WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — West Virginia’s top economic leaders discussed different ways to develop the state’s economy, ultimately pointing to growth in the petrochemical industry.
Several of the forums and discussions Thursday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s annual business summit revolved around the need for an Appalachian Storage Hub and downstream development — ethane crackers, pipelines, plastics manufacturing — that would grow out of it.
“West Virginia should be identified as the energy state, and all forms of energy should be embraced,” said Woody Thrasher, the state’s former head of commerce who’s now running for governor.
The state should diversify, Thrasher maintained. Instead of limiting the focus on coal and natural gas, West Virginia should target petrochemical development, renewable energy and tourism, he said.
While Thrasher was Commerce secretary, West Virginia announced an $83.7 billion investment with a China-owned energy company for shale gas and chemical manufacturing projects in the state. Thrasher signed a memorandum of understanding — a nonbinding agreement — with China Energy, on behalf of the state.
Specific details of the MOU are limited, and a case to make the agreement public is pending before the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Thrasher spoke to a room of business leaders, legislators and lobbyists over breakfast at The Greenbrier, Gov. Jim Justice’s resort in Greenbrier County. The breakfast was sponsored by Antero Resources, West Virginia’s largest producer of natural gas.
One day earlier at the summit, Justice announced he had created a petrochemical task force, putting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton at the helm.
Later Thursday morning, though, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he is frustrated by the secrecy and murkiness of the memorandum of understanding.
“I’m not going to stand by and say, ‘OK, you can own the majority of our infrastructure,’” Manchin said of China Energy.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also urged energy development, vowing to “ease regulatory burdens” from Congress.
“We are committed to helping move these pipelines. I mean, they are just stalled through some bureaucratic snafus that the opposition has been able to work through the courts very successfully,” Capito said.
Work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is primarily being built by Dominion Energy, has been stopped since December, when a panel of federal judges said it lacked the right permits to cross the Appalachian Trail. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But there are other issues plaguing the state, officials said Thursday. There are thousands of unfilled jobs, said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. There are 10,000 homeless students living in West Virginia.
“That’s our responsibility,” Manchin said.
Both U.S. senators pointed to tourism as a potential major economic driver for West Virginia. They said they are pushing to make the New River Gorge National River a full-fledged national park.
“We should be the playground of the East,” Manchin said.
But that’s hard to do without things like broadband, he noted; people might come for one or two days, but leave to get back to work. If there were more reliable phone and internet services, visitors might be inclined to buy a vacation home, he said.
“This is an opportunity over a three-day period to say, how do we spread the wealth farther in our state, and how do we make ourselves more open, and more inclusive and more diverse,” Roberts said.
Throughout the day, the conference’s attendees also heard from people, including U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, about their plans to combat the opioid crisis. Later, Fox News contributor and former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile spoke to a jubilant room about the need for civility and bipartisanship in politics.
Too often, she said, “coastal elites” determine the country’s narrative. West Virginia is being overlooked, she said, praising the state’s population and beauty.
“We need to tell this story,” she said.
Later, attendees milled about The Greenbrier. EQT, the state’s second-largest gas producer, sponsored a clay-shooting invitational. Nearly 1,000 people attended the event over three days, Roberts said.
The summit continues Friday.