Prove your humanity

Reid Frazier is in Scotland as he follows the Marcellus shale gas overseas. Listen for his reports on the radio beginning later this month. In the meantime, follow what he’s up to through his occasional dispatches.

The deep shale gas deposits beneath Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are rich in ethane, a key byproduct of natural gas. It can be used to heat homes and power electric plants, but ethane’s chief use in today’s world is to make plastic. Not just plastic, but chemicals, coatings, fabrics — a cornucopia of the modern world’s most basic materials come from manipulating ethane.  

Reid Frazier

Reid Frazier

The fracking boom in the U.S. has brought vast quantities of this ethane to the surface. In the U.S., ethane production has doubled since 2010; by 2025, the ethane supply in Appalachia is expected to be 20 times what it was in 2013. 

The chemical industry is building several massive chemical plants to refine the U.S.’s burgeoning stock of ethane, like the one Shell is building in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. But even with these new plants, the supply of ethane coming from Western Pennsylvania, and the adjoining areas of Ohio and West Virginia, is expected to far outstrip demand for the foreseeable future. As one analysts put it to me recently, this gas “has to find a home.” 

So where is it all going? Increasingly, overseas. In 2016, the British chemicals company INEOS began shipping ethane across the Atlantic to chemical plants it operates in Norway and Scotland. Plastics plants in India, Brazil, and China have started to take American ethane shipments. This trade in ethane is part of a worldwide plastics boom that is expected in the coming decades. 

That’s why I’m traveling to Scotland this month: to look at where America’s shale gas is going, and what happens to it once it gets there. I arrived in Glasgow on Tuesday to begin my trip. I’ll report on why these companies are shipping this gas around the world, and the impact it’s having on the overseas plants, and the communities and economies around them.

I want to see what happens to the gas coming out of the ground in Pennsylvania, after it gets past the wellhead, transmission station, and pipeline. I’ll bring back stories for the radio, and will post updates on this page about what I find here.  

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.