Royal Dutch Shell is on track to revitalize the Rust Belt by building the first major factory in the region since 1992. The massive polyethylene plastics plant being constructed along the Ohio River 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh will cover a whopping 386 acres. The estimated price tag of $6 to $10 billion (with a $1.6 billion package in reduced taxes over a 25-year period granted to Shell by the state of Pennsylvania) makes the factory one of the largest industrial projects ever developed in the area, and the grandiose scale and promise of the project is already making waves of positive change in the local real estate market.
Thanks to the promise of jobs in a long-stagnant workforce to be created once the factory is completed, as well as the massive amount of labor needed to create the necessary infrastructure in the meantime, housing construction in the region is already picking up to meet the projected demand. While the factory will eventually create an estimated 600 full-time jobs, it’s already employing massive amounts of construction workers, peaking at approximately 6,000 before the project’s planned completion in the early 2020s.
One local real estate company called C.J. Betters Enterprises is already on track to build 200 residential units and a large hotel development thanks to the news of the Shell plant. Speaking to the New York Times, the company’s chairman Charles Betters said that the polyethylene plant is “the best thing to happen in our region in 40-plus years.”
For all of the excitement over the new plant, there are also, naturally, some vocal detractors. Shell’s major investment in the area is also attracting the interest of other major plastics producers to the area, a trend that gives cause for alarm to environmentalists. Dustin White of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition told reporters from the New York Times that while the “industry calls it a game changer” his coalition sees it as “game over”.Even without taking the new plant into account, Shell already has a checkered reputation in Pittsburgh’s environmentalist circles thanks to their involvement in nearby fracking operations. While Pittsburgh’s air quality has improved drastically since its industrial heyday, when it was counted among the most polluted cities in the nation, the local fracking boom has been a major roadblock in the cleanup process. Now, according to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies the polyethylene plant and ethane “cracker” currently being constructed by Shell 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh will “add significantly to air pollution in western Pennsylvania, becoming the region’s largest source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful gases emitted by solids or liquids, including combusted fossil fuels. The facility will also emit substantial amounts of nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), fine particulate matter, and other hazardous air pollutants linked to an increased risk of respiratory problems such as asthma, as well as to cardiovascular effects and a heightened risk of cancer.”
The Yale report goes on to mention that while there is serious cause for concern about the new Shell plant, protests are largely falling on deaf ears, as “local and state political leaders are almost uniformly supportive of the project, regardless of party affiliation. So are labor leaders and many local citizens.” Shell, for its part, is leaning into the jobs-positive aspect of their new development. “We repurposed a previous industrial area, and we created a place with new jobs to take the place of jobs at that old plant,” Shell’s vice president for Pennsylvania Chemicals told the New York Times. “This was a huge steel area, and steel has largely disappeared. We are bringing a new industry to take its place.”