This industry includes companies primarily engaged in the production of organic chemicals used by other manufacturing industries. It encompasses the majority of U.S. organic chemical output and represents the single largest segment of the overall chemical industry. Materials created using these chemicals, such as plastic and fiber, are classified in their respective industries.
325110 (Petrochemical Manufacturing)
325188 (All Other Inorganic Chemical Manufacturing)
325193 (Ethyl Alcohol Manufacturing)
325120 (Industrial Gas Manufacturing)
325199 (All Other Basic Organic Chemical Manufacturing)
Scientists began producing synthetic organic chemicals in the 1850s. Not until the 1900s, however, did production grow to surpass inorganic output. Rapid expansion during the twentieth century made the overall chemical industry one of the largest businesses in the United States and one of the largest exporting sectors of the American economy. In 2002, the U.S. chemical industry grew by 2 percent, shipping products valued at $463.5 billion.
In 2003, the United States processed approximately 70,000 chemicals, which accounted for 26 percent of the world chemical supply. The health of the industry has followed the fate of the U.S. economy at large. In 2001 the industry suffered with the rest of the economy as terrorism, unrest in the Middle East, and a stagnant domestic economy affected productivity and profitability. Shipments of basic chemicals fell by 3.4 percent in 2000 and by 9.4 percent in 2001, before rebounding 8 percent in 2002. Despite a better year in 2002, the economy was recovering slowly, and the chemicals industry continued to suffer from weak consumer confidence and volatile natural gas and oil prices in 2003.
The chemical industry is divided into organic and inorganic substances. Inorganic chemicals, which are derived from the inanimate material of the earth's crust, include compounds such as sulfuric acid, sulfur, phosphoric acid, and hydrogen peroxide. Organic chemicals are so named because in the industry's early days they were obtained from living organisms. Today they are derived from substances that contain carbon—such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Petroleum-based chemicals, or petrochemicals, account for about 80 percent of industry output by weight and 50 percent of production by value.
Organic chemicals, particularly petrochemicals, play an indispensable role in modern society. They are essential ingredients in plastics, synthetic fibers, rubber, fertilizers, and chemical intermediates, which are converted into a plethora of consumer and industrial products. They are the primary building blocks of important materials supporting the health, food, transportation, and communication industries. Organic substances also have made possible many important specialty items, such as protective clothing and materials used for space exploration.
Because organic chemicals are used to make so many products within the overall chemical and related products divisions, the industry eludes clear definition. In fact, most industrial organic chemicals are consumed by chemical related businesses. For instance, companies that produce cyclic crudes and intermediates, such as aromatics and dyes (see SIC 2865: Cyclic Organic Crudes and Intermediates, and Organic Dyes and Pigments ), purchased about 20 percent of industry output in the 1990s. Plastic resin manufacturers (see SIC 2821: Plastics Materials, Synthetic Resins, and NonvulcanizableElastomers ) consumed 13 percent of production. Synthetic fiber producers (see SIC 2824: Manmade Organic Fibers, Except Cellulosic ) accounted for about 6 percent of industry revenues, and elastomer companies (see SIC 2822: Synthetic Rubber—Vulcanized Elastomers ) absorbed 3 percent of production. Another 13 percent of organic chemical sales were garnered from exports.
The remaining 45 percent of organic output was used by numerous manufacturing sectors. Steel and aluminum mills, paper mills, semiconductor manufacturers, drug companies, carpet mills, and battery producers were relatively large customers. Other chemical uses included the production of items such as pipe, photographic equipment, electrical insulation, and food containers.
Production. The organic chemical industry serves one primary purpose: to take a relatively few fundamental raw chemicals that contain carbon and combine and transform them into new substances with desirable physical properties. Using carbon as a basic building block, chemists are able to unite other elements—such as nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and chlorine—to generate a multitude of different compounds. Furthermore, each resultant compound can be manipulated with heat or additives to produce an infinite variety of characteristics and grades.
