- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2022

It’s the overlooked — often forgotten — petroleum product left out of Democrats’ clean energy agenda: plastics.

The petrochemical industry is on pace to become the leading driver of global oil demand and potentially more difficult for opponents of greenhouse gases to eliminate than gasoline-powered cars.

Petrochemicals are a vast array of products derived from oil and natural gas. They include plastics that are essential components of everyday items.

Plastics are in clothes, building materials, furniture, auto parts, drink cans, tea bags, toothpaste, nail polish and chewing gum.

Petrochemicals are expected to account for more than one-third of the growth in global oil demand by 2030 and almost half the growth by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. That means nearly 7 million barrels of oil and 83 billion cubic meters of natural gas per day will be needed by 2050 for petrochemicals alone, outpacing cars, planes and trucks to become the world’s largest driver 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 plants in the U.S. by 2030, according to a study by Beyond Plastics, an environmental policy research center based at Bennington College in Vermont.

Yet plastics and the petrochemical industry are virtually nonexistent in the climate change debate in Washington.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, including Democrats who back the Green New Deal and other aggressive climate change policies, acknowledge they know little about how the petrochemical industry fits into plans for a clean energy future.

“When we’re talking about an energy transition, it’s important to acknowledge how deeply ingrained fossil fuels are in so many industries, like plastic or steel production, and how many jobs depend on this. The idea that we could transition to 100% renewable energy tomorrow is ideological blindness,” said Christopher Barnard, national policy director at the conservative-leaning American Conservation Coalition.

The few lawmakers paying attention to petrochemicals as a climate change issue mostly describe it as a work in progress.

“More work needs to be done on how we incentivize more clean production of plastics,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and leading voice on Capitol Hill for more robust climate change policies. 

President Biden’s 1,402-page budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 makes just two mentions of plastics under a one-sentence section. It says federal agencies should work with their food service contractors to “eliminate or reduce plastic waste.” Mr. Biden also omitted plastics from his climate plan last year. Billions of taxpayer dollars are set aside for other climate change spending proposals

The amount of fossil fuel needed to produce plastics is often forgotten, lawmakers say, because consumers don’t see the pollution from petrochemical products as they do with gas-powered vehicles.

Plastics manufacturers emit greenhouse gases from the extraction of fossil fuels to the chemical refining process to waste management. Waste often goes through incineration, which adds more carbon to the atmosphere.

“When you’re talking about the direct combustion of fossil fuels, which immediately releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the related methane leakage that 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.”

Legislation has been introduced to tackle the plastics problems, though much of it focuses on pollution in waterways and landfills rather than climate change.

Bioplastics could be part of a solution, lawmakers and experts say. 

Bioplastics are not necessarily biodegradable, and some take much longer than others to be broken down. Derived from organic materials, they need less oil and natural gas. Still, the finished product made from plants is plastic. 

“The ultimate way in which to solve this problem is through technological innovation,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican who has teamed up with Mr. Whitehouse on plastics issues. 

“One of the innovation ideas is to have fully biodegradable plastic,” he said. “We’re clearly going to get there at some point, maybe sooner rather than later. The company that cracks the code on that is going to make a ton of money.”

States have resorted to banning single-use plastic products such as bags and straws to reduce production and subsequent 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 fuel needed.

Only about 1% of plastics or plastic products produced globally are biologically based, compostable or biodegradable, according to the European Environment Agency. When it comes to plastic items like food packaging, biodegradable products are more expensive and less durable.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat; Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican; and Sen. John Boozman, Arkansas Republican, drafted legislation that would establish a nationwide database on recycling and composting. 

The bill also would create a program for more recycling centers in rural and underserved communities. The lawmakers said this would help increase recycling and reduce fossil fuel use for new products. 

Mr. Carper, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, put the onus on producers. He said that “plastics certainly play an important role in our lives, [but] plastics producers need to step up and take greater ownership of making sure their products are more sustainable.”

Another piece of legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, would go a few steps 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 recycling. One proposal would require new plastic products to be made with a certain amount of recycled material and would require manufacturers to move toward more biodegradable plastics. Industry groups have highlighted the environmental benefits of certain plastics, including lightweight 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, said the plastics industry plays a crucial role in tackling climate change. He predicted that federal lawmakers will take a page from their colleagues’ playbooks at the state level when it comes to regulating plastics.

“When we think about a low-carbon future, addressing carbon emissions overall or transitioning to cleaner energy, the centerpiece of that strategy has got to be our plastic solution,” Mr. Baca said. “Major initiatives — whether it was welfare reform, tax reform — have always started at the state and local level and have often forced Congress to act. I think you’re seeing something very similar here.”

• Ramsey Touchberry can be reached at rtouchberry@washingtontimes.com.

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