Hope for region’s economic future growing

Hope.

It’s something that hasn’t always been easy to come by here in the Upper Ohio Valley. It appears to me, though, that is no longer the case.

Merriam-Webster defines hope as the feeling of wanting something to happen or be the case. It is an expectation, a desire — anticipation. Optimism, faith, aspiration and confidence are all words associated with hope.

So what is it that is returning hope to the people of our region?

I believe it is the presence of the natural gas and oil industry and the prospect of enormous industrial developments that could follow it here.

Just like everything else, the industry has arrived with its pros and cons. While mineral owners have benefited from lease agreements and drilling operations, all of us have had to contend with increased heavy truck traffic and the toll those vehicles take on our roads. While some people have found jobs in the industry, others worry about the environmental impact of fracking and the production of petroleum products.

Overall, however, most people in the area seem to think the industry is helping the local economy — and they hope that positive influence will only continue to grow.

During the past couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to cover a couple of events related to oil and gas. First I attended an event at Belmont College in St. Clairsville, organized by The St. Clairsville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Columbus-based Ohio Oil and Gas Association. More than 100 people gathered there to hear about the state of the Utica Shale play in Appalachia.

The basic message they heard was this: Future job creation and a large investment in the economy are expected to stem from the natural gas boom in Eastern Ohio.

Speakers included individuals from the Ohio Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institute — Ohio, Ascent Resources and EQT Corp. Those industry insiders educated the audience on the history of oil and gas development in the Buckeye State and discussed current production levels, which are impressive. They also assured the attendees that there is plenty of oil and gas beneath our feet to meet the demand for energy and petrochemical products for decades to come.

Mike Chadsey of the OOGA said if Ohio, Pennsylvania and West were to form their own nation, that country would be the “third-largest natural gas producer in the world.”

One challenge they cited was getting the natural gas and natural gas liquids being produced here to market, but overall the presenters were optimistic about the future of the industry and the local region.

More recently, I attended the Wheeling Area Economic Outlook Conference at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and heard from economic advisers, researchers, industry leaders and even a federal legislator regarding anticipated developments for the area.

“The sun is shining again in West Virginia,” David H. McKinley, principal and chief investment officer for McKinley Carter Wealth Services, said as he moderated the event. He also noted that he expects private investment to bring “serious capital” to the area.

Similar messages came from all the panelists who participated that day.

Brian Anderson, director of the West Virginia University Energy Institute, cautioned though that the region’s raw materials are not enough to drive economic development on their own. He urged that local people develop their skills now in order to be prepared for future jobs that will allow the area to compete nationally and globally.

“This is our opportunity to not just extract and export,” Anderson said. “Added-value products will add local wealth.”

As they spoke, these panelists were considering opportunities that may develop downstream of Shell’s ethane cracker plant that is under construction at Monaca, Pennsylvania.

But they were also looking toward more opportunities that could come with a proposed PTT Global Chemical cracker at Dilles Bottom in Belmont County as well as a possible ethane storage hub in the northern part of the Mountain State. Anderson said the region can expect as much as $36 billion in new investment and the creation of up to 101,000 new jobs in the wake of such developments.

Ethane is a liquid component of natural gas that can be “cracked,” or processed, to form ethylene, which is a key component of plastic manufacturing. Ethane has other uses, too, including as a refrigerant and in products such as antifreeze and detergents.

Analysts say the rocks beneath our feet are “wet,” or loaded with natural gas liquids. Ethane is one of the most abundant of the NGLs.

The big question now is what will happen to that ethane as it is produced. Will companies like PTT invest in building new processing facilities in the local area, or will they simply find ways to transport the products to existing facilities in other parts of the country, likely along the Gulf of Mexico?

That remains to be seen, but experts in several fields seem to believe the smart move for investors is to build here — right where the natural resources are.

Not only are natural gas and ethane abundant in the Ohio Valley, but we are situated within a day’s drive to about half the population of the United States. We are no farther from the areas that create 70 percent of the national demand for ethane.

And so, these people who have studied the trends have hope — hope that a great deal of economic development is on the horizon for our region. They have hope that their children and grandchildren will be able to remain at home and find jobs that pay good wages and provide for their future families.

They have hope that technology will continue to evolve to make the most of these abundant resources and to make production and processing of these products safer. And they have hope that the entire area eventually will be able to thrive.

I hope they’re right.

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