Why does a $1.25 billion project for a natural gas power plant in Brooke County need a $5.5 million loan from the West Virginia Economic Development Authority?
That’s paraphrasing a question Gov. Jim Justice himself posed weeks before the authority approved the loan Wednesday. As the personification of a walking financial red flag, Gov. Justice probably knows one when he sees it. Of course, Justice, who has refused as governor to sever ties with his own coal companies and has given tax breaks to help a coal-fired power plant owned by a company that is suing him, might also view state aid to a natural gas project as competition.
In any event, it’s one of a few questions hovering around this project, which backers say will inject the aforementioned $1 billion-plus into the economy, create an annual economic impact of $440 million and temporarily employ more than 1,000 construction workers, while bringing 30 full-time jobs. Ancillary work connected to the plant would create more than 1,100 additional jobs, according to supporters in the state trade associations.
There’s no specific reason to suspect the project won’t do those things, although West Virginians have gotten their hopes up before (whatever happened to that $80 billion energy deal with China?). The environmental impact of such a facility on the local community also will have to be taken into account.
The Economic Development Authority did attempt to address one concern by adding an amendment to the loan approval, asking that a “good-faith” effort be made to use West Virginia natural gas to fuel the plant (the proposed site of Colliers is up against the Pennsylvania border). What makes a good-faith effort isn’t clear, so the amendment comes off as more of a suggestion than a contingency for the $5.5 million loan.
West Virginia needs jobs, and it certainly needs customers for the natural gas extracted in the state. Tax revenue from the industry has dropped after construction of natural gas infrastructure wound down over the past couple of years. Having a facility in-state that actually uses the product and provides employment is something West Virginia has been trying to land for a long time.
Hopefully, this is the real deal and the impact on the environment is negligible. But West Virginians have been here before, so optimism tempered by caution is advised.