By CASEY JUNKINS
DILLES BOTTOM, Ohio - Thousands of jobs and billions of dollars worth of investment could soon be on the way to Belmont County in the form of a giant ethane cracker, as Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical America is due to make a final investment decision before the end of March.
In July, FirstEnergy Corp. officials blew up the 854-foot-tall smoke stack at the former R.E. Burger plant along the Ohio River to make room for the giant ethane cracker, which would also incorporate the adjacent Ohio-West Virginia Excavating Co. property to the south and west.
The stack demolition drew an audience of several hundred interested onlookers who observed the event from both the Moundsville and Dilles Bottom areas.
With JobsOhio, the state's private economic development corporation that is funded via liquor sales, spending $17 million to remediate the site - and PTT spending at least $100 million on engineering and design plans - the massive project could soon become a reality because the site is clear for new construction.
"So far, all the signs we see are positive," Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas said.
"We anticipate them making their final decision by the end of March."
"Right now, PTTGC America is evaluating the front end design and engineering plans," JobsOhio Senior Adviser David Mustine said. "It is in their hands."
In September 2015, Ohio Gov. John Kasich joined PTT President and CEO Supattanapong Punmeechaow at the Statehouse in Columbus to confirm plans to spend at least $100 million for engineering and design plans for the plant, which some estimate would cost as much as $6 billion to complete.
Royal Dutch Shell is already building its giant ethane cracker north of Pittsburgh, but the majority of industry leaders believe there is so much ethane in the Marcellus and Utica shale region that it can both support multiple new cracker plants and provide feedstock to other established plants around the globe.
"If we are successful in this, it will benefit the entire region," Mustine said of landing the ethane cracker.
Along with propane, butane and pentane, ethane is one of the liquids prevalent in Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas streams. Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said domestic ethane production should grow from 1.1 million barrels per day in 2015 to 1.4 million barrels each day in 2017, an increase of 300,000 barrels daily.
Much of the projected increase is due to Marcellus and Utica shale production that comes from Ohio and West Virginia. Most of region's ethane, at this point, is either blended into the methane stream for marketing as natural gas, or shipped to other regions for cracking via pipeline. Pipelines already sending ethane out of the region include the Sunoco Logistics Mariner East and Mariner West operations, as well as the ATEX Express. Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan is also working on the $500 million Utopia Pipeline, which would send the ethane from Ohio to Michigan for export to Canada.
However, officials have repeatedly said there is more than enough ethane to supply all of these pipelines, while also supporting the Shell and PTT ethane crackers. Paul Wojciechowski, project director for PTT, said earlier this year that preliminary plans call for having infrastructure onsite that would "crack" the ethane into ethylene. He said additional infrastructure at the Dilles Bottom site would then transform some of this material into ethylene glycol for antifreeze, while even more onsite machinery would turn the rest of the ethylene into polyethylene for making plastic goods.
Last year, Belmont County commissioners and officials with JobsOhio confirmed they were considering "incentives" to give PTT to proceed, which could include tax discounts or abatements.
If PTT makes an affirmative final investment decision, the construction project will require thousands of construction workers.
"All the local labor that can be provided will be working," Thomas added. "The project is so big that, at times, there will not be sufficient labor here."
Although several new hotels and apartment complexes have opened across the Upper Ohio Valley during the last few years, Thomas said most of these will fill up rather quickly.
"You are going to have a lot of out-of-town people here. Those who have private apartments and hotels, they are going to be full for four years," Thomas said.