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How much has natural gas production in Appalachia increased since drillers began fracking in 2008? Consider this, from the federal Energy Information Administration last month: “On its own, the Appalachian Basin would have been the third-largest natural gas producer in the world the first half of 2021, behind Russia and the rest of the United States.”

That’s why fewer coal trains move through the area and why fewer coal barges are seen on the state’s rivers. Gas has taken much of coal’s market in the domestic power industry.

The Marcellus and Utica shale formations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia accounted for 34% of all U.S. dry natural gas production in the first half of 2021, according to the EIA. In the first six months of this year, production in the region averaged 31.9 billion cubic feet per day, the highest average for a six-month period since production began in 2008, the agency said.

Northern West Virginia has benefited from development of Marcellus shale, as landowners have collected royalties and construction workers have built pipelines and gas processing plants, such as those in Doddridge and Wetzel counties. Development of the shale field has had its problems, especially in the early days. In the Legislature, questions about property owners’ rights continue.

Fracking — shorthand for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — isn’t going away. Neither is the demand for natural gas in the chemical and electricity-generating industries. The thing is that West Virginia has lagged in taking full advantage of the gas industry.

There should be growth potential in natural gas liquids, such as ethane, which are found in some gas fields. About eight years ago, a Brazilian company announced plans to build a chemical plant in Wood County, to take advantage of natural gas liquids that are abundant in West Virginia, but those plans were dropped soon after. A multibillion-dollar ethane processing plant has been built at Monaca, Pennsylvania, near West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, and people in the Moundsville area keep waiting for a company in Thailand to decide whether to build a similar plant across the Ohio River from them.

The window to build such plants might have closed temporarily. Pipelines carry West Virginia gas out of state, and people in those other states receive most of the benefits of it. It’s easy to say that West Virginia should do more to become competitive in industries that use natural gas. Answering the question “How?” is not so easy, but a viable answer could help give the state’s economy the boost it needs.

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