In this episode of The Chemical Show, host Victoria Meyer welcomes Chet Thompson, CEO of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) to chat about his organization’s efforts towards a circular economy and rail safety. Victoria and Chet discuss the importance of recycling and innovation, the challenges of reducing plastic waste, rail safety, the dual challenge of producing energy while maintaining sustainability, and the immense value and benefits of plastics.
Learn more about the following in this episode:
- AFPM’s top priorities
- Storytelling in the chemical industry
- UN Plastics Treaty
- Education and Awareness of Advanced Recycling
- The EPA’s proposed draft strategy to prevent plastic pollution
- Achieving a circular economy
- Challenges with Rail Transportation
Chet emphasizes the importance of approaching plastics in a nuanced and balanced way, neither treating them as inherently good nor bad, but recognizing their essential role in modern life. Victoria and Chet also discuss the benefits of advanced recycling, which creates “pure feedstock” that can be reused in new products. Thompson expresses his optimism for progress within Congress to enhance public safety for rail and promote competition in the industry.
Please subscribe to The Chemical Show on your favorite podcast player. And, visit www.thechemicalshow.com to subscribe to our email list and get additional insights.
AFPM sustainability report: https://afpm.org/data-reports/publications/sustainability-report
Listen to the Podcast Here
Watch the Episode Here
The Dual Challenge: Producing Petrochemicals and Energy Sustainably with Chet Thompson of AFPM
Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. Today I am speaking with Chet Thompson, who is the CEO of AFPM, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. He leads a staff that advocates for petroleum refiners and petrochemical manufacturers before Congress and the executive branch on a broad range of public policy issues.
AFPM, as you guys know, works to emphasize the importance of petroleum refiners, petrochemicals and the essential products they produce for our lives, our economy and more. Prior to joining AFPM, Chet had a successful legal career for over two decades and he also served, interestingly, as the Deputy General Counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency, otherwise known as the EPA during the George W. Bush administration. Chet, welcome to The Chemical Show.
Victoria, thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
I’m really excited to have you here. So what is your origin story? What got you interested in law, in Washington DC and ultimately brought you to AFPM?
Wow. Well, let me start with the easy one. What brought me to Washington DC. Born and raised here. A bit odd in this neck of the woods with so many people that move here. I was born right here in the nation’s capital and grew up here. So staying here and working here was pretty easy in that regard. The law. Let’s see what got me interested in law. I think my parents would say I have been like an arguer my entire life. I think they always knew what I was going to do. Maybe deep down I did. Pretty early on, both in high school and college I loved a good debate, loved a good fight. Frankly, that was just naturally what drew me there.
Then I got to work at this great boutique law firm when I first started and they had an environmental practice, an energy practice, and it was perfect for me. It was the early 90s when the environmental law business was really starting to boom and industries were really trying to get the arms around how to balance doing their business with doing it in a safe and effective way. It just took to me and I loved every minute of it.
That’s awesome, and then how did you get over to AFPM? What made you move from legal practice to industry advocacy?
Well, AFPM was a client and some of their members were clients. I got the good fortune to work with folks in this industry for a long time when I was in private practice. So I got to know folks. Then I started to be AFPM’s outside environmental lawyer, energy expert. As the story goes, they approached me when my predecessor, Charlie Drevna, was looking to retire. They brought me in to help find somebody that might be a good fit here. And I’m accused of doing a bit of a Dick Cheney, in that I went from helping folks find someone to actually deciding to join AFPM.
People would ask, “Why?” But I just believe in the industry. I believe in what they do, and you won’t find finer people in all the world than those that do petrochemical refining. And I’m not just saying that, it’s not a platitude, it is just a fact that these are great people. They’re humble people, they believe in what they do and it’s contagious. It was an attractive idea to continue to do what I was doing, which is a lot of environmental energy law, and not walk away from it, because so much of what we deal with, our priorities and our agenda here at AFPM, are so aligned with that. So the ability to do that and to continue to represent the industry in a broader way was just too good for me to pass up. And in the blink of an eye I’ve been here eight years and it’s been nothing but fantastic. Hopefully they’ll let me stick around a little bit longer.
