Sasol Ltd. is planning to add a multibillion ethane cracker and ethylene-derivative project to its Lake Charles facility in Louisiana, in part to leverage on the rapid development of shale gas in North America.

The project, estimated at a cost of $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion, could produce between 1 million and 1.4 million tons per year of ethylene, according to a statement from Christine Ramon, chief financial officer of the South African energy and chemicals major.

Ramon cited rapid development of North America's shale gas industry, the resulting decoupling of prices for crude oil and natural gas, and the availability of significant volumes of natural gas liquids -- particularly ethane - as opportunities for production of fuels and chemicals.

The company recently completed a pre-feasibility study on these opportunities, concluding that a world-scale ethane cracker with certain ethylene-derivative units would be an attractive investment.

Going forward, Sasol's board of directors has approved the advancement of the project into a feasibility study, which is slated to complete in the second half of the company's fiscal 2013.

Within the sector, there has been growing interest from major petrochemical producers to invest in new ethane crackers in the U.S. due to low feedstock costs from the growing shale gas industry.

Companies reportedly looking to build new crackers include Chevron Philips Chemical Co., Royal Dutch Shell Plc., Formosa Plastics Corp. and Braskem.