Manchin, Environmental Activists Seek More Details on China Energy Deal for W.Va.
CHARLESTON – Normally butting heads, environmental activists and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are both on the same page when it comes to asking for more details on the multi-billion dollar “deal” with a Chinese company to further develop West Virginia’s natural gas infrastructure.
During a hearing Thursday of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee regarding liquified natural gas exports, Manchin, the ranking minority member of the committee, raised concerns about the memorandum of understanding between the state Commerce Department and the China Energy Investment Group.
“What would be their interest? We cannot find out one iota of what the MOU is,” Manchin said. “I have asked them directly and cannot get a direct answer about their investments.”
Manchin isn’t the only one wanting to see what’s in the memorandum of understanding between the state and China Energy. Appalachian Mountain Advocates June 24 filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court of Appeals of a lower court decision denying a Freedom of Information Act request to the West Virginia University Energy Institute, one of the partners with the commerce department, for the memorandum.
On Nov. 9, 2017, Gov. Jim Justice announced the state had entered into an agreement with China Energy valued at $83.7 billion.
China Energy committed to investments in Marcellus Shale natural gas production, infrastructure, and downstream industries, such as chemical manufacturing interests.
The deal was part of a $250 billion trade deal negotiated between China and the U.S. Department of Commerce, with former commerce secretary Woody Thrasher traveling to China twice to secure a memorandum of understanding with China Energy officials.
“Do you all know about this deal they want to make with West Virginia, my state? They’ve said they’re going to invest $83 billion over 20 years,” Manchin said during Thursday’s committee meeting. “You can imagine that kind of carrot being swung out there, it’s tremendous for a small state. Our budget is only $4 billion a year and they’re going to invest $83 billion.”
That deal has gone silent over the last 17 months due in part to the trade war going on between China and President Donald Trump. According to the Associated Press, U.S. exports to China fell by 31.4 percent over the last 12 months, while exports from China fell by 7.8 percent. Negotiations between the two countries are ongoing.
West Virginia did $8.1 billion in exports in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. China was West Virginia’s sixth largest recipient of exports at a value of $484 million in 2018.
“My gut tells me (China) want(s) the (liquidized natural gas), they want the propane, ethane and butane which we do not have (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) review on,” Manchin said. “It could take away our building stock for manufacturing. And I can’t believe that (the Trump) administration would allow in any way, shape or form, for this project to go on.”
Shortly after the China Energy deal was announced in 2017, Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed a FOIA request seeking a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the state and China Energy from the WVU Energy Institute. Attorneys for WVU denied the request as it was not the original custodian that they were not required to turn the document over. The lawyers also said the documents being sought had proprietary trade secrets exempting them from FOIA.
“Although the university claims those records are exempt from disclosure under the (Freedom of Information Act), it consistently refused to specify how the records fit within any of the act’s narrow statutory exemptions or why responding to Appalachian’s request as written would paralyze necessary governmental functions,” according to the filing.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates took WVU to Monongalia County Circuit Court, where university attorneys argued that the memorandum was exempt from FOIA by state code protecting certain economic development documents from disclosure. After the circuit court ruled in favor of WVU, Appalachian Mountain Advocates appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the circuit court didn’t follow the law.
“West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act…reflects the ‘fundamental philosophy’ that citizens should not be resigned merely to take their government at its word,” wrote Evan Johns, attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “To ensure access to ‘full and complete information regarding the affairs of government,’ the Act enlists the courts to conduct a rigorous, (new) review of any efforts to screen public records from scrutiny.”
Manchin heard testimony Thursday from Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Steven Winberg, Sempra Energy Vice President Dennis Arriola, and Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Melanie Hart. Manchin asked whether U.S. companies would be allowed to invest in energy infrastructure projects in China simply to the West Virginia-China Energy deal.
“Are we as Americans allowed to go into China and buy their resources, develop their resources and control the flow of their resources back to the U.S.?” Manchin said.
“We are certainly not allowed to do so in China,” Hart said in response. “In fact, China’s information about their shale gas resources is classified. So, our companies are also not even allowed to fully assess what they have in the ground to understand how they might weigh in as a potential exporter over time.”
Manchin doesn’t want the China Energy deal, if it ever becomes a reality, to resemble efforts by the Russian company American Ethane, which is already the largest ethane producer in the U.S.
“American Ethane is by run a Russian oligarch,” Manchin said. “What they’re doing here in America to take out our building stock… I don’t know why we haven’t stepped up and slapped a stop and desist order on this.”
A request for comment from the state Commerce Department was not returned.