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New Deputy Energy Secretary Visits Proposed Cracker Plant Site in Belmont County

DILLES BOTTOM — Mark W. Menezes chose the proposed ethane cracker plant site in Belmont County for his first official visit as U.S. deputy secretary of energy, saying the choice demonstrates that the Trump administration and the Department of Energy are committed to the project and to the local community.

Menezes was confirmed for his new role on Aug. 4 in a 79-16 vote by the U.S. Senate. He previously served as under secretary of energy and in other posts within the energy sector, including roles with private firms and with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He has been honored for his work as a lawyer, as well as for his work on energy and environmental concerns. Prior to taking a tour of PTT Global Chemical America’s proposed plant location, Menezes took part in a roundtable discussion and listening session with numerous federal, state and local stakeholders — an event that was not open to the general public but allowed some media access. Among the other participants were Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; representatives of Ohio-West Virginia Excavating, which hosted the session and has been deeply involved with the project; Shadyside school board members and Superintendent John Haswell; Jose Cunningham of the Department of Commerce; PTTGCA representatives; Belmont County Commissioner J.P. Dutton; county Port Authority Director Larry Merry; Monroe County Commissioner Carl Davis; Mead Township Trustees Ed Good and Matt Merryman; union representatives; and officials with JobsOhio.

Scott Owens, executive vice president of LNE group which represents PTTGCA, welcomed the mask-clad crowd and said it was a very exciting day for the project.

He pointed out that if PTTGCA decides to move forward with a final investment decision (FID), that could mean 5,000-6,000 construction jobs at the location along the Ohio River south of Shadyside for about 54 months, as well as around 600 permanent jobs once the facility is in operation. He then introduced Menezes, who addressed the group.

“It’s wonderful to be here in Belmont County, Ohio, in the heart of the Appalachian Region energy corridor for this important discussion,” the deputy secretary said. “We are all here today for the same reason: We want this project to continue moving forward. We want it to move forward because it will create jobs right here in Belmont County. We want it to move forward because it will strengthen American energy security. And we want it to move forward because of its broader economic development potential for the region.”

Menezes applauded PTTGCA for its commitment to proceed, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused the FID to be delayed and prompted a previous partner, Daelim Chemical USA, to withdraw from the deal. He said evidence of that commitment can be seen in PTTGCA’s recent agreement with Energy Storage Ventures on development of the Mountaineer NGL natural gas liquids storage site.

He cited the “abundant resources” and “tremendous potential for natural gas production, the petrochemicals industry, and manufacturing” of Appalachia and said the DOE and Trump administration intend to help developers capitalize on them.

“Our policy is to move the region forward,” he said. “We are here because advancing Appalachia’s energy infrastructure and economic growth potential is a priority.”

To facilitate such development, he said Washington has implemented a tax and regulatory structure that “encourages investment and private sector confidence,” through both legislation and executive orders. In addition, public infrastructure improvements have been made, including more than $16 million in transportation grant funds for the Ohio River Rail Improvement Project that is critical to the plan, as well as $96 million in loans and grants to improve Belmont County’s water and sewer infrastructure.

In Monroe County, he said, an NGL transloading facility received funds to help ready the site.

He added that more investment is planned to improve roads, broadband access and other infrastructure, as well as workforce development initiatives.

“But the key to this project is not in Washington,” he continued. “The answers are rarely found in Washington. The key to this project is here in this room. It is all of you, the local stakeholders and community members. It is your perseverance that is going to get this done.”

Prior to the session getting underway, Johnson shared his thoughts about the project.

“We have such a wealth of ethane under our feet,” he said. “This project is going to be a game-changer for this state and this region.”

Johnson said if it is constructed, the PTTGCA plant that would “crack” ethane using natural gas-fired furnaces, would be the largest petrochemical complex in the nation. Ethane is found in abundance in the natural gas stream of the Utica and Marcellus shales that underlie much of Eastern Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Cracker plants use that raw material to create components of plastics, textiles and a variety of chemicals and household products.

Johnson also pointed out that the Ohio Valley is situated within about 5 hours’ drive of 70 percent of the demand for these components. It is believed, therefore, that construction of the cracker plant would lead to a variety of other related industries locating in the region.

“As soon as the FID is made, you’re going to see manufacturing companies clamoring for access (to the cracker plant and its products),” he predicted.

A final investment decision is currently expected during the first quarter of 2021, or perhaps even by the end of 2020.

Although many people took part in the discussion Thursday, one group that opposes the development and sought to participate said it received no response to its requests. The Concerned Ohio River Residents repeatedly reached out to the Department of Energy in an effort to be included, according to spokesman Vincent DeGeorge.

“All of CORR’s efforts to participate in this community meeting went unanswered and CORR did not attend the meeting,” DeGeorge wrote in a statement released Thursday afternoon. “Concerned Ohio River Residents, as local community members and very successful leaders regarding the proposed PTTG ethane cracker plastics plant, are very disappointed that the ‘community’ focus of this meeting proved to be a mere public pretense, while representative community voices were absent from this conversation.”

PTTGCA spokesman Dan Williamson said project leaders respect CORR members and will continue to try to answer questions from them and others who have concerns. However, he said PTTGCA believes the project will be safe and “good for the valley.”

Regarding concerns about the potential environmental impact of the plant, Menezes pointed out that the proposed location is a brownfield site, once occupied by the former R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant. Since that facility has been demolished and earth work performed, he said it is looking like a greenfield project instead. He added that “we lead the world” in safety and environmental regulations and that jobs at the site will be mainly union jobs and that “safety is their No. 1 concern.”

“They can rest assured that all of the environmental permits have been approved and will be adhered to,” he said of those who are worried about pollution and health impacts of the facility.

Owens reiterated that all required permits have been obtained and that PTTGCA’s plans meet and, in some ways, exceed regulatory requirements. Still, he said those with concerns have the right to speak their minds.

“So we hear them loud and clear, and we appreciate their feedback,” he added.

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