The most common category of organic chemicals are aliphatics, or olefins, which are straight-chain hydrocarbons. Olefins can be made using petroleum or natural gas, though most U.S. manufacturers use the latter. To produce Olefins, natural gas is separated into ethane, propane, and butane. From these gases, smaller percentages of marketable ethylene, propylene, and butadiene are extracted. These three substances are the basic building blocks for most organic chemicals and synthetic materials. Major producers of aliphatics include Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, Occidental Petroleum, and Quantum Chemical.
Ethylene is the largest volume organic chemical produced in the United States. Approximately 75 percent of all ethylene is utilized to produce plastics such as polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene. It also is widely used to make antifreeze, synthetic fibers, rubber, solvents, and detergents. Derivatives of ethylene also represent a significant share of total industry output. The second largest olefin by production volume is propylene. Forty percent of propylene is used to make polypropylene, which in turn is utilized to manufacture film, packaging, foams and coatings, solvents, gasoline, and fibers. In addition, propylene is used to make other popular chemicals, such as acrylonitrile, propylene oxide, isopropanol, and cumene. Butadiene, the third most popular olefin, is employed primarily in the manufacture of synthetic rubber. The remaining one-third of butadiene production is consumed by makers of latex, resins, and nylon fibers.
Aside from olefins and their offspring, synthetic methanol accounts for a large share of industry output. Important derivatives of methanol include formaldehyde, acetic acid, methyl methacrylate, and various solvents. About 50 percent of all methanol is utilized in the production of adhesives, fibers, and plastics. In addition, it is an important ingredient in antifreeze and gasoline additives. Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a methanol derivative, is used as an oxygenate in automobile gasoline.
Environmental Impact. Laws and initiatives regarding hazardous emissions generated during organic chemical production and use are important dynamics that shape the industry. The chemical business is by far the largest polluting U.S. industry—generating at least three times more pollution than the second greatest offending industry.
As late as 1991, chemical producers released more than 1.5 billion pounds of toxins—as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). This figure represented a full 46 percent of all U.S. industrial toxic emissions. Forty percent of this waste was dumped into the air, 40 percent into underground wells, and the remainder was released into water and land.
To minimize the detrimental effects of chemical industry pollutants, multiple local, state, and federal laws govern producers. For example, the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act requires many manufacturers to submit detailed emissions data to the EPA. Similarly, the Pollution Prevention Act (1990) requires those same companies to report their waste management and pollution reduction activities.
Other federal regulations impacting producers include the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and other laws that restrict hazardous wastes. In addition to legal restrictions, both the EPA and the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) sponsor successful voluntary pollution reduction programs that encourage environmental sensitivity. The EPA has continued to monitor the industry, and in today's current political climate, which places strong emphasis on chemical safety and pollution controls, it is likely that regulations will continue to be added and modified.
The Responsible Care Initiative, launched by CMA in 1988 and joined by the Society of Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association in 1990, is a voluntary program whose member companies work with the public to address such issues as chemical safety. This is done through a combination of soliciting information from the public about its concerns and reporting progress back to the public.
Ancient Egyptians and Chinese were the first to experiment with chemical processes in carrying out dyeing, leather tanning, and glassmaking activities. It was not until 1790, however, that Nicolas Leblanc, a Frenchman, gave birth to the chemical industry. He is credited with being the first person to successfully carry out a deliberate plan to convert one or more chemical products into one wholly different substance, keeping in mind not only the end product but also the economics of the process. Leblanc was inspired by areward of 12,000 francs offered by the French Academy of Sciences to anyone who could devise a method for making inexpensive alkali.
While Leblanc's discovery was neglected in France, it became extremely important in England in the soap and textile industries. As British alkali producers advanced the inorganic chemical industry during the 1800s, they laid the foundation for organic chemistry. Although organic compounds had been known to man for centuries, it was not discovered until early in the nineteenth century that they all contain carbon. Once scientists realized that they could unite carbon with other common elements, they quickly began to create their own substances. At first chemists sought to create elements that imitated natural, known substances. Later on, they learned how to create a vast variety of unknown compounds.
