CHARLESTON - Industry and government leaders agree that an ethane cracker would create thousands of new jobs for West Virginians, but a state delegate believes natural gas companies should employ more native workers now.
"Wetzel County has the state's highest unemployment rate, while the hotels are inundated with out-of-state workers," said West Virginia Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion.
Tim Manchin and several other government and industry representatives testified Monday during the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting in Charleston. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a member of the committee, chaired the session, as Mountain State members of the House of Representatives - David McKinley, R-W.Va.; Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. - also questioned witnesses while sitting with Joe Manchin.
Tim Manchin said more West Virginians should be working for gas companies, especially in Wetzel County, whose unemployment rate is the state's highest at 11.9 percent, according to WorkForce West Virginia. However, Scott Rotruck, vice president of corporate development and state government relations for Chesapeake Energy, cited the recent expansion of a Litman Excavating in Wetzel County from 17 employees to about 105 because of Marcellus action. Business owner Robert Litman could not be reached late Monday. Rotruck also said there are now more than 700 Mountain State residents working for Chesapeake.
"We need to do all we can to make sure West Virginians are getting these jobs," Joe Manchin said.
Following the meeting, Mike McCown, past president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said more training is needed to allow additional state residents to work in the industry.
"And people talk about seeing out-of-state license plates," McCown said. "What they don't realize is that just means those vehicles are registered in those states."
With the ethane cracker set to bring 300-1,000 permanent jobs paying an average of $60,000 per year - and as many 10,000 temporary construction jobs - leaders across West Virginia have been scrambling to attract the large petrochemical plant.
In addition to the direct jobs at the cracker, an American Chemistry Council study showed that gaining a cracker would help West Virginia create about 12,000 new permanent jobs in related businesses.
Though Rotruck said Chesapeake strongly supports construction of a West Virginia cracker, the company recently announced plans to send 75,000 barrels of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio ethane daily to Texas, via a pipeline Enterprise Products Partners will build. This pipeline could reach a capacity of 125,000 barrels of ethane daily, while another 50,000 barrels could be pumped to Canada via a Sunoco pipeline.
Even so, Kurt Dettinger, general counsel for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said state officials anticipate generating 270,000 barrels of ethane daily at peak production, leaving 95,000 barrels per day for a West Virginia cracker.
"It was a blow," Dettinger said following the meeting of Chesapeake's announcement. "But with 95,000 barrels each day, that would still be enough."
He said two companies are now "aggressively" looking to build a cracker in West Virginia, noting there should be an announcement sometime between now and the end of March. Though Dettinger could not confirm which companies are still in the running, Royal Dutch Shell announced plans this year to build a cracker somewhere in Appalachia.
Noting he wants to see the state reduce its unemployment rate, McKinley asked members of the state Legislature to do their best to provide incentives for companies to crack ethane in West Virginia.
"They are going to build this somewhere. I hope we can get it here," he said.
Capito also strongly believes in the cracker, adding, "When the cracker plant is built in West Virginia, we will see thousands of new jobs created."