Absolutely, it does go fast. And I can definitely see where in your role at AFPM you’re able to have a much broader impact on the industry. Right?
I certainly do and this town is full of trade associations, and a lot of folks that have my role tend to come from two cohorts. Either they’re former politicians or they are just professional trade association people. So I was a bit of an odd duck in that I came out of practicing law. But again, at the time I started, the issues of such paramount importance like climate change, Clean Air Act regulation, the issues surrounding the petrochemical industry permitting. I mean, just so many things of such importance to the industry that are my area of expertise. The rest is history.
They can’t get rid of me at the moment.
That’s right. So this is a good segue. What’s on AFPM’s priority list currently?
Wow, there’s a lot going on right now, as you can imagine. I will say one thing that has been a priority to this organization for a long time, and it will continue to be, is health and safety. A lot of folks think about AFPM just as an advocacy organization, and indeed we are, but we’re also a technical organization. We’ve been around since 1902, more than 100 years. But we started as a place for the industry to come together to share best practices and share knowledge for the good of the entire industry. One of the things I’m most proud of about is our work around safety. That is our license to operate. If we don’t operate safely, if we don’t protect our workforce, if we don’t protect our communities, we’re done for. So we put a lot of work into that. And I can tell you, not a meeting goes by when we don’t talk about that issue. So that will continue. And we’ve made a lot of progress.
I’m proud to say that groups like the Chemical Safety Board have told us that we are a best in class type of operations. Again, we bring our folks together. We’ve created so many tools that our members can use and so many opportunities to share information. The Department of Commerce tracks a couple of hundred industries and we’re in the top ten, both the pet chem and refining and safety. It’s something we work hard on. It’s something we care deeply about. So in any priority list of mine that’s going to be high.
The other mantra that we operate with here within AFPM is what we call loosely the dual challenge. What’s the dual challenge? That is that we know we have a responsibility to produce the petrochemicals and the energy that our country needs, our allies need, and the world needs, frankly, to continue to thrive. So that’s critically important, but we know we need to do this, in an ever increasing sustainable way. That’s really where my environmental background comes in. Despite what is a common and unfair narrative about us, that we don’t care about those things. It’s just not true. And you know that because you’re close enough to the industry Victoria. You know how deeply we care. But that dual challenge drives us. Which leads me into our priorities on the policy front, there’s two things.
One, right now there’s a lot of discussions around the United Nations Plastic Waste Treaty. That is something we’re very deeply involved in. In fact, I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago as a part of a round of discussions, that is very important to us and dominant. I would say protecting liquid fuels is a really big thing right now. We have an administration that is a tad bit hostile to fossil fuels. We have a whole slew of proposals out there right now that are designed to accelerate the transition away from us in an unrealistic kind of way.
So what am I saying? I’ll try to speak plain. We have an administration that has proposed to ban gas and diesel powered cars and trucks in as little as nine years. We have the state of California that has also proposed to ban cars and trucks in that state. There are 17 other states that followed suit and so that has been keeping us busy. We have a slew of comments on these issues due. Some are due today and so that will keep us quite busy. Among quite a few other things, but I would say those are the issues that really keep us jumping around here.
One other thing we do, because it’s part of the reason we’re here and it’s also a huge priority of this organization, is to tell our story. We realized about six or seven years ago that we weren’t doing enough to talk to people about the value of our products, how they make modern life possible, and all the good work we’re doing. We realized that most people don’t know this. Most of the coverage of our industry is negative. So now we do a lot. That priority is big. And I have the best communications team in town right here.
Yeah, that’s so critical. In fact, people have heard me say this a lot. I think we the industry, individual companies, and organizations such as AFPM need to do a much better job of telling our story because if we don’t tell our story, somebody else will and they’re going to spin it their own way. So it’s incumbent on all of us to do that.
We did an interesting study several years ago where we actually looked at how the media covers our industry and we found something really shocking. We always knew it wasn’t perfect coverage, but we found that more than 90% of every story written about our products and our industry and our members were negative.
