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Get the Facts

Petrochemicals are a major source of toxic pollution, but are often overlooked in debates about fossil fuels. As the world transitions to clean and renewable energy, oil and gas companies are increasingly looking to petrochemicals as a financial lifeline.

What Exactly are Petrochemicals?

Petrochemicals are chemicals made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. They include ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, xylene, toluene, and methanol.

Plastic is the most common product made from petrochemicals, and single-use packaging accounts for an estimated 40% of total plastic usage. However, petrochemicals also are used to make other daily products like household cleaners and personal care products.

What’s Driving the Growth in Petrochemicals?

By 2050, petrochemicals will account for nearly half of the growth in oil demand.

As the world transitions to clean and renewable energy sources, the fossil fuel industry is looking to wasteful petrochemical products as a source of revenue. 

Together, plastics and fertilizers account for over 74% of the chemical sector’s products. Today, 36% of plastic production currently goes towards the manufacturing of single-use plastics, specifically plastic packaging creating a global petrochemical production “boom” for the fossil fuel industry. And the industry is not done growing: if the industry gets its way, analysts predict that global plastics production will double over the next 20 years – a disaster for the global climate and fenceline communities.

Where are the Hubs of Petrochemical Production?

Between 2010 and 2018, the petrochemical industry proposed $200 billion in expansion plans, largely centered on existing petrochemical areas on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, as well as a second hub in the Ohio River Valley.  

In fact, in Texas and Louisiana alone, the petrochemical industry is either planning or has recently completed more than 100 expansion projects. This is in addition to hundreds of refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that are already built and operating along the Gulf Coast.

Research suggests that the industry’s bet on plastic won’t be nearly as profitable as originally expected. Meanwhile, fenceline communities – those living near petrochemical facilities – are left shouldering the health impacts from petrochemical pollution, including respiratory illnesses, birth defects, and high risk of cancer.

What are the Impacts of Petrochemical Growth?

If unchecked, the rapid expansion of petrochemical production will be devastating to:

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Climate progress

Petrochemicals currently account for 10% of global GHG emissions, which would increase by 20% by 2030–exceeding carbon emissions from coal-fired power–and 30% by 2050 as production increases. This would comprise nearly 15% of the total U.S. carbon budget, undermining progress on climate change and weakening the U.S’s ability to meet its climate goals.

Drawing of a building with a chimney next to a body of water and a heart drawing

Public health

Petrochemical facilities use and emit toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens–like chloroprene, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, and benzene–adversely impacting the health of fenceline communities. Studies show that those living within 10 miles of a petrochemical facility face the greatest risk to bladder, breast, colon, lung, lymphoma and prostate cancer. Living near petrochemical facilities is also linked with poor birth outcomes, asthma and respiratory illnesses, and kidney disease. Research from the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University uncovered that toxic air pollutant levels in communities near petrochemical and industrial sites are higher than previously reported by EPA and other government agencies. 

Petrochemical pollution disproportionately impacts Black, Brown and poor communities in Texas, Louisiana, and the Ohio River Valley — where the bulk of petrochemical production is concentrated. This is no coincidence, but a result of a legacy of segregation, lack of protective local policies, support of new petrochemical facilities by local policymakers, and an unequal enforcement of federal environmental laws by the EPA.

This industry makes a point to consistently take advantage of communities who cannot fight back.

Picture of a blue water with plastic bottle, straw, cup and plastic bag submerged in it

The environment

Pollution from the petrochemical industry contaminates our shared natural resources such as air, water, and land, while also impacting health and resources for surrounding communities and ecosystems. At particular risk are ocean environments which are increasingly choked by plastic pollution. Every minute, the equivalent of two garbage trucks full of plastic enters the ocean – an estimated 33 billion pounds annually. By 2040, the amount of plastic trash that flows into the oceans every year is expected to nearly triple to 29 million metric tons. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight). In addition to threatening aquatic ecosystems, agricultural land and the food it produces is increasingly contaminated by plastic.

Top photo: A petrochemical facility next to a residential neighborhood in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.