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'We do have questions to answer' about single-use plastic waste, Shell internal emails reveal

Shell ethane cracker in Monaca, Pa. March, 2022.
Reid R. Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania
Shell ethane cracker in Monaca, Pa. March, 2022.

This story originally appeared on Inside Climate News and is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

Internal documents unearthed by congressional Democrats reveal an apparent moment of candor two years ago from Shell public relations executives discussing their company’s environmental responsibilities related to the massive plastics manufacturing plant they were building 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

The multi-billion dollar Shell plantbecame fully operational in November after years of construction and has already been cited by state environmental regulators for exceeding its yearly limit of volatile organic compounds, which create lung-damaging smog. The plant along the Ohio River in Beaver County has the capacity to produce as much as 3.5 billion pounds of plastic pellets a year, the building blocks for such products as bags, bottles, food packaging and toys.

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Emails of Shell communication officials

Among the documents made public Dec. 9 was email correspondence within the Shell communications team, where a corporate vice president acknowledged that the company had no answer to questions about its long-term responsibility for making “the raw material with which to produce 30 years of single-use plastics.”

“Frankly, we do have questions to answer about whether we’re going to take any responsibility for where PennChem’s output ends up.” Rob Sherwin, Shell communications official, wrote.

The Shell executive’s comment came in the context of criticizing a New York Times article with a provocative headline — “Big Oil Is in Trouble. It’s Plan: Flood Africa With Plastic.” The Times report noted that oil companies were shifting to plastics production as climate change threatened fossil fuels, and revealed an effort by the American Chemistry Council, a major petrochemical lobby, to promote pro-plastics U.S. trade policies in Africa.

“Frankly, we do have questions to answer about whether we’re going to take any responsibility for where PennChem’s output ends up,” a corporate communications vice president, Rob Sherwin, wrote to another top Shell communications official, Curtis Smith, on Sept. 1, 2020. “This is one that’s gonna run and run … because we haven’t even finished building a facility that will potentially churn out the raw material with which to produce single use plastic for 30 years.”

Another Shell official in the company’s communications shop, Sally Donaldson, chimed in that this was “definitely a topic we need to be on top of.”

The development was previously referred to as the Pennsylvania Chemicals project, according to Shell’s website.

The Shell emails were among a trove of documents from oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP made public by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, as part of an investigation into the fossil fuel industry and its role in driving climate change.

Shell officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Plastic waste crisis

In recent years, companies have increasingly been pressured into taking responsibility for the plastic waste they produce, or the environmental damage they cause. In 2020, for example, Shell announced it would strive to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and that it had joined a global alliance of companies working to end plastic waste.

But the global plastics problem has turned into a crisis, with oceans choked with plastic and microplastics ubiquitous, and the United Nations looking for a solution.

In western Pennsylvania, the company’s plant — fed by the ethane byproduct of fracked natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale regions — has been seen by business advocates as a potential center for a new Appalachian petrochemical hub, and by critics as a source of health-damaging pollution and a driver of climate change.

Environmental advocates in Pennsylvania described the email comments from the Shell officials as both alarming and revelatory.

“The Shell internal email appears to confirm our suspicions that we have raised about the Shell plant in Beaver County,” said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Collaborative, a coalition of citizens, environmental advocates, health professionals and academics working to improve air quality in the Pittsburgh region.

“The Beaver plastic resins plant will produce a lot of single-use plastics over the course of 30 years,” Mehalik said. “The tone of the email suggests that even Shell employees know that this is a problem.”

The Pittsburgh region’s public image is at stake, he said. “Damaging the world for 30 years is not the story that people in our region will be proud of, but that seems to be where things are headed,” Mehalik said. Shell, he said, “should be held accountable for this responsibility.”

Terrie Baumgardner, Beaver County outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania-based Clean Air Council, said the emails made her feel “like a time-traveling fly on the wall.

“Setting aside the plant’s health impacts, when it comes to plastics pollution, I’d like to think I hear a tiny note of against-the-grain courage and even concern in Rob Sherwin’s two sentences of candor,” Baumgardner said. “But I’m also appalled to hear him acknowledge, in this casual context, the likelihood that 30 years of single-use plastics production at the Beaver County plant is gonna ‘run and run’ with zero corporate accountability for the global scourge of waste the plant’s output will create.”