When our young people in our communities and thought leaders and policymakers are bombarded by that. That’s kind of the reason we’re in the position we are right now where folks don’t always appreciate the value that our products bring people every single day.
Yeah, I totally see that. And I have teenagers Chet, so I’m really mindful of the stories that they’re receiving from the media, which is predominantly a social media format about energy, plastics, chemicals, how it’s used, how it’s not used, the positives and negatives. You have to almost be an evangelist and build evangelists to help counteract a lot of not just the published traditional media, but all the social media, and the narratives that are going on all over the place.
That’s right. We can’t agree more. The good news is, we find that when you engage people, they’re like, “Oh, okay, I never really thought about that.” I too have teenagers and you need to remind them where all the stuff that they embrace comes from. It really takes people stopping to think about it a bit. So it can be done, it’s hard, but we have to do it.
What people really want to know is that we’re continuing to do better and that we’re delivering our products in a cleaner, safer way. That’s why, again, I talk about the dual challenge. We know it’s incumbent upon us, and I sleep well at night knowing that our guys are working their tails off and have made tremendous progress on these fronts. Tremendous. You look at our traditional emissions over the last couple of decades, down 70 some odd percent. Our fuels are cleaner than ever. Our products, our petrochemical products are the building blocks of things that make for clean pipes and drinking water and air conditions and health. Right? We just came out of COVID and how would we have gotten through COVID without our products? So anyway, there’s a lot of great stories.
We appreciate all that you do to talk about these things.
Thank you. So let’s talk about the UN Plastics Treaty and what’s going on there. I know that you and a team of folks from AFPM and from many industry groups were recently in Paris for the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations. There’s a lot of different points of view regarding how to handle plastics and plastics waste, what’s critical to AFPM and its member companies with regards to the treaty.
Well, let me just start off to talk about the treaty.
One, AFPM and our members certainly support the aspirations of this treaty and its core mission of preventing plastics waste from getting in the environment and to deal with the legacy plastics in the environment. That is something we wholeheartedly embrace. I have members that for years have been involved in efforts to try to tackle that important problem. So that part we care a lot about. We support the development of an aggressive agreement. Aggressive, but we have to be clear that it also has to be workable.
And so what does that mean for us? I think for starters, it means an agreement has to recognize the benefits of plastics. We can’t go into an agreement, and there are some that are approaching this way, where plastics are bad. Plastics aren’t bad, as we’ve talked about, plastics are critical to our way of life. They’re critical to upward mobility of people all across the globe. It’s critical for water, it’s critical for health care, I mean, it’s critical. We need an agreement that recognizes that. We need an agreement that unlocks innovation. We can do lots of stuff, and so we need innovation, we need resources, we need government supporting us and not opposing us. We need flexibility, and what I mean by that is, I believe if they set a broad based standard, they build this up and say, “Now each country, go figure out how to get there.”
We have 160 countries that are in these discussions. We have countries that are in such different positions. We had folks from the supply chains there. We had stakeholders from every walk of life there. But what we’re hoping is that we get the flexibility to allow individual countries to come up with their own national strategies and plans to get there. Then the other really important thing is we cannot have production limits or caps.
I saw that as part of the conversation that was taking place during this.
We just think that trying to limit the supply of plastics is not going to work out. All we’re going to do in that situation is raise the costs of these life changing products and we’re going to push production to places that aren’t the best places for where production should be. We’re open to taking a hard look at demand, but we shouldn’t be looking at supply. At the end of the day, and I should have started here, but what we’re trying to do is drive the world to a circular economy where plastics are reused. And if they can’t be reused, they’re recycled. If we can recycle them through advanced recycling, we can break them down into almost their original purity feedstocks and reinsert them into the whole supply chain. So we’re hopeful that we can get an agreement like that. It’s going to take a lot of work, anytime you bring this many people together, it’s hard.
I can’t imagine what it takes to really craft a negotiation with so many various people and perspectives that need to be accounted for. So what’s the timeline in terms of this? What should we be looking for next?
