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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — The state's top economic leaders on Thursday discussed different ways to progress West Virginia's economy, ultimately pointing to growth in the petrochemical industry.

Several of the forums and discussions Thursday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's annual business summit revolved around the need for an Appalachian Storage Hub and downstream development — ethane crackers, pipelines, plastics manufacturing — that would grow out of it.

"West Virginia should be identified as the energy state, and all forms of energy should be embraced," said Woody Thrasher, the state's former head of commerce who's now running for governor.

The state should diversify, Thrasher maintained. Instead of limiting the focus on coal and natural gas, the state should target petrochemical development, renewable energy and tourism, he said.

While Thrasher was commerce secretary, West Virginia officials announced an $83.7 billion investment with a China-owned energy company for shale gas and chemical manufacturing projects in the state. Thrasher signed a memorandum of understanding - a nonbinding agreement - with China Energy, on behalf of the state.

Specific details of the MOU are limited, and a case to make the agreement public is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Thrasher spoke to a room of business leaders, legislators and lobbyists over breakfast at The Greenbrier, Gov. Jim Justice's resort in Greenbrier County.

One day earlier at the summit, Justice announced he had created a petrochemical task force, putting his Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, Austin Caperton, at the helm.

The so-called Governor's Downstream Jobs Task Force will spearhead manufacturing in the state "ahead of an anticipated expansion of the petrochemical industry in Appalachia," Justice's office later said Wednesday in a news release.

Plans for an Appalachian Storage Hub — and the infrastructure that would surround it — are still opaque. According to a feasibility study from the U.S. Department of Energy, the storage hub in the upper Ohio Valley would include gathering lines, processing plants, fractionation facilities, liquid storage facilities and ethane crackers — all to keep up with the rapid extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

Proponents see a petrochemical complex as a vehicle for job growth and energy independence; skeptics are concerned about the potential affects on health and the environment. Top state officials, meanwhile, are pushing for a federal loan guarantee to build the giant chemical storage plant that could cost as much as $10 billion.

"My job is going to be to sell. We're going to sell the state of West Virginia," Caperton said outside the resort's ballroom Wednesday.

On Thursday, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., both spoke about energy development. Manchin said he was frustrated by the secrecy and murkiness of the memorandum of understanding with China, while Capito also urged energy development, vowing to "ease regulatory burdens" from Congress.

Work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is primarily being built by Dominion Energy, has been stopped since December after a panel of federal judges said it lacked the right permits to cross the Appalachian Trail. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But there are other issues plaguing the state, officials said Thursday. There are thousands of unfilled jobs in the state, said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

Both U.S. Senators pointed to tourism as a potential major economic driver for West Virginia, and said they were pushing to make the New River Gorge National River a full-fledged national park.

"We should be the playground of the East," Manchin said.

But that's hard to do without things like broadband, he noted; people might come for one or two days, but leave to get back to work. If there were more reliable phone and internet service, visitors might be inclined to buy a vacation home.

"This is an opportunity over a three-day period to say how do we spread the wealth farther in our state, and how do we make ourselves more open, and more inclusive and more diverse," Roberts said.

The summit continues Friday.

Reach Kate Mishkin at kate.mishkin@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4843 or follow @katemishkin on Twitter.

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