Intro to Petrochemicals

Petrochemicals are byproducts of fossil fuel production that are used to make synthetic products like plastics and pesticides. Essentially, they are waste materials created through the industrial process of refining oil and gas. The industry has invented new uses for these substances and created new markets for the products manufactured with them. Read on to learn more about how, where, and by whom petrochemicals are made.

What are petrochemicals?

Petrochemicals are substances derived from the production of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), which are then used to make plastics, pesticides, and other products.

  • The production of petrochemicals begins with fossil fuel derivatives, which are refined into ethane, propane, butane, and methane.

  • These substances are then converted into chemicals, such as ethylene, propylene, butadiene, and methanol at petrochemical plants. (Visit the Glossary for more details on common chemicals involved in the production process, and their health and safety impacts.)

  • These chemicals are then used to make plastics, pesticides, and other industrial chemicals.

  • Petrochemicals and the process of refining them are harmful to human health and the environment at every stage of their life cycle.

Where are petrochemical facilities located?

Petrochemical facilities are located all over the world, but they are usually concentrated in specific regions due to the proximity to key points in the production and supply chain.

  • In the United States, the majority of petrochemical facilities are located on the Gulf Coast, which is near oil and gas fields and refineries, as well as shipping ports, streamlining the production chain and export out of the country.

    • Louisiana and Texas are home to the country’s largest petrochemical complexes.

    • Since the US fracking boom began, there has also been a push to develop more petrochemical facilities in the Ohio River Valley (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.)

  • Outside of the United States, petrochemical production is growing in Asia and the Middle East.

Petrochemical facilities are often located in marginalized communities — in the US, that typically means communities of color and low-income communities. These facilities are often very close to residential areas, farmland, schools, and workplaces, leading to numerous health and safety concerns.

To map petrochemical connections around the globe, Toxic Expertise has created the Global Petrochemical Map. This collaborative project seeks to show the commonalities and differences in communities’ experiences of living and working in close proximity to petrochemical industrial sites.

Map depicting ammonia, petrochemical, and ethylene facilities in the United States. Credit: FracTracker

Who makes petrochemicals?

Petrochemicals are made by dozens of companies around the world, many of which are subsidiaries of larger oil and gas companies.

  • Some of the largest petrochemical producers include BASF, Sinopec, Dow Chemical, Sabic, ExxonMobil Chemical, LyondellBasell Industries, Formosa Plastics, and INEOS. Several of these companies are looking to expand their operations along the US Gulf Coast and in the Ohio River Valley.

  • This Petrochemical Company Profiles chart lists top petrochemical producers, ranked by their 2021 revenues. The list includes a basic description of each company's operations, as well as some background information regarding the locations of their facilities and the nature of their products.

  • While the companies producing petrochemicals and plastics, as well as their financial backers, may profit from manufacturing operations, the significant costs of these processes are borne by frontline communities. Visit the Take Action section for information on how to identify and challenge those companies and funders.

  • To learn more about the top petrochemical producers, explore the Minderoo Foundation’s Plastic Waste Makers Index, which identifies the companies that produce the polymers used to make the majority of single-use plastics.

  • Behind petrochemical companies are the banks and financial institutions that make their operation and expansion possible. Plastic Waste Makers Index concluded that 20 of the world's largest banks have lent $30 billion USD for the production of polymers since 2011, while financial asset managers hold over $300 billion USD in industry parent companies.