Transition was the theme of the 13th annual West Virginia Governor’s Energy Summit, held Oct. 7-9.
A number of the speakers, including Gov. Jim Justice and U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelly Moore Capito, noted the stark statistics about West Virginia’s once-dominant coal industry and the equally encouraging numbers on shale gas production and how the state is recognizing its future may lie there.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in its 2019 energy outlook, noted that while coal and nuclear power generation will decline from 28 percent in 2018 to 17 percent in 2050, natural gas is projected to rise from 34 to 39 percent and renewable from 18 to 31 percent.
Speakers also discussed other themes, including the rise of renewable energies and the need for cleaner technology, during the “Embracing Energy Opportunities” summit. But the build-out of the petrochemical industry in the Appalachian region was a big subject of discussion.
Austin Caperton, chairman of the Downstream Jobs Task Force recently formed by Justice, noted that West Virginia’s gas production has risen from .2 Bcf to 1.8 Tcf in the past eight years, a 600 percent increase. Of the natural gas produced in the Appalachian Basin, 32 percent is from the state.
The Appalachian Basin is located in the Marcellus and Utica region with access to major highway, rail, pipeline and port infrastructure that would reduce financial and environmental costs of transporting the natural gas byproducts.
The governor and the Trump administration have made it a focus to attract downstream plastics and chemical manufacturing to West Virginia and also push for a cracker plant, which separates ethane from natural gas using extreme heat to crack molecular bonds and create ethylene, from which plastics, resins, solvents, and other industrial products are made.
Ken Humphreys, senior advisor to the Department of Energy Secretary for Fossil Energy, noted that the current administration believes the development of an Appalachian Basin energy hub is in the national interest to provide diversity. The petrochemical industry is now concentrated in the Gulf Coast, and weather events or disasters could cause supply disruptions. But he noted that the build-out of the industry will take a coordinated economic development strategy and that the hub must include a large, underground storage area for gas that will ensure a reliable feedstock to manufacturers.
A Shell cracker plant is now under construction in Monaca, Beaver County, and a final investment decision on a second cracker in Belmont County, Ohio, is expected soon. That state has already committed $30 million in grant money to help with site clearing and work has begun.
Manchin also pointed out the need to develop transportation pipelines and have clear regulations.
But he said that coal will still have a place in West Virginia, and urged more research to develop clean technologies for the use of coal and natural gas.
“You’re going to see the petrochemical industry in West Virginia really go,” said Justice.
Brian Anderson, Ph.D, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which operates labs in Pittsburgh, Pa.; Morgantown, W.Va.; and Albany, Ore., also spoke about the cutting-edge projects being done in fossil fuels, including clean coal technology and machine learning and artificial intelligence in mapping shale gas fields.
The annual conference brought together representatives of government, various industries and nonprofit groups to share their thoughts and outlook on a number of energy topics in a lively discussion.