Well, the goal of all of this is to try to get an agreement by the end of next year. So 2024, that is very fast. The positive thing that came out of the last meeting in Paris, so they call these things INC-1, 2, 3 and 4. These are the intergovernmental negotiating committees and they bring all the parties there and I’m proud to say that AFPM, we’re accredited. We got to bring our own group and there were probably 60 some representatives of the industry, but we were the smallest contingent. There were countries and country reps and NGOs. So we’re bringing a lot of folks together and there was certainly a little bit of a slow start to the meetings.
I heard that as well.
The first few days were lots of process and procedure, important stuff. Again, every country is coming at this a bit differently, but the good news is they got through that and then some progress was made. And the agreement was that there’s going to be the development of what they call a zero draft. That is literally people putting pen to paper initially, and we’re expecting to see that very first cut sometime in the early fall. Stakeholders will have an opportunity to comment on that draft. Then there will be a meeting that has been scheduled for middle of November in Nairobi, Kenya. Then I believe later in the year there might be one, I want to say in South Korea. So there’s a series of meetings between now and the end of next year.
The meeting in Paris was short, I want to say seven days. I think everyone realized that that’s not enough time when we get together, because just so much needs to be done. So I think they’re going to expand these meetings. But you’re going to see things are going to really start to pick up now, Victoria, when they put pen to paper and you’re no longer talking concepts and theories, you’re actually reacting to something. I would think things are going to pick up a bit in the coming moments.
All right, here’s my aside on this. So the musical Hamilton has really obviously raised the profile of Alexander Hamilton, and he was really known as a very prolific writer of policies and policy documents and suggestions, et cetera. Who’s our modern day equivalent of Alexander Hamilton who is putting pen to paper as we get to this zero draft of the UN Plastics Treaty? Is there a particular set of individuals or a small group or how does that actually work?
Right now, that’s the secretary of this United Nations environmental program, UNEP, he has the pen. There will be some other countries that will be able to participate. But basically, the pen is going to be with some of the governments and United Nations people initially. It’s powerful you’re right. With the pen comes power, at least as far as setting the tone of the next discussions.
I am very optimistic that we’re all going to have an opportunity to weigh in. Folks do really want to listen. When we were there, we had an opportunity to speak to representatives over 90 different countries. We certainly met with the United States delegation. We got a chance to meet with the United Nations working groups. We gathered, and I say that because everyone, most everyone, is really committed to trying to find a path forward.
I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to do some good in the coming months.
So, Chet, you referenced that one of the end goals is really circularity and advanced recycling, sometimes called chemical recycling, it’s gone by a few different names. But advanced recycling is really critical to the industry goals and our national targets for carbon reduction and plastics waste reduction. It seems like a no brainer. Like, hey, let’s make sure that we can get this circular economy going really and truly. Yet I know that there’s also been a variety of pushback.
So a couple of questions. Number one, can you just explain what advanced recycling is briefly and then why is it important?
It’s very important. Traditionally, most recycling has been physical recycling. Think about things getting shredded and remoulded. That’s great, but there’s a bit of a limited ability to do that. There are certain plastics that you try to physically recycle now, but there’s limits to how many times you can melt and remold something. There are limits meaning that you can’t use certain applications. You can’t use some of that type of recycled products in healthcare or food packaging given the purity requirements, et cetera.
So what advanced recycling is at its core is the ability, through a lot of heat and pressure, to take polymers that make up plastics and break them down into their original core components, the original base petrochemicals that are the original building blocks. Then it’s like pure feedstock and you can reinsert that material back into the process. It eliminates the amount of virgin feed you need at that point. And again, it opens up a lot of different applications for the reuse of recycled products because you can put it right back in. It’s indistinguishable, the products you can make, from what you could have made from the original virgin material. So us in the industry believe it’s a game changer. It is going to open up a lot of materials that today cannot be recycled and end up having to be landfilled. It’s going to allow us to move forward in a good way.
