Realizing state's natural gas potential focus of conference
MORGANTOWN — The challenges and advantages to realizing the full potential of West Virginia’s natural gas resources were highlighted at the seventh Marcellus and Manufacturing Development Conference in Morgantown Tuesday.
The conference was held at the Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place hotel and organized by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association in partnership with the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, along with the West Virginia Oil & Natural Gas Association. The event’s keynote speaker was Steve Winberg, the U.S. Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for Fossil Energy.
He said the recent success stories of the Marcellus Shale aren’t limited to meeting energy needs but it’s also about fueling job growth in other sectors. For example, he said Dow Chemical plans to invest $4 billion over the next five years to build or expand petrochemical complexes around the country, which are projected to generate as many as 460,000 jobs either directly or indirectly by 2025.
“Studies have shown again and again that there is potential for manufacturing, and that’s what’s fueling this shale boom,” he said. “The shale revolution has spurred a renaissance in American energy production, and the good news for West Virginia is that’s not limited to the Gulf Coast.”
Much has been said of natural gas ensuring U.S. energy dominance, not just security. Winberg said countries such as India are interested in purchasing American liquid natural gas, and LNG exports quadrupled last year. At the rate the country is going, he said the U.S. is poised to be the world’s leading producer by 2023. By current projections, he said America will be an energy net exporter by 2022, a significant shift considering the country has been a net energy importer since 1953.
Winberg said the Department of Energy’s precise role is still being explored, but emphasized it’s making a point of not interfering.
“We want to be helpful, not hurtful,” he said.
Other speakers included Brian Anderson, director of the WVU Energy Institute. He elaborated on the advances in technology that have made many of the strides in recent years possible, such as horizontal drilling pioneered by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
“That technology has presented us with an opportunity we will never see again in our lifetime,” Anderson said, adding that geography is on West Virginia’s side with 17,477 industrial sites within 400 miles of the state that would in some way benefit from natural gas. “By the time I finish talking, there could be 17,478.”
He further stated that the current U.S. supply chain in petrochemical products is out of balance due to the location of the production hub along the Gulf Coast that’s far away from larger customer bases. On top of that, half the country’s population is within a day’s truck drive of the Marcellus shale producing regions. If initiatives such as the Appalachian Storage and Trade Hub can take off in concert with efforts in Ohio and Pennsylvania, there’s the potential to form a whole new economic region. Anderson said the process is being aided by research into robotics and artificial intelligence at West Virginia University.
“This three-state region has the potential to build what we call the Tech Belt, not the Rust Belt,” he said, adding that a chance exists to recreate the petrochemical industry that took shape in the region a century ago. “What we feel is we have all the required ingredients and we just have to put it in the oven.”
West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher noted that while there have been strides made, the potential for further growth can always fizzle out. Ways to prevent this, he said, include creating an environment that’s attractive to manufacturing facilities. To this end, he favors the creation of certain zones across the state where such facilities could take shape and this entails making use of the state’s numerous brownfield sites.
Furthermore, Thrasher said the repeal of the state’s inventory tax would help greatly. However, the statewide teachers’ strike earlier this year meant that repeal legislation was sidetracked. While Thrasher said it was great that the teachers got a raise, repealing the tax needs to be put back on the table.
The secretary also said the memorandum of understanding in which China Energy pledged to invest $83 billion in West Virginia stills stand despite the threat of a trade war between the U.S. and China. He said delegations from the energy giant have made 15 visits to the area, and a 16th visit is imminent.
“I’m very hopeful in the near future that we’ll be able to announce the first project,” Thrasher said.
This article was authored by Conor Griffith for WV News. Click here to read it on the publication's website.