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    Thanks to Fracking, All of Our Stuff Will Be Made Out of Natural Gas

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    We typically think about natural gas—to the extent that we think about it at all—as a fuel source. Natural gas plants generate electricity. Gas feeds the burners that heat our stoves. But it can also be used as a base ingredient in some of the most abundant products on the market: plastics, clothes, fertilizers tires, carpet, antifreeze, etc—the list goes on. That's because gases like ethane, butane, and propane can be extracted from that nat gas—and those gases are feedstocks for all of the above.

    If you're aware that the U.S. is currently in the midst of a natural gas boom—enabled by the ever-contentious extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—then you probably see where I'm going with this. Fracking has made vast stores of natural gas recoverable, most notably in the Marcellus Shale that reaches across Appalachia. All that gas has flooded the market, driving prices way down. Which means coal plants are switching over to burn gas. It means we're frantically searching for ways to export the stuff.

    And it means an increasingly large percentage of our everyday stuff is going to be made of fracked natural gas.

    According to MIT, ethylene, which is made from ethane, is a $148 billion market worldwide. It's the world's most high-volume chemical, and it's used in, like, everything. Plastic bags, bottles, and packaging? They're made of polyethylene. Antifreeze? That's ethylene glycol. Ethylene is a crucial building block in clothes, toys, tires, and pipes, too.

    According to a recent report from MIT Technology's Review, gas is getting so cheap that it may even help drive a resurgence in domestic manufacturing. From the report:

    In the U.S., it currently costs $300 to make a ton of ethylene, down steeply from $1,000 a few years ago. According to an analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers, it currently costs $1,717 to make it in Asia, where plants depend on high-priced oil instead of natural gas … Over the last two years, manufacturers have announced plans to add 10 million metric tons of ethylene capacity in the United States by 2019. Those plans represent a 10 percent increase in global ethylene production and also account for close to half the industry’s planned expansions in all countries.

    We're going to be cranking out the ethylene like McDonald's cranks out chicken nuggets. And, the reasoning goes, since ethylene is tough to transport, all those plastic bag factories will likely set up shop near the refineries. Which means manufacturing jobs.

    Of course, fracking is still highly problematic. It's been shown to contaminate water supplies, increase seismic activity, and generate enough runaway emissions to put it on par with coal in terms of environmental awfulness. And nobody's really sure just how much cheaply accessible gas there is down there—recent estimates are likely way over-exaggerated by the industry.

    Still, in about six or seven years, that plastic bottle you're holding will be born after a team of gas employees blasts toxic chemicals hundreds of feet down into the earth's crust. As opposed to right now, where it's the result of some oil rig boring hundreds of feet below the Gulf of Mexico. Oh how the times change.

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