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Brentwood Plastics Blog

Fracking shale gas - how it affects price of plastic

Posted by Joel Longstreth on Thu, May 10, 2012 @ 03:03 PM

Feedstocks are the major drivers of the price of plastics.  Whether you are for or against fracking, it has had a dramatic effect on the price of anything derived from natural gas or oil. 


Not so long ago, Alan Greenspan expressed concern about depletion of natural gas in the U S.   Time was "peak oil" was sacrosanct.  The time horizon for peak oil gets pushed farther into the future.  Now it's cool to say "peak demand".  Soon we will have benevolent government control of our electric cars and solar powered airplanes.  About a year ago, Cheniere shipped their first order of fracked natural gas to India.  Who'd a thunk it ?

Skip ahead to today and we are running out of places to store natural gas thanks to the advent of fracking.  As of March 2016 there is over 2.536 trillion cubic feet in storage.  The active rig count for oil is down to 315.

So how is this relevant to plastics ?  The debate about which feedstock choice for making plastic is sustainable is a hot topic.  Many major food companies are against bioplastics because they will drive up the price of their raw materials just as ethanol has driven up the price of protein.

Exxon and Chevron are confident enough about the continuing natural gas discoveries that they have commssioned capital intensive plants which will have a combined annual capacity of  over 5 billion pounds. Obviously, the factors of production are most favorable here in the US gulf coast.  They plan to make plastic from US natural gas, not oil.  Same goes for Braskem who is cranking up grass roots capacity for fossil fuel-derived plastic despite their success with their "green" plastic derived from sugar cane.  The common thread is that with the information they had when these plants were commissioned, the US looked like the low cost producer.  They made the right call.

The world consumed over 450 billion pounds of plastics in 2011.  About 99 % was derived from fossil fuels, though plastics production only accounts for 4% of overall fossil fuel usage.  Polyethylene capacity will increase from 324 billion pounds in 2017, growing at a rate of 3.4 %.  At the same time, global demand will increase 4.7 %. Much of that demand will be exported from American resin plants in Texas and Louisiana.

The global price of oil is a big factor in determining who has the best price for commodity thermoplastics.  If the price of oil drops enough, plastic derived from naptha will be cheaper than plastic derived from natural gas.

For the foreseeable future, most of the market is not ready to pay triple for plant based bioplastics, so plastics from natural gas looks like the most practical choice.  Major food companies are waiting for "generation 3" of bioplastics.  They do not want plastic made from agricultural sources because it would raise the price of their raw materials.  They have seen what ethanol has done to the price of protein.   " Fossil fuel" plastic is anathema to the focus groups, so they are waiting for a solution which is palatable to the general public that will not raise prices of other commodities.

Fracking will continue to widen the price disparity between fossil fuel plastics and bioplastics.  That is, unless the rules change.  The Obama administration is issuing a constant stream of regulations with the obvious end game of regulating the frackers out of business.  Despite oil and natural gas at an all-time low, the administration wants to implement a $10 per barrel tax on oil.  Hillary Clinton has stated that if all her conditions are met, there will be no more fracking. 

update January 17, 2017

What a difference a few years makes !  The scale of investment by globocorps in U S resin capacity is staggering.  It's happening not just in the traditional gulf coast, but places like Bartlesville, OK and West Virginia.  The reason why is simple: the US is the low cost producer.  Note the reference to fracking in this latest announcement of $ 1.7 billion investment in Texas.



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Topics: fossil fuels, plastic made, price for polyethylene, fracking

Is plastic from oil ? What is plastic made from ?

Posted by Joel Longstreth on Tue, May 01, 2012 @ 11:52 AM

Plastic POLYmers are made from building block MONOmers.  The naturally occurring monomers (feedstocks ) can be derived from plants, coal, natural gas or oil.

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Long chains of monomers are polymers.  Ethylene becomes polyethylene, propylene becomes polypropylene, styrene becomes polystyrene, etc.  A polymer comprised of only one monomer is known as a homopolymer.  A polymer with two monomers is called a copolymer ( ethylene vinyl acetate EVA )and you guessed it - three polymers is called a terpolymer ( acrylonitrile / butadiene / styrene or ABS ).

Bio-based plastics from plants are promoted as better for the environment because of their renewable sources vis-a-vis types of plastic made from non-renewable petroleum-based fossil fuels.  The giant food companies quickly realized that "gen 1" bioplastics are not good for their costs.  Just as ethanol increased prices for other crops, if more land is used for plastic feedstocks, the price of other crops will increase.

Plastic can be derived from both plants and conventional feedstocks without being biodegradable.  Braskem's so-called green plastics are plant plastics derived from cane sugar and are not biodegradable.  Their polypropylenes and polyethylenes are indistinguishable at a molecular level from fossil fuel based polypropylene and polyethylene.  What's most important is perception.

In the US, most plastic is made from natural gas.  The resin producers simply take what they want from the natural gas pipeline and put the rest back.  PVC is a combination of ethylene and chlorine salt.

The other choice of feedstock is naptha.  Naptha is the creme de la creme of a barrel of oil which cannot be refined into gasoline or motor oil.  Naptha is the feedstock of choice in the rest of the world because it is sort of a by product of the refining process.  So it is true that some plastics, not all plastics, are made from oil. 


These items could all have been derived from oil or natural gas.  Display courtesy of Ocean Star Drilling Rig Museum in Galveston, TX. 

Here is a decision guide I put together to capture the ramifications of plastics made from different feedstocks:

Feel good press releases such as this one from Subway play into the public's ignorance about where plastics come from:

Remember freshman econ about factors of production ?  Where plastic is made and what plastic is made from influence the cost of plastic.  The major factors are feedstocks and exchange rate.  We have blog posts on both of these subjects.

There is a reason globocorps are making a huge capital investment bet to get lowest cost raw materials from
( fracked ) natural gas.  Ever wonder why Andrew Liveris ( Dow CEO ) gets apoplectic at the mention of removing natural gas export restrictions ?   He doesn't want to pay the same price as Japan does ( $14 or $15 ) for feedstocks.


How plastics degrade is the other side of the coin so to speak.  There are a lot of misperceptions on this subject.  
With the exception of PVC, most plastics degrade back into their harmless monomer building blocks.   It doesn't take millions of years; more like a half life of hundreds of years.  This will be a problem for future generations when the landfill liners start to leak into the water table.


The author in front of Lyondell Chocolate Bayou resin plant in Texas with examples of natural gas derived high density polyethylene ( HDPE ) products.  

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Topics: what is plastic made from ?, plastic made, plastic from oil

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