WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Gov. Jim Justice is putting the head of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in charge of a new task force on manufacturing and petrochemicals.
Justice announced the new task force, and Secretary Austin Caperton’s appointment, Wednesday morning at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s annual business summit at The Greenbrier, the governor’s luxury resort.
“I think big,” he later said of his plan for downstream manufacturing.
The so-called Governor’s Downstream Jobs Task Force will spearhead manufacturing in the state “ahead of an anticipated expansion of the petrochemical industry in Appalachia,” Justice’s office later said in a news release.
Plans for an Appalachian Storage Hub — and the infrastructure that would surround it — are still opaque. According to a feasibility study from the U.S. Department of Energy, the storage hub in the upper Ohio Valley would include gathering lines, processing plants, fractionation facilities, liquid storage facilities and ethane crackers — all to keep up with the rapid extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.
Proponents see a petrochemical complex as a vehicle for job growth and energy independence; skeptics are concerned about the potential affects on health and the environment. Top state officials, meanwhile, are pushing for a federal loan guarantee to build the giant chemical storage plant that could cost as much as $10 billion.
“My job is going to be to sell. We’re going to sell the state of West Virginia,” Caperton said outside the resort’s ballroom Wednesday.
Justice later said he chose Caperton over Ed Gaunch, his Commerce secretary, because of Caperton’s perspective in the DEP and his experience with environmental permits.
“Just to be perfectly honest, you have to have, you have to have someone with the eyes of a developer, the eyes of the environmental community. I’m not confident that Ed [Gaunch] has the abilities and everything to be able to evaluate sites ... as Austin can bring to the table,” Justice said.
The task force will also include Gaunch; Department of Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy; Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby; Javier A. Reyes and John Chambers, both of West Virginia University; and James Wood, the interim director of West Virginia University’s energy institute.
Caperton, a former coal executive, said he was tapped for the job two weeks ago.
“My head is still spinning,” he said.
Asked about how he’d balance environmental needs and climate change with economic development, Caperton said his only job is to enforce the laws that already exist.
“I’ve said this before and it usually gets me in trouble: It’s not my job to tell what can be done and can’t be done,” he said. “It’s the U.S. legislature and the West Virginia Legislature, so they have passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and we have our own oil and gas laws.”
As they listened to Justice speak, state business leaders and officials ate lunch and miniature desserts. The business summit lasts until Friday.
On stage, Justice repeated a familiar insistence that he’s not a politician, never has been one and doesn’t want to be one.
“I don’t want anything. I have never wanted anything. All I want is to try to make it better,” Justice said.
Earlier this month, the Gazette-Mail and nonprofit newsroom ProPublica published an investigation into Justice’s myriad conflicts of interest, many of which revolve around Justice’s ownership of The Greenbrier.
Justice chastised the Gazette-Mail for the reporting, later calling it “inaccurate,” but refused to give examples of inaccuracies.
“I would tell all of you that if someone from the Charleston Gazette is looking over your shoulder about what you all are doing at The Greenbrier, you’re in trouble. You better watch them,” he told the room. “And I’m only teasing.”
Justice shut down the idea that his ownership of The Greenbrier poses any sort of conflict of interest.
“What did you want me to do, sell it?” he asked.