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This story comes from our partners at Ohio Valley ReSource, a regional journalism collaborative reporting on economic and social change in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

State and federal politicians announced initiatives this week to move forward an effort to build a major underground natural gas liquids storage facility in the Ohio Valley, an effort opposed by environmental activists who fear a petrochemical expansion in the region will threaten not only the environment, but public health.

LISTEN: “Officials Push Petrochemical Expansion, Protestors Fight Back”

The Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub has been in the works for almost a decade. Developers are seeking billions in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy.

This week, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice met with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy to discuss the hub and developing the petrochemical industry in West Virginia. In a press release, the governor said he would appoint a liaison to work with Energy Department officials on these issues.

“It is absolutely vital that we create a petrochemical industry in West Virginia versus building more pipelines that leave our state without creating any long-term manufacturing jobs,” Justice stated.

Officials from West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania support efforts to bring cracker plants and other plastics manufacturing infrastructure to the Ohio Valley, which sits upon two of the nation’s most productive natural gas and natural gas liquids repositories, the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

A 2018 study by the Department of Energy estimates the largest growth in natural gas liquids production is expected from this region.

“Ethane production in Appalachia is projected to continue its rapid growth in the coming years, reaching 640,000 barrels per day in 2025 – more than 20 times greater than regional ethane production in 2013,” the report states.

The announcement coincided with the Marcellus to Manufacturing Development Conference held this week in Morgantown. The conference, organized by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, brought together officials and business representatives from across the region, largely to discuss expanding petrochemical manufacturing in West Virginia.

Conference keynote speaker West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch told attendees his agency actively wants to help bring plastics and other petrochemical manufacturers to the state.

“The sun’s about to shine on this wonderful state,” he said. “Opportunities abound in West Virginia.”

‘People Over Petro’

Not everyone sees it that way, and those opposed to the petrochemical bail-out say they’ve struggled to be heard by elected officials.

“Petrochemicals are not energy. It’s plastic,” said Belmont County, Ohio resident Bev Reed. “It’s a dead product that doesn’t go anywhere except to poison people.”

Reed was one of about 40 protestors who gathered outside the conference. Protestors carried colorful signs, some with plastic grocery bags attached that whipped in the wind, and chanted “people over petro, people over plastics, people over profit.”

Protesters in front of the Waterfront Marriot Hotel Tuesday, April 9, in Morgantown, W.Va. Photo: Jesse Wright / WVPB

Activists voiced concerns that turning the region into the next plastics manufacturing center would place the state’s natural resources at risk, and harm its people, many of whom are already impacted by resource extraction.

Lawmakers in favor of the proposed of the petrochemical expansion often cite an American Chemistry Council study that projects the industry would bring 100,000 jobs to the region. It also estimates 60% of plastic production would be for food products.

Potential investment into the Ohio Valley’s petrochemical bail-out comes at a time when some cities and companies around the globe are pledging to discontinue use of single use plastic.

Protestor BJ McManama with the Indigenous Environmental Network pushed back on the argument that a petrochemical future is the only one that can bring new jobs to the area.

“They shout jobs, jobs, jobs, making it sound like we don’t want jobs, [but rather] we want handouts. We don’t want you guys to have jobs. No, that’s not right,” she said. “We want clean, safe, sustainable jobs that create resilient, happy and peaceful communities.”

Federal Support for Storage Hub

A long-sought, and key component, to creating a petrochemical industry in the Ohio Valley is building storage for ethane. Ethane is a component of the natural gas liquids abundant in the region, and a building block of plastic.

Both of West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, support the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub.

At a budget hearing last week, Manchin pressed Energy Secretary Rick Perry about its progress.

“Are you all looking seriously at a natural gas storage hub in the mid-Atlantic region, and advancing that as quickly as we possibly can to have that backup for security? And how does that play into the national security of our country?” Manchin asked.

Perry said the hub was “not happening as fast as I’d like to see it,” but noted the Trump administration’s support.

“I think there is extraordinary potential in those four states and the Appalachian region – Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio,” he said.

About a year ago, the project got approval for the first of two application phases for a $1.9 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee.

To bolster the argument that this development would improve national security, this week Manchin introduced a bill, the Appalachian Energy for National Security Act, which would task the Energy Department with studying the national security benefits of the proposed gas hub.

But for the protestors who picketed Tuesday, the fight isn’t over.

“We need to keep them from taking away what we have left,” said Ashley Funk, with the Mountain Watershed Association, an environmental group based Fayette County, Pennsylvania. “We must stand together from death alley to the Ohio River Valley to say to these companies that want to profit from our communities that we are not disposable.”