associated with increased rates of asthma, lung and respiratory infections, and cardiovascular problems.

The danger doesn’t stop there. Ethane cracker plants release a whole host of hazardous air pollutants such as:

  • Benzene (linked to cancer and childhood leukemia)
  • Toluene (linked to brain, liver, and kidney problems in addition to infant mortality and birth defects)
  • Formaldehyde (a known carcinogen).

These facilities can also emit particulate matter, which can pass through the lungs directly into the bloodstream, contributing further to cardiovascular and respiratory disease and lung and bladder cancer.

It All Adds Up to a Bad Deal for the Planet – and a Bad Deal for Our Health

It is clear that there are a vast number of reasons why we should say no to the planned construction of ethane cracker facilities. Not only are they fueling climate change by increasing fossil fuel consumption, but these facilities also pose a great threat to the local environment, public health, and safety.

As we mentioned, ethane crackers are one step in the creation of petrochemical complexes, which require pipeline infrastructure in order to easily transport supplies from fracking wells. For this reason, many of the recently proposed ethane cracker projects are located near existing fracking infrastructure.

Here’s the Good News

Many of these ethane cracker facilities and the accompanying pipeline projects are not a done deal. Construction of fossil fuel infrastructure like ethane cracker plants and pipelines require a variety of permits from local, state, and federal governments. Typically, these permitting processes have multiple opportunities for public input and can be influenced by pressure from activists, politicians, and concerned individuals. 

The bottom line: You can have a voice in whether ethane cracker plants get built in your community. Educate yourself on the issue and join other activists in the community in your local Climate Reality chapter.

Most importantly, speak up. Talk to your friends and neighbors about ethane cracker plants and the danger to community health. Write letters to the editor to counter industry public relations. Make sure the truth gets out. Join the movement and stop these plants from taking over your community with your local Climate Reality chapter today.

And if you're ready to take the next step in your journey as a climate advocate, consider joining us for a Climate Reality Leadership Corps training.

Across the country and around the world, everyday activists supporting sustainable solutions in their communities are making the difference in the fight against the climate crisis. 

Climate Reality Leadership Corps trainings are where people just like you become world-changers. You'll spend three days learning from former Vice President Al Gore and a host of thought leaders and pioneering activists how we can solve the climate crisis together.

Click here to learn more about joining the fight.


Photo: Brook Lenker. March 5, 2018. Provided by FracTracker Alliance,