Meeting At Hastings Plant Hopes To Stir Interest In Plastics Possibilities
Dominion’s Hastings Extraction Plant is expanding and part of that expansion involves solving a problem: how to best utilize the increased amounts of natural gas products coming from newly developed Marcellus shale fields in Wetzel and other counties in West Virginia. The right solution could mean not only increased revenue, but a revival of the plastics industry in West Virginia.
On June 15 Dominion staff met at their facility near Pine Grove with a dozen representatives of West Virginia development groups such as Mid-Atlantic Technology and Research Innovation Center (MATRIC); Chemical Alliance Zone West Virginia of Charleston; Polymer Alliance Zone of West Virginia; the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association (WVONGA); petroleum geologists from the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey; the West Virginia Development Office; and others interested in improving industry in West Virginia.
The group listened intently as Ron Ridgway, director of natural gas liquids (NGL) marketing; Cindy McGinnis, manager for NGL marketing; and David Mordan, director of NGL operations, summarized operations at the extraction/fractionation plant. Raw “wet” natural gas comes to Hastings from gas wells throughout West Virginia. Through heating and cooling fractionation stages various components of the natural gas liquids produced at Hastings are separated into normal butane, propane, isobutane, and natural gasoline. The plant can produce up to 560,000 gallons per day. The NGLs are then sent via rail, truck, pipeline, and barge to markets throughout the United States.
The particular point of interest to the chemical development audience was McGinnis’ discussion of ethane production and the potential quantity that could be made available as a feedstock for the production of ethylene. Ethane is steam cracked into ethylene and further processed to produce a primary derivative called polyethylene, which is a key component in the manufacture of plastic-based products such as shopping bags. Ethane products at one time provided the foundation material for the plastics industry in West Virginia, particularly in the Kanawha Valley. Many innovations of research such as neoprene, nylon, Teflon, Mylar, or Lycra were patented by corporations with large facilities in West Virginia. As industry giants in the 1970’s such as Union Carbide and DuPont cut back on operations, polymer products manufacturing moved south to the Gulf states or dissolved altogether. Thus, according to Dominion’s data, currently there is no significant local market for ethane, even though it is abundantly available. The hope is that if plastics companies are made aware of the potential for plentiful, reasonably-priced ethane locally, they will move their industries back to West Virginia.
McGinnis continued that in Dominion’s proposed Marcellus 404 project, estimated production of ethane could be as much as 50 percent of the liquids output; combined with Hastings production, total ethane production capability could total over 28,000 barrels (1,120,000 gallons) per day from their facilities alone. This amount is critical, according to Kevin DiGregorio of Charleston’s Chemical Alliance Zone, as it is the bottom-line requirement for an economically viable ethane cracking facility; the funding to build such a facility must be procured. Timely marketing of ethane remains complex.
Although marketable quantities of ethane could be available in the near future, potential markets and the required infrastructure are still being developed.
On April 19 Dominion announced a project designed to “gather, process, and transport the growing volumes of high-Btu (wet) Marcellus natural gas production in Marshall and Wetzel counties” and surrounding counties in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Called the Marcellus 404 Project, fractionation capacity for 32,000 barrels, or 1,280,000 gallons per day of natural gas liquids will be available.
Bob Orndorff Jr., Dominion managing director of West Virginia state and local affairs, believes that increased ethane extraction would not only boost local economy as workers are hired to build new facilities, but the presence of so much ethane could attract plastic industries back to the area. It would be cheaper for companies to make plastics products here than to afford the cost of transporting ethane to other facilities in the Gulf states. “We have this product; we need to use it here in West Virginia,” he said.
Reviving the West Virginia plastics industry is the dream of those who gathered at the Hastings facility on June 15. Dominion has plans to expand their operations at Hastings to develop ethane recovery and also include this capability as part of their proposed Marcellus 404 Project. The next step is for those industry experts to make recommendations to various CEOs who could provide the financial wherewithal to bring the plastics industries back. Additionally, government support from the Senate and Governor’s offices is crucial to the success of the large undertaking. Ethane is not going to “just disappear,” as Corky DeMarco, executive director of WVONGA puts it. “We’ll be drilling into Marcellus shale for another 20 to 30 years. The ethane is here and offers a real opportunity for West Virginia.”