Talking Points

Petrochemical producers often make bold and broad claims about the industry's impacts on both jobs and economic prosperity, especially when targeting particular communities for new projects. Arguing directly with industry or company claims can often get into a defensive back and forth. By focusing on the following facts, communities and leaders can ensure their representatives and regulators understand and address the real impacts of petrochemicals and plastics.

Plastic pollutes at every stage of its lifecycle — from production to use to disposal — and is a significant threat to public health, safety, human rights, and the environment.

  • Plastics and petrochemicals are made from fossil fuels.

  • The process of manufacturing plastics is dangerous, involving volatile compounds, toxic emissions, and intense amounts of heat and fossil fuels.

  • Greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle:

1) fossil fuel extraction and transport

2) plastic refining and manufacture

3) managing plastic waste

4) ongoing impact in oceans, waterways, and on land

  • The most effective way to address these harms is to immediately and significantly reduce the production and use of plastic.

  • Stopping the expansion of petrochemical and plastic production and keeping fossil fuels in the ground is a critical element of responding to the climate crisis.

  • When touting proposed petrochemical facilities, proponents often narrowly focus on the impact of the single facility in question, while ignoring the cumulative effect of other operations nearby that may already be adversely impacting the air or water quality. To fully understand the risks that a new facility will pose to a community, it is essential to examine the operations that are already underway in the area and how the proposed facility may heighten existing vulnerabilities or exacerbate problems.

Plastic is not an environmentally friendly option, even in comparison to other materials, and especially for disposable products.

  • Metals and glass are much more durable than plastics, are capable of being used over and over again, and lend themselves to much more efficient and cost-effective reuse and recycling.

  • Most plastic products are designed to be used only once and then discarded.

  • Only a small percentage of plastics are capable of being recycled. Instead, plastics enter landfills, are incinerated, or companies seek to trade them with other countries. As the price of plastic declines, it can be cheaper for companies to dispose of — rather than find a way to reuse — plastic. Therefore, relying on recycling schemes to manage plastic waste is not the environmentally friendly option that it is touted to be.

  • Recycling should be the very last of the 6 R’s: rethink, reduce, reuse, repair, redesign, then recycle.

  • Plastic is often not compatible with city recycling systems, and even when it is recycled, it can’t be recycled more than once or twice.

  • Proponents of petrochemical facilities often argue that it takes more energy (and therefore greenhouse gas emissions) to make something out of aluminum or glass than plastic. What they don’t take into consideration is the effectiveness of using alternatives, rather than the efficiency of producing plastics.

  • The studies that plastic supporters use to justify plastics as “climate friendly” or “environmentally friendly” are deeply flawed.

        • These arguments only hold if the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic feedstocks (like oil and gas) are not included, and if one assumes that all plastics are being meaningfully recycled, which they are not, even compared to other single-use materials.

        • Further, recycling downstream is not enough to combat the effects that upstream manufacturing has on fenceline communities.

Renewable energy and a circular economy provide better options for sustainable, equitable, and resilient development and jobs.

  • Wind and solar manufacturing would employ more people than comparable investments in oil, gas, coal, or plastics.

  • Millions of jobs can be created through a circular economy that does not include toxic additives, chemicals, and single use plastics.

  • Proposed federal legislation such as the Green New Deal aims to address both climate change and economic inequality.

  • Reimagine Appalachia is a regional call to create an economy in the Ohio River Valley that is good for workers, communities, and the environment.

  • Gulf South for a Green New Deal is a platform of both policy development and organizing to create a Green New Deal that is inclusive of the Gulf South (TX, LA, MS, AL, FL) and advances long-existing work in the region towards climate, racial, and economic justice.

The petrochemical industry may not guarantee as many permanent jobs as promised or bring economic prosperity to communities.

  • While proponents of petrochemical facilities may claim that their projects will bring thousands of jobs to the area, experience shows only a fraction of those jobs will be permanent.

      • Many proposed ethane crackers have been canceled or delayed, eliminating promised jobs.

      • Even where proposed facilities have moved forward, job growth has not been as strong as promised.

      • For example, in East Baton Rouge Parish, companies have received over $1 billion in subsidies since 1998, claiming they would create 2,739 jobs. In reality, the companies cut their net employment by 1,980 jobs.

