Petrochemical Business Is Booming in Baytown
By Dave Fehling, StateImpact Texas
Randall Martin is a Realtor showing off houses in a new subdivision. It’s in Baytown, where living near some of the largest petrochemical plants in the nation may not be a negative to likely buyers.
“It’s probably going to be a plant worker that wants a less than 15-minute commute to the job,” Martin said.
He says sales are already doing well, and he expects them to get much better as petrochemical plants expand. Baytown is east of Houston and a third of the way to Port Arthur, an area dominated by enormous refineries and chemical plants.
“We have a true petrochemical hub here,” said B.J. Simon with Baytown’s economic development foundation. “All pipelines lead to Baytown!”
Sitting next to Simon in the foundation’s fifth-floor office that overlooks the massive Exxon-Mobil refinery is Bob Leiper, the city manager.
“It’s unusual,” Leiper said. “We would usually have one pipeline project maybe a year, and we’ve had three in two weeks.”
New pipelines crossing the city is just the beginning. “We’re talking anywhere from 7,000 to 15,000 construction jobs, high-paying construction jobs” from expansion projects under way or planned at petrochemical plants around Baytown, Leiper said.
What’s behind it all? A big component is what’s flowing in those pipelines from wells across Texas: natural gas.
New drilling techniques have led to such an abundant supply and low prices that companies are pouring billions of dollars into new plants that will use the gas to make chemicals, and make them more cheaply than in other countries such as China.
“There was a time a decade ago it was not uncommon to see petrochemicals, plastics, polyethylene being produced in China and being shipped here to be used domestically,” Simon said. “Well, that whole equation can be changed now.”
It could mean more jobs, more residents and millions more in taxes paid to the city.
But it could also mean more pollution. In the past year, eight companies have applied to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for pollution permits for 11 new or expanded petrochemical plants on the Gulf Coast.
The good news is that newer plants generally pollute less than if they were built even just a decade ago.
“However, they’re still going to have some emissions that add to the total, and all that has to be sorted out in the mix,” said Alex Cuclis, a former Shell engineer who’s now with the Houston Advanced Research Center.
That mix is the regulatory process the new plants will undergo to get those state pollution permits.
“There’s always going to be the issue of how clean is clean enough in terms of the air and how much we are willing to spend for it,” Cuclis said.
The state plays another role besides regulating the plants: it helps pay for some of them. Companies including Citgo, Motiva and Huntsman have received a total of $11.4 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund.
When a watchdog group analyzed whether the public money actually promoted new jobs, it found the companies delivered as promised, especially compared with other industries.
And in places like Baytown, more petrochemical jobs may be on the way.