"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chemical Alley

A disconnected set of followups relating to my wife's photo and my article featuring the Dow plant in Freeport TX (or, "near Clute" as I had it.) (This photo, of an unidentified Dow facility, is linked from the careers pages of Science magazine.) (Update 1/23/09: photo is now gone.)

The plant is very well known in Texas. It has come up in conversation with water management folks. Of course water rights allocation is a very tricky business in Texas. It turns out the Dow plant has somehow managed a very high priority, and in dry years can essentially squelch water usage further upstream.

It turns out I have an old friend who works there! I was aware he was a quantum chemist in the Houston area. Since I went that way (on a trip to Galveston) specifically to avoid Houston I didn't piece it together. Apparently in addition to all the other toxic substances they manage, they manage PhDs as well. J estimated that the plant constitutes over 10% of the capacity of the Gulf Coast and the Gulf Coast represents over 10% of the capacity of the world for bulk chemical production.

J also pointed out that such facilities are invariably on navigable waterways and typically are near sea level. A big win (or a big lose perhaps) for my old stomping grounds on the St. Lawrence?

Once sea level rise becomes a real economic problem, most of the world's production and essentially all its shipping of raw chemicals is at risk. It seems to me that port facilities as well as production plants need to be relocated inland to places like Montreal or Chicago, or their equivalent overseas. J also points out that most new facilities are being located in lower wage (and, I guess, lower environmental control?) countries.

He estimated the replacement cost for the facility as on the order of 10 to 100 billion dollars. He expected that sea level rise was not high on the priority list of Dow management. I pointed out, and he agreed, that a five-to-ten year time scale is very dominant in corporate planning because of economic constraints. Our discussion didn't get so far as the cure, but it still seems to me that only stringent regulation can keep longer time scales in view in the corporate planning process.

Isn't it past time for a grass roots push for uniform international regulations of environmental and labor law?

In defense of Dow, J says there is a policy intention for a substantial push within the company for instrumental solutions to the world's impending water supply problems. They should be commended for this and allowed to profit handsomely from it if they succeed.

As for what happens to such plants should they be suddenly evacuated and not reclaimed, that occupies an entire chapter of the remarkable new book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. It just came out and was reviewed in the NYTimes this weekend. I picked up a copy and have already read a fair chunk of it. It discusses in general how and when things would return to a natural state once human activity ceases, a very revealing thought experiment. (Plastic, it turns out, is a very big deal.)

I read in Weisman's book that the oldest operating plant in the Gulf Coast area is celebrating its centennial this year, dating from 1907. These things tend to stay put. Significant sea level rise would be a large cost to the world's industrial economy in ways that are hard to list and quantify. It's easy to think as an end user of consumer products; it's hard translating that back to a reliance on bulk petrochemicals.


coby said...

Hi Michael,

Be careful you do not end up being interogated by DHS for publishing photos of industrial installations! I am only half tongue in cheek here, Greg Palast was threatened with criminal charges because he included footage of an Exxon Mobile refinery near New Orleans in a Katrina-aftermath documentary. Apparently such facilities are catagorized as locations of national security interest and as such it is illegal to, um, look at them...?..photograph them at least.

Michael Tobis said...

My friend said I could visit him in his office but that it was very unlikely he could get me into the main production facility no matter how curious I might be. I suppose there is some justification to their paranoia; there are a lot of unstable processes under active control there.

Somehow I doubt I've violated any rules here, but if someone is inclined to grumble, I'd suggest they go after Google first.

coby said...

Here's a link to the story: