Tackling the impact of petrochemicals

COP27’s Energy Day saw the spotlight turn on petrochemicals and fossil fuels, and how to stem the rising tide of plastic.

Sitting on today’s Climate Action panel discussion was Emma Silver, Global Director of Public Affairs at Minderoo; Aarti Ananthanaraayanan, Director, Climate & Plastics, Ocean Conservancy; and Lina Constantinovici, Founder and CEO of Innovation 4.4.

Ananthanaraayanan said petrochemicals are the fastest growing source of demand for oil and gas, accounting for 70% of demand in 2021 – the same figure that accounted for personal transportation demand in the previous decade.

The $600bn plastic industry now accounts for 3-4% of greenhouse gas emissions, and petrochemicals are poised to consume an added 56bcm of natural gas by 2030.

“If we don’t get ahead of it, we have a big problem in executing an energy transition,” she said.

“When you think about plastic, you can’t just look at the climate piece but the whole package of impacts, that are impacting our ability to work through the climate transition.”

Silver said when you look at micro-plastics and nano-plastics, we can’t clean them out of the ocean and need to look at them at source, placing corporates under more scrutiny.

A recent Minderoo report anticipates claims to emerge from environmental damage, possibly as much as $20bn in the US alone, and anything up to $100bn. “When you think of the pool of defendants and claimants, it’s absolutely huge,” said Silver.

She highlighted other transition challenges too. “Even if we all switch to electric vehicles tomorrow, you’re still going to be breathing in petrochemicals in the form of tyre abrasion – this is a persistent problem,” she said.

Silver charted the complexity of the plastic supply chain, starting with the role of oil and natural gas liquids, and role of by-product refining infrastructure or natural gas processing plant, before it’s turned into a resin which can be easily shipped.

“That’s when the supply chain gets really crazy – as it’s shipped all over the world, and then you have manufacturing of the product – and often what’s not talked about is the role of coal-sourced power, which is another source of emissions. That’s before the consumption, and end of life impacts, and depending on how it’s disposed, there are significant consequences for communities.

“Let’s look up at the producers – we can’t clean up this mess, particularly when the pile of mess, and production levels, are going through the roof.”

Constantinovici said the impact of chemicals has an extinction level impact that is perhaps even more urgent than climate change.

“If we don’t do anything to reduce this toxicity we might not be around to experience the worst affects of climate change,” she said.

In a paper on ‘The Future of Petrochemicals’, the IEA states the transition to the clean technology scenario will be led by carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), coal to gas feedstock shifts, and energy efficiency.

Advanced economies, such as the United States and Europe, currently use up to 20 times as much plastic and up to 10 times as much fertiliser as developing economies such as India and Indonesia, on a per capita basis.

Industrial gases (oxygen, H2, CO, nitrogen and CO2) have played an integral part in the development of the modern refining and petrochemical industries; yet they function quietly compared with more readily recognised feedstock such as crude oil, natural gas and ethylene.

This is due in part to the nature of these gas molecules as fundamental utilitarian building blocks for chemical synthesis as well as their low profile roles as enhancers of safety, quality and productivity and in mitigation of environmental footprint, notes Dante Bonaquist from Praxair, in a paper on the role of industrial gases in fuels and petrochemicals.

Oil refineries include processes that are both hydrogen producers (catalytic reforming) and consumers (hydrotreating and hydrocracking).

“Natural gas and crude oil form the foundation of today’s petrochemicals industry; however, with price increases and volatility driven by growing demand and shrinking supplies, commercial chemical and energy projects based on gasification of coal, pet coke and biomass are moving forward throughout the world,” he writes.

“As with petroleum based fuels and products, industrial gases will play a role in efforts to makes fuels and chemicals from renewable biological sources.”

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