PITTSBURGH -- Big industry may be coming back to the northeast United States.
Shell Oil Co. is nearing a decision on where in the Appalachians to build a huge new petrochemical refinery -- a project that could bring thousands of construction and production jobs and change the face of the region for decades.
The plans are driven by the vast natural gas reserves discovered in the Marcellus Shale, a deep formation that lies beneath New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and parts of other states.
The scale of the multibillion-dollar project is unlike anything seen for decades in the region, said David Hounshell, a professor of technology and social change at Carnegie Mellon University.
"I think it's a radical shift," Hounshell told the Associated Press. "The region has really focused, since the 1980s, on looking more towards a service economy."
Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company plans to decide soon where to build the so-called ethylene cracker plant, which would convert natural gas liquids to other chemicals.
"For this project, we are concentrating on three states -- Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio -- and we expect to have a decision on a location by the end of this year," op de Weegh told the AP.
The industrial complex would likely attract many smaller, specialized chemical plants, since the main product, ethylene, is then used to produce chemicals that go into everything from plastics to tires to antifreeze, according to the American Chemistry Council.
The council, in a recent report, estimated the new petrochemical complex could attract up to $16 billion in private investment and create more than 17,000 jobs and billions in tax revenue. Shell's investment alone could be "several billion," op de Weegh said.
Other U.S. and overseas companies are also considering similar projects in the region, so there could be more than one complex.
Politicians in the three states are lobbying hard for the plant, and Pittsburgh-based Bayer Corp. is negotiating to sell land at industrial parks it owns in New Martinsville or Charleston, W. Va.
"We've been having discussions with several companies, some in the U.S. and some not in the U.S.," Bayer spokesman Brian Iams told the AP.
West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said the negotiations are picking up speed.
"We intend to compete with the last breath in our body to attract one or more crackers," Burdette said. He acknowledged the states are "very aggressively competing" but said the most important thing is that the cracker or crackers get sited in this region.
Petrochemical plants are not without risks. A 1988 explosion at a Shell cracker in Norco, La. killed seven people, injured dozens, and forced 2,800 residents to evacuate. The blast was so powerful it broke windows and set off burglar alarms 20 miles away.
Jan Jarrett, president of the environmental group PennFuture, told the AP that the location and permitting of such plants are critical issues.
If a complex ends up on land that's already set up as an industrial park, that makes far more sense, she said.
"That's sort of like reviving our industrial heritage in a productive way," Jarrett said. "But you've got to have the highest permitting standards possible. What we'd like to see is a will both from industry and regulatory agencies to meet the highest standards."
Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said there's much to be learned from how petrochemical plants have impacted communities in Texas. A buffer zone between the plant and communities is critical, he said.
"People should not live close to these facilities. A petrochemical plant is an inherently dangerous and threatening facility," he said.