West Virginia lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday from a top Department of Energy official that the federal government is prioritizing building out a petrochemical industry in Appalachia.
Speaking in front of the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development, Steven Winberg, DOE’s assistant secretary for fossil energy, told lawmakers his agency and the Trump administration believe the Ohio Valley is “on the cusp of an Appalachian petrochemical renaissance.”
“Federal efforts are strong and continue to gain momentum,” Winberg said. “We also recognize that others are doing a lot and we believe that together we can make this Appalachian petrochemical Renaissance happen for the benefit of the industry, the region and the country.”
West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio sit on top of some of the country’s largest reserves of ethane-rich natural “wet” gas, which can be processed into the chemical and plastics feedstocks.
According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Energy report, U.S. natural gas liquids production in the region is projected to increase over 700 percent in the 10 years from 2013 to 2023.
Winberg said the federal government is devoting resources into ensuring pipelines, ethane storage and cracker plants are built in the region, including to get final investment in a proposed cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio.
Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical, and its partner South Korea’s Daelim Industrial Co., have applied for permits and purchased 500 acres of land in Dilles Bottom, just a few miles from both Shadyside, Ohio, and Moundsville, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River. About 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Shell’s Monaca cracker plant is already under construction. It’s slated to produce 1.6 million tons of ethylene each year and permanently employ about 600 workers when done, according to the company.
Winberg urged West Virginia lawmakers to invest now in preparing sites for possible cracker development.
“What we need, ladies and gentlemen, is one of these crackers in West Virginia,” he told the committee. “These crackers are the anchor facilities that will drive job growth in this region.”
The American Chemistry Council estimates the hub could attract up to $36 billion in new chemical and plastics industry investment and create 100,000 new area jobs.
Gov. Jim Justice in January said the development of underground natural gas liquids storage, or the so-called Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub, is his office’s “number one economic focus.”
On the hub, Winberg said it's a top priority for the Trump administration.
"At DOE we have a full court press on this," he said.
Environmental groups feverently oppose this kind of development. Dustin White with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said bringing the petrochemical industry to the region would subject residents to public health, environmental and climate impacts with limited economic benefits.
He argued automation would likely replace the need for human workers at the majority of these facilities, and he likened a petrochemical future in Appalachia to what has already occurred in the Gulf Coast. Louisiana and neighboring states are currently home the bulk of the nation’s chemical and plastics industry, and dubbed by some as “cancer alley” due to high levels of cancer and other diseases.
“Once again the human health impacts and safety were not brought up,” White said of Winberg’s presentation. “From my perspective, it’s all false hope.”
He urged lawmakers to invest public tax dollars instead in renewable energy and other non-fossil fuel-based industries, especially as an increasing number of cities and nations ban the use of single-use plastic, which would be a central end product of the proposed Appalchian petrochemical buildout.