The first chemist to synthesize an organic chemical for commercial use was Englishman William Henry Perkin, the father of the organic chemical industry. At 18 years old, Perkin, working in his father's house in 1856, accidentally created a synthetic dye using a piece of coal tar. Although he received knighthood for his efforts, it wasn't until 1865 that the chemical structure of Perkin's dye was understood. In that year, Friedreich von Kekule announced his breakthrough theory of the benzene ring. Using Kekule's theory, chemists were able to build millions of new organic chemicals during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of which displaced natural materials and dyes.
Chemists did not begin synthesizing petroleum and natural gas to create petrochemicals on a commercial scale until the 1920s. A huge demand for gasoline, rubber products, textiles, detergents, and plastics that could be created with petrochemicals in the 1920s and early 1930s boosted industry growth. However, it was World War II that launched the organic chemical industry to national prominence. During this period, a shortage of natural and manmade materials that had previously been supplied by other sources resulted in rapid industry expansion. For example, production of synthetic rubber bolted from just 72,000 tons in 1939 to more than 800,000 tons in 1945.
Organic chemical sales continued to balloon after World War II as the post-war U.S. economy expanded. The explosion in automobile production during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, for example, created a massive demand for chemicals utilized in the production of rubber, paint, and gasoline. Importantly, commercial and residential construction booms generated a huge need for paneling, roofing, insulation, carpet, draperies, upholstery, varnishes, and other chemical-based building materials. Likewise, the call for clothing created from organic chemicals ballooned as a rising population sought viable alternatives to costly natural fibers. Defense and consumer products markets grew as well. Moreover, besides meeting demand in domestic markets, the United States became a major chemical supplier to European countries that had been devastated by war.
As organic chemical revenues blossomed throughout most of the period between the 1950s and 1970s, overall chemical industry sales, including inorganics, reached approximately $50 billion. Production volume of ethylene and propylene, combined, topped 30 billion pounds, while total organic output climbed past 120 billion pounds. Heading into the 1980s, industrial organic chemical producers were employing more than 120,000 workers and shipping more than $5 billion in exports.
In the early 1980s, organic producers were battered by high petroleum prices and a deep U.S. economic recession. As sales stalled throughout the early years of the decade, inventories swelled and profit margins collapsed. However, demand started recovering in 1983, pushed by a revival in housing starts and automobile markets. The demand for organics used to create plastics and textiles was especially strong, and consumption by paperboard and furniture markets recuperated. Sales climbed 9 percent in 1983—from $30.4 billion to $33.3 billion—and about 8 percent in 1984—to $35.8 billion.
Despite a temporary downturn in 1985 and 1986, industry expansion accelerated during the late 1980s. Sales rose to $42.0 billion in 1987 before jumping 16 percent to $49.1 billion in 1988. Prices and profits also improved following stagnation throughout most of the decade. For example, overall chemical industry profits rose to $4.0 billion in 1987, from just more than $2.0 billion per year between 1982 and 1985. Profit margins climbed from 4 percent in 1985 to a peak of almost 10 percent in 1988, boosting overall earnings past an annual rate of $7.0 billion in early 1989.
Production volume of many organics mushroomed during the 1980s. For example, propylene output rocketed from 12.5 billion pounds in 1982 to 21.8 billion by 1990, representing annual growth of more than 6 percent. Consumption of butadiene rose similarly, to about 3 billion pounds by 1990. Ethylene production climbed at an annual rate of more than 5 percent, from 24.5 billion pounds in 1982 to 36.5 by 1990. More importantly, however, many derivatives of the three major olefins realized average annual growth rates in excess of 10 percent throughout the decade. In anticipation of continued growth, producers responded in the late 1980s by making heavy capital investments to increase their production capacity.
Notwithstanding a surge in the latter years of the decade, chemical market growth during the 1980s was modest in comparison to the expansion enjoyed during the previous three decades. Indeed, many organic chemical producers realized that the industry was entering a new stage of maturity. The massive growth opportunities of the mid-twentieth century, propelled by economic expansion and uncontested global dominance, had diminished significantly even by the late 1970s.
