Sunday, February 03, 2008

New Process Will Transform Nigeria's Flare Gas Nightmare Into Useful Plastics

Which Will Then Become Someone Else's Problem

Nigeria's natural gas reserves are the tenth-largest in the world and, to date, a byproduct of the region's oil industry that has been largely squandered in the horrifically dumb practice of gas flaring.

Now, according to statements made this week by Honeywell Company UOP LLC, Viva Methanol Ltd. will be licensing UOP's proprietary methanol-to-olefin (MTO) and olefin cracking technologies to transform that previously wasted natural gas into an annual 1.3-million metric tons of ethylene and propylene for the plastics industry.

It's hard to argue that this isn't great news, or that making plastics from the pockets of natural gas that escape when drilling oil isn't better than making a hellscape of gigantic flames and clouds of toxic black smoke. As an industrial practice, gas flaring contributes approximately 390-million tons of carbon dioxide annually according to research released last year by the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration; and as you can well imagine based on their eerily beautiful satellite image above, NOAA ranks Nigeria as second only to Russia in active gas-flaring facilities.

Let's ask a naive question: Why did it take until the 21st century to start looking into ways of using this natural gas? The answer seems that merely recovering it for—Oh, I don't know—the energy market somehow wasn't cost effective and that the recent movement on this stems largely from UOP's marketable new processes (co-owned by Norsk Hydro ASA and Total Petroleum) which create "high-value polyethylene and polypropylene."

So, basically, what the global economy is saying to Nigerians (like the Ogoni pictured above) is, "We know you spent much of the early 90's protesting the gas-flaring practices of Shell and that the corrupt Nigerian government hung nine of your political activist leaders with the tacit approval of Shell's then-chief executive, Brian Anderson, but because it wasn't sufficiently profitable to correct the issue at that time we won't. But: over a decade later, we figured out how. Good reactions, etc.?"

To make matters worse, the Nigeria plant—supplied with basic engineering, catalysts, adsorbents, specialty equipment, and technical support from UOP—is expected to finish construction in the in the country's "Lagos Free Trade Zone" (ugh!).

And then of course all that plastic will end up floating in the Pacific Trash Vortex.
The End.
Who wants a beer?

[Link to the bone-dry UOP BusinessWire release; Photos taken from the U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program via NPR and the University of Michigan via their apparently sloppy and underfunded Environmental Justice Group case studies]

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