But you’re right to point out that not everybody agrees with the benefit of advanced recycling and there are some folks that want to see it stifled or it’s certainly not encouraged. We’re really disappointed with that because again, we do think that’s the way forward. Our industry over the last couple of years has invested many billions of dollars into research and scaling and building up advanced recycling because that’s what we need in order to really make the system circular.
Yeah. So what’s AFPM doing to improve education and awareness of advanced recycling? How are you guys affecting and impacting that?
Well, the best we can do is try to talk about it a lot. We try to amplify the messages of our members. We’re blessed with having members that know more about this stuff than we do that are doing a lot. We try to talk about that. We promote it. We just did our third annual sustainability report at AFPM. I encourage your listeners to go grab it and check it out.
Yeah, I’ll make sure it’s linked to the show notes for this episode.
I think folks are going to love it. We don’t talk numbers and charts, but we talk about real things that our members do every day to make the world a more sustainable and better place. So we promote this. We talk about it to policymakers. We do what we can do, which is to do a lot of talking. It’s why, when we’re at the table for the United Nations discussions, we’re advocating strongly for the promotion of advanced recycling.
As you know, EPA has a strategy out to prevent plastic pollution in that document. We’re going to be commenting on that document in the days ahead. We’ll really be pushing out because even that document is frankly not as positive as it should be on advanced recycling. We need to get policymakers to understand the benefits of advanced recycling if you really want to get to a zero net waste in our world.
So let’s talk a little bit about that. The US EPA has a proposed draft strategy to prevent plastic pollution, which is ambitious, right? So what is included in that strategy and what’s AFPM and your company’s response at this point?
Well, as I just alluded it’s out for comment. So we’re digging into it. All of my great team here and our members, we’re digging into it. We want to be productive participants in the exercise because, again, we support the underlying goal of this document in the United Nations, which is how do we keep plastic waste out of the environment, how do we increase plastics recycling and reuse? And it’s important stuff. So we’re appreciative of the opportunity to weigh in. We will be in the weeks ahead, and we’ll share with you our final product.
We’re happy about certain aspects of the document. One of the things that it talks about is doing more life cycle analysis of not only plastics, but the alternatives to plastics. So if you care about carbon reductions and energy use and efficiency, think about what plastic replaces. It replaces glass. It replaces steel. If you start doing carbon analysis against the alternatives, plastics tell their own story, a powerful story. Plastics are so great, because they’re light and they’re strong and they’re flexible and they can be used in a lot of different ways. So we support fully, really letting the data tell the story. Let’s dig in and do some life cycle analysis and see where we go.
Our concerns around the document so far mostly centered around the focus on a way to address plastic waste through reducing production. So we will certainly be commenting on that. Limiting the supply of something does not solve the problem, right? Our plastics are getting in the environment. It’s waste management we definitely need to focus on. We need to help our country, we need to help other countries. How do we gather, collect and get these materials into that circular economy we’re talking about? We’ll be talking about innovation and again, how we spur that.
The document unfortunately doesn’t talk much about advanced recycling and we would like any policy and programs designed to deal with this subject to include advanced recycling. But I’m optimistic and I mean this, I know how hard all these things are, but I really am optimistic that we’re going to get to a circularity economy. Our members are already doing a lot. We’re already starting to design upfront products for recycling. We’re identifying ways to do it. We’re investing in advanced recycle. We’re doing the things that need to be done in order for us to be at a place where we really are a circular economy.
I think what’s striking to me, Chet, is that when I think about plastic pollution and recycling and creating the circular economy, it’s not just on the chemical and the petrochemical industry. This is also about human behavior, the consumers and how the consumers are recycling their materials.
And then, as you say, waste management, the companies and the collection process which exists in some places but doesn’t exist effectively in others. To actually have the opportunity for collection, recycling, et cetera, it is a holistic problem and it needs to be a holistic solution, which is pretty challenging.
Yeah, very well said. There’s so many different players in the supply chain and I’d be stepping way out of my expertise to talk to you about how the whole system will work. But I will say that there’s so many of these stakeholders that are being brought to bear now and that’s what we need because every state is different, every community is different. But you’re right at its heart this is a waste management problem and we need to find solutions there.