Particularly disconcerting to producers of commodity-like organics was the steep rise of foreign competition that occurred in the early 1980s. Besides expanded output by Japan and the European Community, U.S. producers also were being challenged by low-cost producers in Korea and Singapore. Despite overall export growth by domestic chemical manufacturers in the mid-1980s, the U.S. share of the world chemical export market plummeted from about 17 percent in 1984 to less than 14 percent in 1987. Although inorganic commodity chemicals represented much of this decline, the share of U.S. exports represented by organic chemicals slipped from more than 30 percent in the mid-1980s to about 25 percent by the early 1990s. The U.S. global chemical export market share recovered slightly in 1989, to about 15 percent.
To combat long-term downward profit pressures exerted by relatively flat market growth and increased competition, many producers in the early 1980s began cutting costs, consolidating operations, increasing research and development spending, and implementing cost-saving automation and information systems. Most producers who were slow to implement such initiatives had climbed aboard the bandwagon by the late 1980s, and these efforts were evidenced by a decline in employment. Even as organic manufacturers scrambled to boost their productivity during the 1980s, employment fell from 111,000 in 1982 to about 100,000 by 1990. This occurred despite steady growth in production volume.
After steady growth through 1989, industrial organic chemical manufacturers suffered serious setbacks in the early 1990s. A U.S. and global economic recession stumped profit growth, as the value of petrochemical and related products sales dropped 1.5 percent in 1990 to $54.1 billion. Sales rose just 1 percent in both 1991 and 1992 (using inflation adjusted dollars), and overall organic chemical output rose only slightly between 1990 and 1992. Moreover, this tepid growth was offset by stagnant prices and declining profits. From its peak of nearly 10 percent in 1988, chemical industry profit margins sank to about 5 percent in 1992.
Compounding industry woes in the early 1990s was excess production capacity, the result of expansion in the previous half decade. Oversupply was still depressing organic prices into the mid-1990s, thus eliminating profit growth. Despite ongoing successful efforts to increase productivity and improve products, U.S. competitors were unable to overcome the effects of the latest downturn. Even a slow but steady increase in organic exports did little to alleviate the impact of sluggish domestic markets. After all, U.S. imports rose at a rate about 15 times greater than U.S. exports in 1992, augmenting downward price pressures.
In an effort to buoy earnings, domestic competitors continued restructuring in the 1990s. Companies were cutting costs out of every phase of the production process, often leading to massive layoffs. For example, DuPont announced a workforce reduction of as many as 4,500 people in late 1993, adding to about 5,500 layoffs made by that company since 1991. Likewise, Dow Chemical eliminated 4,700 jobs in 1993, and Air Products reduced its workforce by 1,300. Many companies also were restructuring by selling unprofitable operations and focusing on their core competencies.
While revenues improved and prices gained slightly in 1993, overcapacity and weak markets persisted into 1994. Industry shipments grew between 1 and 2 percent in 1993 and were expected to increase similarly in the near term. However, this growth eventually was expected to reduce overcapacity, allowing manufacturers to raise prices slightly. The effects of a reduction in oversupply may be offset by the diminished stature of U.S. producers in the global marketplace. U.S. firms will increasingly be forced to shift production from high-volume, commodity-like organics to low-volume specialty and high-tech compounds that demand higher prices.
Shipment growth rates of ethylene were expected to be at 3 to 4 percent through the year 2000. As ethylene demand continues to grow, the industry will be forced to add new facilities at the estimated rate of one per year. Production of propylene rose 7.3 percent in 1995, and at year's end, inventories of propylene were twice those of 1994 and above average historical levels; this caused prices to drop by nearly 30 percent. Demand for propylene has grown moderately since then—estimates place the growth rate at 3.5 percent per year between 1995 and 2000.
Though the United States produces more than 3 billion pounds of butadiene per year, it historically has imported most of its butadiene from Europe. As with propylene, higher inventory in the mid-1990s caused prices to drop. As for methanol, the price almost tripled in 1994 reaching $1.55 per gallon, but by the end of 1994 it was back down to 42 cents. Since then prices have decreased even more. Still, there is ongoing interest in the use of methanol as an alternative to gasoline, and new methanol plants are being constructed in such countries as Chile, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad, Equatorial Guinea, and Iran.
