Natural gas panel highlights potential and challenges

MORGANTOWN — An open house and reception held Tuesday night by the West Virginia University Center for Innovation in Gas Research and Utilization included a panel that detailed some goals and challenges of the natural gas industry in the Mountain State.

The panel consisted of Katherine Garvey, director, WVU Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic; Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies and West Virginia delegate-elect, 51st District; Fred King, vice president for research, WVU Research Office and chemistry professor; James Owrey, business development manager, West Virginia Development Office; and James Wood, interim director, WVU Energy Institute.

Each brought varying perspectives on how to responsibly use the state’s natural gas for economic prosperity.

Garvey said a huge success story is Doddridge County, where the oil and gas industry worked with communities to improve the quality of life, including adding a public library and more parks.

“People generally don’t want to move to where there’s no library, because a library is one of the only places people can connect to the internet to look for another job,” Garvey explained.

Garvey also noted that Doddridge County’s educational achievements went up while its teachers went from being among the lowest paid in the state to among the highest.

However, she said regions like the Northern Panhandle are facing housing challenges, such as a lack of vacancy in hotels and Airbnb locations, because of an influx of oil and gas workers.

The environment and climate change were issues discussed by King and Hansen, the latter of whom emphasized the importance of growing the state’s economy but doing it right and considering all aspects of investments. King said while renewable power sources are improving, they are not ready to replace fossil fuels as power sources. However, he said, natural gas can serve as a transitional power source since it is much cleaner than coal.

“It’s a challenge, but one that can be overcome,” King said. “However, people need to be realistic about what is achievable in the near future versus the far future. We can’t just step away from hydrocarbon energy sources, no matter how much we want to.”

Panel moderator Glynis Board, assistant news director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, brought up the topic of plastics, which has raised concerns about the environment. Plastics manufacturing is one of the proposed downstream uses for West Virginia’s natural gas, besides power generation.

King said one reason to be hopeful is ongoing research into reuse, recycling and re-purposing of natural gas. Hansen said finding more diverse ways to use gas could allay those concerns.

Owrey said infrastructure is a matter that can’t be ignored, since proposed cracker plants would mostly like be built along a major waterway such as the Ohio River, which is located far from the production wells in the interior of the state.

“I don’t think (the solution) is purely government-based,” he said. “It has to be industry-based too.”

The panel also discussed obstacles to further industrial development. Wood said creating the Appalachian Storage and Trade Hub could remedy some of the state’s economic woes, but a lack of access to capital funding compared to places like New York City presents a challenge.

King noted that West Virginia does have great ideas that are being pursued via collaborations and partnerships with industry and the federal government, and that venture capital tends to follow good ideas.

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