BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. - Trying to hold support in the manufacturing towns that helped him win the White House in 2016, President Donald Trump is showcasing growing efforts to capitalize on western Pennsylvania's natural gas deposits by turning gas into plastics.
Trump will be in Monaca, about 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh, on Tuesday to tour Shell's soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex. The facility, which critics claim will become the largest air polluter in western Pennsylvania, is being built in an area hungry for investment.
The focus is part of a continued push by the Trump administration to increase the economy's dependence on fossil fuels in defiance of increasingly urgent warnings about climate change. And it's an embrace of plastic at a time when the world is sounding alarms over its ubiquity and impact.
Trump's appeals to blue-collar workers helped him win Beaver County, where the plant is located, by more than 18 percentage points in 2016, only to have voters turn to Democrats in 2018's midterm elections. In one of a series of defeats that led to Republicans' loss of the House, voters sent Democrat Conor Lamb to Congress after the prosperity promised by Trump's tax cuts failed to materialize.
Today, Beaver County is still struggling to recover from the shuttering of steel plants in the 1980s that surged the unemployment rate to nearly 30%. Former mill towns like Aliquippa have seen their populations shrink, while Pittsburgh has lured major tech companies like Google and Uber, fueling an economic renaissance in a city that reliably votes Democratic.
The region's natural gas deposits had been seen, for a time, as its new road to prosperity, with drilling in the Marcellus Shale reservoir transforming Pennsylvania into the nation's No. 2 natural gas state. But drops in the price of oil and gas caused the initial jobs boom from fracking to fizzle, leading companies like Shell to turn instead to plastics and so-called cracker plants — named after the process in which molecules are broken down at high heat, turning fracked ethane gas into one of the precursors for plastic.
The company was given massive tax breaks to build the petrochemicals complex, along with a $10 million site development grant, with local politicians eager to accommodate a multibillion-dollar construction project.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump would be touring the plant and delivering remarks "touting his Administration's economic accomplishments and support for America's expanding domestic manufacturing and energy production." Shell announced its plans to build the complex in 2012, when President Barack Obama was in office.
But "fracking for plastic" has drawn alarm from environmentalists and other activists, who warn of potential health and safety risks to nearby residents and bemoan the production of ever more plastic. There has been growing alarm over the sheer quantity of plastic on the planet, which has overwhelmed landfills, inundated bodies of water and permeated the deepest reaches of the ocean. Microplastics have also been found in the bodies of birds, fish, whales and people, with the health impacts largely unknown.
While many in town see the plant as an economic lifeline, other local residents, community organizations and public health advocates are planning a protest Tuesday to coincide with Trump's visit. Cheryl Johncox, a local organizer with the Sierra Club who lives in Ohio, said she expects several hundred people to attend to voice opposition to the plant, as well as demonstrate against Trump's immigration and gun policies.
In addition to concerns about the safety of their air and groundwater, her group has heard from residents "dismayed these facilities will create single-use plastic," she said.
"Of all the things we could invest in, of all the things we should be prioritizing, of all the companies we should be giving our taxpayer money to, this seems like the worst of all worlds," said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental advocacy organization, who called the project "a pretty big taxpayer boondoggle for a pretty dirty project."
A spokesman for the company, Ray Fisher, said Shell has "dedicated a great deal of time and resources" to ensure emissions from the plant meet or exceed local, state and federal requirements. "As designed, the project will actually help improve the local air shed as it relates to ozone and fine particulates," he said.
Republicans, who worry that Trump has failed to expand his voter base beyond his 2016 supporters, are eager to shift the focus from recent controversies to economic gains made on his watch.
The project currently has 5,000 construction workers. Once operational, however, the site will employ far fewer — 600 — permanent employees.
And the area still faces other headwinds. The nearby Beaver Valley Power Station, a nuclear plant that has employed 850 people, has announced plans to close in 2021.
More importantly, the area lacks younger workers, with college graduates moving east to Pittsburgh for better opportunities. The median age in the county is now 44.9, compared to 32.9 in Pittsburgh.