Methyl tert-butyl ether production topped 10.5 billion pounds in the early 1990s as prices were driven up by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which required the use of gasolines containing oxygenates such as MTBE. Beginning in 1992, the sale of oxygenated fuels was required during the winter months in 37 U.S. metropolitan areas that did not meet the federal air standards for carbon monoxide. In January 1995, year-round use began in 9 regions as dictated by the Clean Air Act. However, the demand for MTBE was not as high as expected in 1995, as some states were able to get out of the program. In 1999, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences released a report claiming that gasoline enhanced with MTBE could create ozone violations. Early in 2000, organizations such as Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, the American Lung Association, and the American Petroleum Institute announced their support for a pending law eliminating the 1995 Clean Air Act regulations. These actions have been vigorously fought by the Oxygenated Fuels Association, which claims that oxygenated fuel has actually led to a 22 percent reduction in air toxins.
Regulatory Impacts. While increasing federal and state regulations posed an ongoing challenge to chemical industry participants, positive signs indicated that the industry was successfully clearing these hurdles and was even benefiting from some laws. The overall chemical industry has managed to reduce its emissions of TRI wastes, even as industry production has increased. Nonetheless, regulatory issues are an ongoing major concern to the industry.
Despite industry gains, chemical pollutants remained a major concern for regulators, and President Clinton's administration planned to increase efforts to reduce toxic emissions. However, some regulations were expected to boost industry profits. For example, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required automobile carbon-monoxide emissions to fall below certain levels by 1995. As a result, the demand for organic gasoline additives that allow such reductions grew rapidly.
Besides environmental restrictions, manufacturers also were burdened with increased costs related to new safety initiatives initiated by both the EPA and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) law, passed by Congress in 1992, which was aimed at preventing accidents in the work place. Costs associated with the EPA and OSHA rules were not small, but they were expected to more than make up for this in cost savings from reduced environmental damage and response costs. Moreover, corporate commitment to environmental and safety concerns is invaluable to companies from a public relations standpoint; good consumer and community relations are critically important for companies that wish to remain competitive.
Information submitted to the EPA has shown that emissions of toxic chemicals had decreased considerably in the past decade. The most recent edition of the Toxic Release Inventory (1997 figures) showed that chemical manufacturing accounted for 48.9 percent of TRI total production-related waste management. The total amount of production-related waste that was managed by the industry was 11.3 billion pounds.
The EPA considered underground injection wells "safer than virtually all other waste disposal practices." To dispose of highly diluted wastes, they were injected into EPA-permitted wells, drilled deep into special geologic formations that contained, and in some cases neutralized, the waste.
In 1994, the EPA added 286 chemicals to its inventory list, nearly doubling its size to 643 reportable chemicals. The CMA contended that some of these were innocuous, and the EPA stood the risk of confusing the public with what truly was hazardous and what was not.
The chemical industry started off 2002 strong, but faded during the third an fourth quarters as the anticipated recovery in the manufacturing sector stalled out. Despite the slowdown at the end of the year, chemical shipments managed to show a 2 percent gain over the previous year, reaching $463.5 billion. In 2003, the first two quarters were marked by a relatively stagnant economy and the U.S. war with Iraq that caused severe volatility in natural gas and petroleum prices.
With a slow start to 2003, the industry anticipated an increase in activity during the last two quarters. This should result in an increase in shipments of just 1 percent, with shipments valued at an estimated $474 billion. Accelerated—albeit still relatively slow—growth is forecast for the chemicals market in 2004, with shipments projected to exceed $491 billion.
The U.S. chemical industry was, as recently as the mid-1990s, the second largest net U.S. exporter, behind only the aerospace industry. However, U.S. chemical producers at the end of 2002 found themselves having gone from a positive 6 percent to a negative 1 percent in import/export ratio. Although the United States continues to be a major producer and exporter of chemicals, with approximately 15 percent of production tagged for export, imports have increased at a rate greater than exports. Several factors have caused the reversal of trade balance, including a strong U.S. dollar, global overcapacity, and higher natural gas and petroleum costs. The projected trade deficit of $6 billion in 2003 is forecast to increase to $8 billion during 2004.
