Europe’s plastics industry is about to boom. U.S. fracking is driving it.

Even as the European Union rolls out aggressive plans for reducing plastic waste, countries are importing cheap ethane gas to fuel their plastics industries.

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A tanker loaded with U.S. fracked gas arrives in Rafnes, Norway, in 2016. European countries are taking advantage of cheap fracked gas to drive a boom in the plastics industry.

Plans for a huge and controversial new chemical plant in Antwerp, Belgium, are drawing attention to several European countries’ growing imports of chemicals from the United States: by-products of fracked natural gas and oil that would fuel plastic production, even as the European Union rolls out aggressive plans for reducing plastic waste and battling climate change.

The U.S.-to-Europe trade in petrochemical by-products, coming as global demand for plastic climbs, could potentially undermine the European goals on both waste and carbon emissions.

The expansion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the United States has created a plentiful supply of ethane, an ingredient for making plastic which flows as a by-product of fracking for oil and natural gas. Its availability, and low cost, have prompted a massive buildout of plastic production in Texas, Louisiana, and western Pennsylvania. Nearly 350 fracking-enabled petrochemical projects, with a total price tag of more than $200 billion, have been planned or completed since 2010, according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.  

But much more ethane gas is bubbling up than those plants can use, so fracking firms are selling increasing amounts overseas at bargain prices. In 2016, a fleet of vast, custom-built ships started hauling it across the Atlantic, giving plastic makers in Britain, Norway, and Sweden access to the supply of this key component for their processing facilities.

These facilities, known as ethane crackers, apply intense pressure and heat —around 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit—to break the bonds of the ethane molecules. That “cracks” the ethane...

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