Despite missing big fish, WV benefits from gas boom

February 4, 2019 GMT

If you spend much time down by the Ohio River on weekends, you may have seen some unusual boats heading upriver with unusual cargo.

Some of these boats have been actual tugboats from the Gulf Coast. Unlike the towboats on the Ohio, tugboats have V-shaped hulls and rounded windows and doors to help seal out ocean-sized waves. You may also have seen some unusual towboats — small ones with an additional pilothouse mounted above the main one. Those, too, are from the Gulf Coast.

They’ve been used to bring components built on the Gulf to an ethane cracker plant under construction along the Ohio River at Monaca, Pennsylvania.

The drilling activity in the Marcellus and Utica shale fields in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania have provided an opportunity for new economic activity. Pennsylvania has captured some of that opportunity. Ohio may be about to. West Virginia? It had its chance but couldn’t close the deal.

Some of the gas in the shale fields is known as wet gas. In addition to the methane that drillers are looking for, they contain liquids such as ethane. These natural gas liquids have a value on the chemical market, where they are sent by pipeline to plants that “crack” the liquids into simpler ones and recombine them into higher-value materials.

Shell Chemical is building a multibillion-dollar cracker plant at Monaca to take advantage of the wet gas in the Marcellus and Utica regions. Thailand-based PTT Global has spent several years studying whether a site at Dilles Bottom, Ohio, across the river from Moundsville, would be a good one to build a second cracker plant in the shale gas region.

PTT Global has bought land, done design work and applied for environmental permits. All that remains is for it to publicly state whether the plant will be built. The deadline for the decision keeps getting pushed back, but the signs so far have been good. At least the project hasn’t been called off.

In 2013, a Brazilian company announced plans to build its own cracker in West Virginia at a site near Parkersburg. That project fell through, as did one to build a small cracker in the Kanawha Valley.

The Monaca site and the Dilles Bottom site are close enough to West Virginia that the Mountain State will still benefit from them. We won’t get the hundreds of thousands of tax dollars that would benefit our schools and other government services, but plenty of West Virginians will work at one or both of those plants. West Virginia-based businesses could still supply goods and services to them. But it’s not the same as having a multibillion dollar chemical plant within our borders to take advantage of the wet gas coming out of our ground.

However, the Marcellus fields in the northern part of the state are benefiting from the continued development of natural gas infrastructure. Doddridge County in particular has seen its tax base more than triple in the past 20 years mainly because of gas infrastructure development. Part of that is from the construction of processing plants, which separate gas from gas liquids and which remove contaminants.

The two banks in the county have also seen their deposits increase as landowners receive royalties from the gas removed from their land and as people who work at the processing plants get paid.

We’ve been hearing about storage hubs for gas and gas liquids, which could also be good for the state.

So while we missed out on the big fish, there are plenty of smaller ones that we have landed. They may not be as visible, but they are helping the economy in the northern part of the state at least.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@herald-dispatch.com.