About 700 companies participated in the industrial organic chemical industry in the late 1990s. More than 30 had sales of more than $1 billion from various businesses, and many of them employed several thousand workers. However, most of the top 75 firms in the industry had fewer than 500 workers and generated revenues of less than $200 million per year. The industry is highly consolidated in relation to most other U.S. manufacturing sectors. High startup costs, technical expertise, and entrenched segment leaders discourage new competition.
Large-scale consolidation has impacted the industry. The 1999 merger of Exxon and Mobil created a monolith with sales of $187 billion. However, its organic chemical production was handled by two merged subsidiaries—Exxon Chemical Co. and Mobil Chemical Co. ExxonMobil Chemical Co. reported revenues of $20.3 billion in 2002 and was ranked first or second in a variety of petrochemicals.
Chevron Texaco partnered with ConocoPhillips to created Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LLC. The company reported sales of $5.5 billion in 2002. Other companies that held prominence in the industry included Ashland Inc., with 2002 sales of $7.5 billion and 24,300 employees; Solutia Inc., a spinoff of Monsanto with 2002 sales of $2.2 billion and 9,400 employees; and Dow Corning, with 2002 sales of $2.6 billion and 8,200 employees.
An estimated 92,725 workers served the industrial organic chemical industry in 2001, including an estimated 55,200 production workers. In 1982 the industry employed 111,800 people; except for a few spikes, the number has gone steadily down. Productivity increases achieved by manufacturers were largely to blame for cutbacks in both white and blue collar jobs.
Employment growth in the organic chemical industry is expected to remain weak, and future employment prospects are bleak. Blue collar workers will suffer the most from long-term trends. Positions for chemical equipment controllers, which account for a full 9 percent of the organic chemical industry workforce, will fall steadily over the next several years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of jobs for white collar workers and support staff also will fall. By 2005, the demand for administrators and managers will have declined 14 percent from 1990; clerical jobs will plunge almost 25 percent. General management and top executive positions will drop, and even chemists will see opportunities erode somewhat. On the bright side, some engineering jobs will rise, as will sales and marketing positions. The need for systems analysts and computer scientists in this industry is expected to increase steadily.
A primary factor driving workforce cutbacks in the 1980s and early 1990s was high wages. Indeed, workers in the organic chemical industry are among the highest paid manufacturing employees in the United States. The average organic chemical production worker earned $17.23 per hour in 1992, compared with the average of just $10.49 for all U.S. manufacturing laborers. By 2001 that figure was an estimated $25.26. For the entire organic chemical industry, payroll per employee topped $40,000 per year in 1992; by 2001 that figure had risen to an estimated $58,000.
The best paying jobs in the industry go to highly educated chemists involved in research or management; chemists with doctorate degrees can earn much more than chemists who hold only master's degrees. However, the job market is very competitive.
The U.S. organic chemical industry remains the largest and most technologically advanced in the world. However, its supremacy has waned considerably since the 1950s when U.S. organic producers supplied more than 50 percent of global output.
Despite the strength of the industry, foreign competition continued to erode its comparative might. Economic stagnation in key export markets—such as Japan and the European Community—and recovering U.S. demand helped importers to increase their share of the U.S. market in the early 1990s. However, long-term structural changes in global chemical markets also were at work. Importantly, producers in emerging economies were increasingly challenging U.S. suppliers for both domestic and export sales.
In the long term, growing foreign organic chemical production will result in fierce competition and reduced opportunities for U.S. manufacturers. The United States, Europe, and Japan will remain the key producers, but much of the market for high-volume, commodity-like organics will be surrendered to emerging powers. To sustain profitability, U.S. competitors will be forced to boost their production of high-tech compounds that will outperform existing chemicals and open new markets.
The organic chemical industry continues to invest a major share of its revenues in research and development. Most expenditures are used to increase productivity and to meet stringent environmental regulations. Estimates indicate that the average organic manufacturer made capital investments equivalent to $55,418 per employee in 1999.
As the industry continues to consolidate, and as environmental issues continue to command center stage, research and development will occupy an increasingly prominent place in the industry.
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