The oil industry’s Plan B

Gasoline may face a dwindling future if everybody starts driving electric cars. But the oil and gas industry has a backup plan for keeping its fortunes alive — the lucrative chemicals that can be made from petroleum.These oil-based compounds are used in everything from clothing and plastics to medical equipment and food preservatives. Major fossil fuel companies, which began producing petrochemicals in World War II, now are banking on the product to save their bottom lines, as I report in a story today.

In fact, the rise of green energy may only add to the industry’s windfall.Exxon Mobil officials expect petrochemical demand to grow 40 percent by 2030 and double by 2050. By that year, petrochemicals could account for 55 percent of all crude oil demand, compared with just 12 percent in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.

Much of that growth will come from developing nations, but clean energy projects are also expected to give the petrochemical industry a boost, said David Yankovitz, a principal and chemical practice leader at the consulting firm Deloitte.“In fact, 75 percent of all lowering of CO2 emissions will go through the chemical industry, with things like EVs, wind turbines, solar panels, lightweighting — all the things that we need for a net-zero world,” Yankovitz said.

At the same time, demand for fossil fuel energy and gasoline is expected to slow in the coming decades. That has U.S. oil producers looking to shed traditional refineries in favor of facilities that can both refine crude oil into gasoline and produce petrochemicals.But environmental groups say petrochemical production not only produces millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions — offsetting some of the benefits of clean energy projects — but also spreads toxic chemicals into nearby communities.

Some neighbors of petrochemical facilities say their concerns about pollution and chemical odors have been ignored.Sometimes the odors seeping into residents’ homes smell like “tar with chemical on top of it. Sometimes it’s a really nasty, sewer-ish chemical smell,” said Terri Blackwood, whose home in Baytown, Texas, is less than a mile away from an Exxon plant. “Sometimes it’s very thick. Sometimes you accidentally breathe it in your nose, and it gets stuck in your throat.”

Exxon officials said nearby residents can call a 24-hour hotline with any issues and that the company investigates all neighbor questions, including complaints about odors.The Biden administration hopes to jump-start the production of cleaner alternatives to petrochemicals, such as plant-based chemicals that can be made into bioplastics. But the cost of producing bioplastics remains high, and fewer than 1 percent of global plastics were made using plant-based alternatives in 2022.

Patrick Grenter, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said bolstering the petrochemical industry will only prolong the planet-warming emissions associated with oil and gas production.“Fossil fuel executives are doing all they can to maintain the status quo,” he said.