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Editorial: Announcement gives glimmer of hope for 'cracker' plant in state

Nov. 22, 2013 @ 09:59 AM

West Virginia lost out last year in its quest to have energy company Shell build a natural-gas “cracker” plant in the Mountain State. The scrambling by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the legislature to persuade the company to build ended in disappointment, but perhaps one official was correct when he described that pursuit as a “warm-up” for efforts to come.

The state now has a petrochemical company acknowledging publicly that it is exploring building a cracker plant in the state and has even pur­chased an option to buy land where it could be located. That’s further along the road to landing a plant than last time, when Pennsylvania eventually was chosen for the Shell pla nt.

Tomblin and officials with the Brazilian company Odebrecht announced together on Thursday in Parkersburg that the company was pursuing the possibility of building a cracker plant in Wood County. Such a plant takes natural gas and breaks it into smaller molecules to create ethylene, which is used in making plastics. The project envi­sioned by Odebrecht officials would not only include a cracker plant but also three polyethylene plants for the manufacture of plastic prod­uc ts .

Although details were scant as far as a timetable and the level of employment, such a complex no doubt would represent thou­sands of jobs. Tomblin described the announcement as a “defining moment in the economic develop­ment of our state.” Let’s hope he’s correct.

Ever since the advent of horizon­tal drilling, or fracking, in the past several years, interest and activity in extracting natural gas from the Mar­cellus Shale formation has grown. The state has tried to take advan­tage of its location in the Marcel­lus region to benefit economically with more investment and jobs. The Odebrecht project — to be known as Appalachian Shale Cracker Enter­prise, or Ascent — could indeed be the first major prize from that indus­try for West Virginia.

Odebrecht and state officials note that there is plenty to be done yet before construction of the petro­chemical complex begins. Odebre­cht has its own steps to follow before deciding the project is a go, then it will have to obtain a variety of per­mits, which will include an assess­ment of environmental factors and impacts.

Then, of course, there is the mat­ter of state incentives, which offi­cials acknowledged will play a part in any final decisions. The discus­sions haven’t gotten that far yet, they said, although a law passed last year provides a basis for incentives for a cracker plant. That measure would slash property tax rates for 25 years in exchange of at least $2 bil­lion worth of investment toward a cracker facility.

West Virginia Department of Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said he is optimistic Ascent will become reality, and the payoffs for the state would be tremendous. One huge benefit, he said, would be to create the beginning of a network to take advantage of regional natural gas developments. “The more that we create, we create an energy, a cluster that makes building the net­work of support around it so much easier and so much more justifiable,” he said.

That’s a lofty hope, but the groundwork laid between the state and Odebrecht officials could be the first step in getting there.

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