It’s not to suggest that there aren’t roles for us. There are roles for us. We’re open to additional producer responsibilities and we’re right there and want to be helpful in developing a strategy to move forward. So in the coming weeks, we will be submitting comments on this and looking forward to how this could be built into a national strategy that will eventually feed into the United Nations agreement.
Awesome. So in the 2021, 2022 time frame, there was a significant focus on rail and transportation. The effects of the pandemic really spiked everyone’s awareness of supply chain. And I know that there had been some challenges looming with rail and there were some potential solutions that were applied, but it seems to have gone a little bit quiet. Is this still on the agenda today? What is going on in the world of rail and rail transportation?
Well, it’s certainly very important to us and should be important to everybody going forward. As the East Palestine situation from a couple of months ago shows, this is critically important. We have rail crisscrossing this country and going through communities, and we need to make sure that products are delivered safely and feedstocks are delivered safely. We can’t operate without an efficient rail system. It’s critically important, like I say, for both our pet chem members and our refiners. That’s how we get feedstock. That’s how we get our products to market and to our customers. So we want to work along with our friends in the rail.
So from a rail safety standpoint, there has been progress made. The senate passed a bill that has lots of things in it that we’re supportive of, designed to enhance public safety. Congress is still grappling with a path forward on that, but I’m optimistic that something will happen. So there’s the safety part, which we’re fully supportive of. What we also focus on is the need to bring back more competition in the rail industry. There’s only now a handful of rail providers out there.
The lack of competition is never perfect. So we would like to find ways and encourage Congress to get behind us on how we spur that competition. How do we shake things up a little bit? Because competition makes people sharper. It makes people a little bit more efficient, because we’ve seen a drop in efficiency. This isn’t a secret. We talk a fair amount about this and we think as a country we can and need to do better. So AFPM will certainly be there at the table encouraging policymakers to act on this because it’s really critically important.
So, Chet, we’ve covered a lot of ground. AFPM is obviously very active in a number of fronts related to policy, related to other topics. Where can people find more information?
People can find out more information than they thought ever in their wildest dreams would be possible at afpm.org. You can find out a lot about our organization or about our policy priorities, and about the things we’re doing in our communication space. Also about one of our big initiatives here that we dub the We Make Progress campaign where we try to highlight all the great things that our products make possible. And you can go to Wemakeprogress.com as well on that.
We also have another program, which is fabulous, called Empower. Our Empower program is designed to directly reach our workforce. Victoria, we have over 3 million people that are directly and indirectly employed, related to our business. So we’ve created a program that meets the needs of our workforce, and that’s also available for people to check out. I urge your listeners to do so. Everything that we’re working on is there and we try to make it in very simple terms for people to talk about and share.
Awesome. Well, Chet, thank you so much for that. I will make sure all those websites are linked to the show notes and to our website so that people can find it easily. And thank you for joining us today on the Chemical Show.
You’re welcome. And by the way, congratulations. I hear this is like your 100th show or you just celebrated your hundredth show.
Hundredth plus, yeah. It’s been quite a journey and fun to do.
Thank you for everything that you do.
Thank you. And thanks everyone for listening to the Chemical Show. Keep listening, following and sharing and we will talk again soon.
About Chet Thompson:
Chet Thompson is president and CEO of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the national trade association representing over 250 member companies that encompass virtually all U.S. refining and petrochemical manufacturing capacity.
Prior to joining AFPM in 2015, Thompson was a partner at Crowell & Moring LLP, where he was chairman of the Environment & Natural Resources Group. He previously served as deputy general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the George W. Bush Administration. Before joining EPA in 2004, he spent 10 years at Collier Shannon Scott PLLC.
He has been featured multiple times on The Hill’s annual list of top lobbyists and has been recognized as one of the leading lawyers in the United States by Chambers & Partners.
Thompson holds a B.A. in Political Science from Boston College and a J.D. from the Catholic University Columbus School of Law.