It’s the overlooked — often forgotten — petroleum product left out of the Democrats’ clean energy agenda: plastics.
The petrochemical industry is set to become the main driver of new global oil demand and potentially harder for greenhouse gas haters to eliminate than even gasoline-powered cars.
Petrochemicals are a wide range of chemicals derived from petroleum and natural gas. They include plastics and are essential components of everyday items that permeate the lives of Americans.
Plastics are everywhere, from clothing and building materials to furniture, auto parts, drink cans, tea bags, toothpaste, nail polish and chewing gum.
Petrochemicals are expected to account for more than a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of growth by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. This means that almost 7 million barrels of oil and 83 billion cubic meters of natural gas per day would be needed by 2050 for petrochemicals alone, surpassing cars, planes and trucks to become the world’s largest engine of oil demand.
The Center for International Environmental Law estimates that if current levels persist, the production and incineration of plastics will be the equivalent of 615 coal-fired power plants by 2050.
Greenhouse gas emissions from plastics will overtake coal-fired power plants in the United States by 2030, according to a study by Beyond Plastics, an environmental policy research center based at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont .
And yet plastics and the petrochemical industry are virtually non-existent in the climate change debate in Washington.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Democrats who support the Green New Deal and other aggressive climate change policies, admittedly know little about how the petrochemical industry fits into plans. for a clean energy future.
“When we talk about the energy transition, it’s important to recognize how deeply fossil fuels are embedded in so many industries, like plastics or steel production, and how many jobs depend on it. The idea that we could transition to 100% renewable energy tomorrow is ideological blindness,” said Christopher Barnard, national policy director for the conservative-leaning American Conservation Coalition.
The few legislators who pay attention to petrochemicals as a climate change issue describe it primarily as a work in progress.
“There is still work to be done on how we encourage cleaner production of plastics,” acknowledged Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and a leading voice on Capitol Hill for stronger climate change policies. .
President Biden’s 1,402-page budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 makes only two mentions of plastics in a one-sentence section that says federal agencies should work with their food service providers to “eliminate or reduce plastic waste”. Mr Biden also omitted plastics from his climate plan last year. Billions of taxpayer dollars are being set aside for other climate change spending proposals.
The amount of fossil fuels needed to produce plastics is often overlooked, lawmakers acknowledged, because consumers don’t see pollution from petrochemicals entering the atmosphere directly, as with gasoline-powered vehicles.
Plastics manufacturing is a big emitter of greenhouse gases, from the extraction of fossil fuels to the chemical refining process to waste management, which is often done through incineration which adds more carbon to the atmosphere .
“When you talk about the direct burning of fossil fuels, which immediately releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the associated methane leak which is a powerful climate antagonist, it’s very easy to see,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island. Democrat. “Pushing it into plastics, which ends up in products, is a more nuanced conversation.”
Despite the lack of limelight, laws have been introduced, including bipartisan bills, that tackle plastics issues, although much of the legislation focuses on backyard pollution. water and landfills rather than climate change.
Bioplastics could be part of a solution, say lawmakers and experts.
Not all bioplastics are necessarily biodegradable, and some take much longer than others to degrade. But the fact that they are derived from organic materials means less need for oil and natural gas, even if the finished product made from plants is still plastic.
“The ultimate way to solve this problem is through technological innovation,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska who has teamed up with Mr. Whitehouse on previous plastic issues.
“One of the innovation ideas is to have plastic that is fully biodegradable,” he continued. “We’re clearly going to get there at some point, maybe sooner rather than later. The company that cracks the code is going to make a ton of money.
States across the country have resorted to banning single-use plastic products like bags and straws to reduce production and the resulting waste. At the federal level, elected officials have focused on promoting research and investment in biodegradable products, and recycling plastics to reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed.
But only around 1% of the plastics or plastic products produced globally are bio-based, compostable or biodegradable, according to the European Environment Agency. When it comes to plastic items like food wraps, biodegradable products are more expensive and less durable.
Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware and Republican Senators Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and John Boozman of Arkansas have drafted legislation that would establish a national recycling and composting database.
The bill would also create a program for more recycling centers in rural and underserved communities. Lawmakers say it would help increase recycling and reduce fossil fuels used for new products.
Mr. Carper, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has shifted the burden to producers. He said that “plastics certainly play an important role in our lives [but] plastics producers need to step up their efforts and take greater ownership of ensuring that their products are more sustainable. »
Another piece of legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, would go even further by creating a moratorium on new or expanded permits for plastic manufacturing facilities until regulations are updated to address pollution. . The bill lacks Republican support.
The plastics industry promotes the idea of a circular economy to combat climate change that goes beyond simple recycling, such as the obligation to manufacture new plastic products with a certain amount of recycled material and to spend to more biodegradable plastics. Industry groups have also pointed to the environmental benefits of certain plastics like light vehicles and solar panels that reduce other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
Joshua Baca of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association for chemical companies, highlighted the plastics industry’s key role in combating global warming. He predicted that federal lawmakers may soon take a page from their state-level colleagues’ playbooks and take more action on plastics regulations.
“When we think about a low-carbon future, globally reducing carbon emissions or transitioning to cleaner energy, the centerpiece of that strategy has to be our plastic solution,” Baca said. “Major initiatives — whether it’s welfare reform or tax reform — have always started at the state and local level and have often compelled Congress to act. I think you see something very similar here.