New US enviro, energy policies a boon to plastics

30 January 2009 19:56  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The more aggressive environmental policies of the new Obama administration and the 111th Congress may open new opportunities for the US polymers sector and boost demand, industry officials said on Friday.

In one of his first actions after being inaugurated, on 26 January President Barack Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider a request from the California government to set state limits on automotive fuel efficiencies that are more stringent than existing federal law.

California first made the request to the EPA two years ago for a waiver under the federal automotive efficiency standards, but the Bush administration’s EPA administrator denied that appeal last year.

California resubmitted its request just days after Obama was sworn in as the nation’s 44th president on 20 January.

Although Obama’s directive does not automatically allow California to impose its own and tougher automotive efficiency rules, it is considered likely that the Obama administration’s EPA director will grant California that authority.

As many as 13 other states are seeking similar unilateral authority to set auto fuel economy and emissions standards. 

Many in the broader chemicals industry and the automotive sector have criticised Obama’s action on grounds it can only lead to a patchwork of varying state requirements that will complicate and impede US development of more efficient automobiles.

But there is speculation in Washington that Obama does not intend that states enact their own and varying auto efficiency and emissions standards. 

Instead, the thinking goes, he will use the daunting prospect of multiple state regulatory programmes as a lever to induce broad industry support for a stronger national automotive efficiency rule and support for a mandatory national cap-and-trade emissions control plan for all industry. Under such national programmes, state requirements could and likely would be pre-empted.

In any event, the new Washington push for energy efficiencies and conservation appears certain to boost polymers.

“This is a wonderful opportunity here for us to explore even further applications for plastics in vehicles and elsewhere,” said Steve Russell, managing director at the plastics division in the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

“First of all, the main point is that plastics contribute substantially to achieving lighter-weight vehicles and therefore greater fuel efficiencies and reduced emissions,” Russell said.

Barry Eisenberg, spokesman for the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), agreed that the new and growing federal policymaker emphasis on environment and energy efficiencies cannot help but boost plastics.

“I would think so,” he said, “because so many environmental and energy efficiency solutions have to make use of plastics.”

In addition to already well-established roles in light-weighting vehicles, Eisenberg noted that “only plastics are light enough and strong enough to make the blades for wind turbines, and they are widely used in such applications as solar panels - both in the manufacture of photovoltaic cells and the plastic sheeting that makes up the panels”.

Russell also cited the already wide application of polymers and composites in home and commercial building insulation and roofing, plastic pipe for residential and municipal water systems, plus the likelihood of even broader use in autos.

“Will all this produce a major boom for plastics? I don’t think I can speak to its possible impact across the board,” Russell said.

“But certainly the plastics industry is well positioned to help the country achieve greater energy efficiencies,” he said.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Joe Kamalick
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