The recent completion of a $200 million upgrade to BP's petrochemical plant near Charleston will let the global oil and gas company make a product that's used in hundreds of everyday consumer goods with less energy and fewer carbon emissions.
"This is a major step forward for the Cooper River facility," Luis Sierra, chief executive of BP's global aromatics division, said of the plant tucked off Cainhoy Road. Improvements to the nearly 40-year-old manufacturing campus make it "one of the most efficient, environmentally conscious and cost-competitive in the industry," he said.
BP's waterfront Berkeley County site makes a chemical called purified terephthalic acid, or PTA, that is the primary raw ingredient in clothing, food packaging, carpets, electrical insulation and other products.
The recent improvements include an on-site unit that produces electricity from steam and a state-of-the-art oxidation reactor — the largest in the United States — that makes powdered PTA from a liquid chemical produced at a BP plant in Texas. That reactor replaces an older, less efficient model. A second reactor was installed at the plant in 1997 and might be upgraded in the future.
"It was better to begin with," Sierra said of the second reactor and why it wasn't part of the most recent upgrade. "The economics of the improvement were more compelling with the first reactor."
Much of the cost for the improvements is due to the piping and vessel lining being made of titanium, a stronger and more durable metal than steel.
Combined, the upgrades will reduce the plant's electricity use by 40 percent and cut carbon emissions by about 109,000 tons per year. That's the equivalent of eliminating the electricity and heating emissions of about 2,000 U.S. households.
At the same time, the improvements will boost production by about 10 percent — to 1.4 million metric tons of PTA annually that is shipped to customers via a rail spur on the BP property. The Charleston area facility is BP's only PTA plant in the United States, and there is so much demand for the product that the facility operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"We run hard," Sierra said of the plant's production.
Later this year, BP plans to introduce a new line of low-carbon products called PTAir and PTAir Neutral, the world's first certified carbon-neutral PTA product. Both were first introduced in Europe in 2016. Sierra said the new products are an example of BP's ongoing leadership role in corporate environmental stewardship.
"This whole notion of carbon and its impact on society — we've been espousing a concern and a need to do something about it for a good 20 years," he said.
Upgrades to BP's Cooper River plant were first announced in November 2014 and created about 400 construction jobs over more than two years.
The plant employs about 350 workers and contractors. The petrochemical facility is located on about 450 acres of BP's roughly 6,000-acre site. Most of BP's land is preserved as forest and wetlands, along with recreation facilities for employees. According to BP, the Cooper River facility has more than $100 million in annual economic impact through payroll and third-party expenditures. The facility also pays roughly $2 million a year in school and Berkeley County property taxes.
In addition to the Charleston area plant, BP operates PTA-producing facilities in Geel, Belgium and Guangdong Province, China.