Two years ago, then-West Virginia Commerce secretary Woody Thrasher made a trip to China with officials from the Trump administration, including the president himself.
Out of that came the announcement that a Chinese energy company would be making an $84 billion investment in West Virginia. A memorandum of understanding had been signed. Some state officials promoted the deal as the salvation of the Mountain State’s economy. A new investment in projects over a period of 20 years would bring tens, if not hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The Gazette-Mail and other news organizations had some questions, though. The main one being, what was in the memorandum? Obviously, a memorandum of understanding isn’t a contract, but any details would have been nice.
Two years later, the picture isn’t any clearer. The public hasn’t seen the memorandum. Thrasher and Gov. Jim Justice said the state would see projects underway within a year. That hasn’t happened. Thrasher is no longer commerce secretary, resigning from that post after a scandal over flood recovery efforts. He’s now trying to beat Justice in the Republican primary for governor in 2020.
CNBC released a news report Friday on the state of the supposed deal between China and West Virginia. Thrasher told CNBC reporters that the $83.7 billion figure that was released to the public was the work of hasty math on “the back of a napkin.”
“The temptation was too great not to sort of announce that deal,” Thrasher said.
Indeed, when has reality ever stood in the way of scoring political points with an almost unbelievable promise of unheard-of economic prosperity on the horizon?
So what happened? West Virginians might not know for a while. The presidential administration engaging in a trade war with the country that was on the other side of the table is probably a factor, and the deal was probably never as big or as certain as promised. There’s also likely some warranted concern over a country like China having intimate knowledge of energy infrastructure operations in the United States.
Justice’s current commerce secretary, Ed Gaunch, recently told West Virginia MetroNews that there are seven projects in the works with China, and that one of those is close to becoming a reality. As CNBC noted, Gaunch didn’t provide any specifics.
Gov. Justice’s administration should have been more forthright and cautious from the outset. Most West Virginians are tired of promises of prosperity just around the corner that are announced with a bang but never materialize. It’s unfair to West Virginians to get their hopes up in such a manner. They’ve all been burned too many times, and no one at this stage could blame them for viewing this entire project with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s nearly the only thing they have left.