Leaders Look to Future of Natural Gas Industry in West Virginia

Photo by Jennifer Compston-Strough Patrick Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, speaks Tuesday at the Wheeling Area Economic Outlook Conference at Wheeling Island Hotel- Casino-Racetrack.

WHEELING — As stakeholders partner across state lines in an effort to create a petrochemical hub in the tri-state area, those here are looking for ways to ensure that West Virginia comes out on top regarding developments related to a potential ethane cracker plant.

Economic advisers, researchers, industrial leaders and others gathered Tuesday at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack for a panel discussion on the economic outlook for Wheeling, the Mountain State, the larger region including Ohio and Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation. David H. McKinley, principal and chief investment officer for McKinley Carter Wealth Services, moderated the event.

It included participation by his father, U.S. Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va. The Wheeling Area Economic Outlook Conference attracted a crowd of business and government representatives, including Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Gentile; Belmont County Commissioner J.P. Dutton; Marshall County Commissioner Bob Miller; and Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott.

Workforce participation and industrial diversification will be keys to unlocking West Virginia’s economic future, the younger McKinley said. Panelists touched on various factors that will influence the state’s ability to attract new investment.

“The sun is shining again in West Virginia,” he said, noting that he expects private investment to bring “serious capital” to the area.

Brian Anderson, director of the West Virginia University Energy Institute, said his organization’s mission is to contribute to the daily lives of ordinary residents. He said the state’s raw materials are not enough to drive economic development alone, and that West Virginia also must develop its people and their skills in order to compete nationally and globally.

Anderson said he believes advanced manufacturing operations, including petrochemical technology and “smart” manufacturing — defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology as manufacturing systems that are fully-integrated, collaborative and respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory — will help to improve the local economy and elevate the workforce, despite the huge decline in coal production in recent years.

“This is our opportunity to not just extract and export,” Anderson said. “Added-value products will add local wealth.”

Looking toward a future that could include an ethane storage hub in the northern part of the state, a Shell cracker plant at Monaca, Pennsylvania, and a potential PTT Global Chemical cracker plant at Dilles Bottom in Belmont County, Anderson said the region can expect as much as $36 billion in new investment and the creation of up to 101,000 new jobs.

He also said the Appalachian shale region should aim to become the domestic petrochemical hub for the United States. Anderson said 70 percent of domestic demand for the energy and products yielded by petroleum comes from within a day’s drive of the area. That would leave the existing petrochemical hub along the Gulf of Mexico free to export to the world market.

Paul Hunter, vice president of operations for the Williams energy company with facilities in the Northern Panhandle, pointed out that a great deal of money already has been invested in the natural gas industry in the area. He said Williams has invested $4.5 billion here since 2010, with the company’s work concentrated in Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler, Ohio, Brooke and Upshur counties. Williams has the capacity to process natural gas, remove its liquid components such as ethane and transport the gas to market.

“We view West Virginia as a critical player in the energy value chain and a vital part of our growth strategy,” Hunter said of the century-old company with interests in multiple parts of the country.

Craig O’Leary, program director for the Regional Economic Development Partnership, shared the good news that companies from India, China, Japan and other parts of the world where energy sources are in short supply have contacted RED looking for development opportunities here.

“We’re competing in markets around the world,” O’Leary said.

He said the lack of available industrial sites is a challenge, as most of the best locations in the Wheeling area were first occupied 100 years ago. He said access to the Ohio River and to railroad lines appeals to investors but companies such as Williams are thinking outside the box when it comes to site selection. He said the natural gas and petrochemical industries move quickly, and investors must have sites ready for occupation when those downstream interests are ready to occupy them.

“Good sites will lead to good-paying jobs,” he added.

Century Equities’ Adam Weidner, director of real estate operations, agreed with O’Leary. He said most industrial sites in Belmont and Ohio counties already are occupied and that warehouse space already is at a premium. He urged redevelopment of manufacturing facilities that have been shuttered for years, as well as the rehabilitation of Brownfields sites.

Patrick Kirby is one individual who could help meet that goal. He is director of the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center at West Virginia University. He said such sites can range from old gas stations to abandoned steel mills, mine properties, foundries, dumps or even old schools that contain asbestos or lead-based paint. There are between 450,000 and 1 million such sites across the nation, he said — and help is available to fund cleanup of those locations and to reduce potential liabilities related to prior uses.

Patrick Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, commended Congressman McKinley for his success in writing the BUILD Act, which provides larger cleanup grants for Brownfields sites along with other forms of assistance. Ford pointed out that while his region, mainly Brooke and Hancock counties, has a fairly low number of college graduates, when the rest of the nation wants something fabricated, galvanized, coated or transported, they turn to the Northern Panhandle.

“We have the muscle memory to handle metals better than anyone else in the world,” Ford said.

He added that the region can “field a team” quickly, as the population is adaptable and in close contact with decision-makers, such as Congressman McKinley.

“We have to be mobile, agile and tactile,” Ford said regarding ways the area can take advantage of opportunities that the abundant natural gas and associated liquids found in the Marcellus and Utica shales are expected to bring.