Mark Biel, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, exudes optimism, thanks to robust supplies of affordable natural gas. “This is the most exciting time to be in the chemical industry in Illinois or the United States that I have seen in the last 20 years and maybe the last 50,” Biel said in a recent interview with the Illinois Channel.
When I go to meet with my peers, everyone is talking about the opportunities that result from the low prices of natural gas. I have visited over a hundred plants in the state of Illinois over the last year and a half. Virtually all of them are filling open positions, creating new spots, and I was stunned at the level of investment as far as people investing in facilities for the long term.
A major chemical industry plant in Illinois is undergoing a major expansion to take advantage of low natural gas prices, Biel said, adding:
If [natural gas production] takes off in southern Illinois to the extent that folks think it may, we have had two companies contact us about possibly locating facilities in southern Illinois over the next five to ten years . . . to get access to that natural gas.
Illinois chemical industry expansion is part of a national trend. “Companies are coming back to the United States in great number,” Biel said, estimated that the amount of announced investment over the last two years is more than the total over the last 20 years.
The American Chemistry Council keeps tabs on new shale-gas related investments: 128 chemical projects representing $85 billion in capital investment have been announced to date, more than half by overseas companies. These investments are driven by the enormous and sustainable price advantage the U.S. now enjoys over foreign competitors.
The Illinois chemical industry is already benefiting from this competitive edge. Chemical exports from Illinois have jumped $5 billion in 2007 to $8.5 billion in 2011, Biel said. “So we have seen a 70 percent increase in exports from the state of Illinois, all natural gas driven,” he added.
Ensuring reliable infrastructure to link natural gas production to chemical facilities is an important policy concern. In Illinois, the infrastructure will accompany the production of natural gas, Biel said. “When folks see the oil production and natural gas production is there, the infrastructure will come to move the product, I have no doubt,” Biel said.