      • In addition, despite the presence of the Shell Cracker plant project in Beaver County, PA, in 2019 the area experienced a job loss and its GDP grew by less than half that of the nation.

  • For communities of color, studies show that the share of pollution risk generally exceeds their share of employment as well as their share of higher paying jobs by a wide margin.

  • The oil and gas industry, which is part of the petrochemical industry, has already failed to bring economic prosperity to the Ohio River Valley and the Gulf Coast.

  • The petrochemical industry is not in a position to do so either.

      • The recent increase in fracking in the US has driven down plastics and petrochemical prices.

      • Construction costs of new facilities have risen, which diminishes the profit of the facility itself. Market analysts have warned that revenue will not cover the costs of new facilities.

      • Even the American Chemistry Council has stated that potential expansion is limited by reduced external demand due to slower global growth and rising trade barriers.

Building or expanding petrochemical facilities may not be economically viable.

  • The oil and gas industry is experiencing long-term, systemic decline — decline that predates the pandemic and will almost certainly outlast the latest short-term price spikes, which reflect the industry’s inherent volatility. ​​

  • The industry is leaning on petrochemicals to sustain growth in demand for oil and gas, but that strategy faces increasing challenges. Recent energy price volatility, growing momentum to turn away from plastics usage, and the looming prospects of a binding global treaty on plastics curtailing upstream production may increase the financial uncertainty of new investment in petrochemicals.

      • Price, supply, demand, trade, and corporate pressure have made financing new cracker plants questionable.

      • Without the promise of expanding demand for plastics and growing profits, the continued investment in petrochemical operations is not economically viable.

  • Constructing new petrochemical complexes may be financially foolish. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) concluded that Formosa Plastics Group's proposed $12 million project in St. James, Louisiana — slated to be one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world — is not economically viable due to "market oversupply, low petrochemical prices...judicial findings of historic racial discrimination, popular opposition, rising construction costs and a weakened bond rating."

  • The Ohio River Valley Institute has stated that prospective Appalachian gas producers who wish to sell their natural gas liquids, especially ethane, to petrochemical markets could be “especially susceptible to a global oversupply in ethylene and, relatedly, to an over-supply of oil.” ORVI has also stated that new ethylene projects "are not likely to produce the economic benefits once predicted by industry supporters and hoped for by communities."

The world does not need expanded plastics and petrochemical production.

  • Most of the plastic that’s ever been created is still somewhere in the environment, impacting water, food sources, and the health of those inhabiting this planet.

  • It is not necessary to create more of what’s already still in our environment. If plastic is truly valuable and necessary, plastic manufacturers should work towards recapturing what has already been produced, rather than invest further in creating more of it.

  • Demand for plastics is driven by corporations, not by individual people.

  • The world economy can be successful and profitable for companies without single-use plastics.

  • The growing movement away from plastics shows that another reality is both more just and accessible.

States and corporations must be held accountable to prevent and remedy the harms caused by petrochemical and plastic production.

  • Petrochemical producers often deflect blame for their impacts, claiming that they are complying with regulations, and that it is the government’s responsibility to enact stronger laws if harms are occurring.

      • But government actors are often heavily influenced by industry actors. Industry may bear responsibility for the weakness of existing regulations or gaps in their coverage and enforcement.

  • In order to prevent harm and ensure accountability:

      • Existing regulations should be enforced better and more systematically.

      • Regulations need to be strengthened to ensure companies are conforming to their duty to do no harm.

  • Committing harms or allowing a company to commit harms violates companies’ and governments’ duties of care.

  • Governments have a duty to ensure the public is protected and pollution is prevented. Every petrochemical facility must be permitted by local and national governments, and those authorities have a responsibility to respond to public review of applications and evaluate potential risks for every permit they issue.

  • Even with regulations put in place by subnational and national environmental agencies, petrochemical facilities can and do still violate existing measures, often only to pay a fine and continue their practices.

  • For example, Dow Chemical Company and two subsidiaries reached a settlement with federal and state government agencies resolving a complaint alleging that they violated the Clean Air Act by “failing to properly operate and monitor industrial flares at their petrochemical facilities, which resulted in excess emissions of harmful air pollution.” The civil penalty imposed was only $3 million.

  • Denying permits up front would proactively prevent harmful industries from violating existing laws.