The oil and gas industry is in trouble. Declining growth in global demand for fossil fuels has accelerated precipitously due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting speculation that 2019 may have been the peak of fossil fuel demand. The struggling industry is fiercely lobbying for bailouts, buyouts, and regulatory rollbacks at the expense of American taxpayers. Wary of falling profit margins, shaken oil and gas executives and stakeholders are beginning to pin their long-term hopes on an old friend: plastic.
Plastics are commonly projected to be the largest source, and by some estimates the only source, of future demand for oil. Companies like PTT Global Chemical America are investing billions of dollars into ethane cracker plants and other new petrochemical infrastructure. The problem is, the U.S. market is already oversaturated with plastic. So are the markets of many of America’s chief importers. With options narrowed, Big Oil has turned a greedy eye to Kenya.
According to documents reviewed by The New York Times, “an industry group representing the world’s largest chemical makers and fossil fuel companies is lobbying to influence United States trade negotiations with Kenya, one of Africa’s biggest economies, to reverse its strict limits on plastics...It is also pressing for Kenya to continue importing foreign plastic garbage, a practice it has pledged to limit.”
If lobbyists are able to outmaneuver the country’s stringent plastic laws, Kenya represents a wide-open, gateway market for the sale of plastic products and the disposal of foreign plastic waste. Trade negotiations between Kenya and the United States, galvanized by the lobbying efforts of the American Chemistry Council, are currently underway, and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has expressed willingness to broker a deal.
The heart of this international trade agreement, though, lies thousands of miles from Nairobi in the rural Ohio River Valley. The PTT Global Chemical America ethane cracker, proposed for construction in Belmont County, Ohio, would be an integral part of an Appalachian petrochemical hub intended to supply the world with cheap plastic products. If constructed, the cracker plant would process ethane molecules from fracked natural gas into ethylene, a component of single-use plastic manufacturing. Plastics originating from our backyard would then be dispersed internationally, congesting recycling centers and landfills the world over.
Big Oil’s desperate pursuit of a Kenyan trade deal demonstrates the industry’s ugly flair for exploitation. For years, companies like PTTGCA have profited at the expense of impoverished, underserved, and vulnerable Appalachian communities, securing undervalued labor to develop their facilities, spewing carcinogenic pollutants into our air and water, and vanishing when the profits begin to run dry. Now, the industry is shifting its crosshairs to the developing economy of Kenya, fully intending to suffocate its market and its residents with disposable plastic products and imperishable refuse.
The construction of the Dilles Bottom ethane cracker imperils the residents of Kenya just as much as it imperils us, the residents of the Ohio River Valley. If we don’t voice our concerns today, we risk signing away our economic and environmental future to the whims of a boom-bust industry with no regard for the health and livelihood of our respective communities.