KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. — The director of the Jefferson County Development Authority says potential investors go down a checklist of their needs — roads, water, sewer, broadband — and then get a little confused when they come to energy sources.
No natural gas supply in Jefferson County.
“When they find out, they often are surprised and often they look elsewhere,” said John Reisenweber, director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Authority.
“If it’s a critical need for their type of business. It’s not a critical need for every business, but it certainly is for manufacturers. Your data centers, they want the consistent dual energy feed. So it’s something we have worked on for a long time.”
From Reisenweber’s point of view, the consequences are pretty clear:
“I can state unequivocally that we are getting passed over for economic development projects and new business coming into the county because we do not have it.”
Development in the Eastern Panhandle has been brisk, particularly compared to the rest of West Virginia. The proximity to the Washington, D.C., corridor, highway access through Interstate 81, relatively flat land and natural beauty have made the Panhandle a hotbed of activity.
What’s missing, local developers say, is the natural gas supply that is prevalent in the rest of West Virginia.
Berkeley County and its 110,000 residents have a steady supply, although local leaders say it’s close to being tapped out based on current development, including the Procter & Gamble plant. Jefferson and Morgan counties have no natural gas supply at all, despite seeking it since 1979.
That situation could be about to change.
Columbia Gas Transmission, a subsidiary of TransCanada, on March 15 filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a new 8-inch pipeline to bring gas 3.4 miles from an existing facility in Fulton County, Pa., through Washington County, Md., to link with a proposed Mountaineer Gas pipeline.
Columbia hopes for federal approval by Jan. 1, aiming to have he extended line in service by November, 2018.
Linking to the Mountaineer Gas line would then mark the beginning of a three-phase extension of natural gas supply across the Eastern Panhandle.
The state Public Service Commission approved the first phase last November. Phase one is a line running from Morgan County to Martinsburg that would be completed in late 2018 or early 2019.
The line runs to Jefferson County in phases two and three, which would require additional approval from the Public Service Commission.
Mountaineer Gas has been acquiring rights of way for construction and completing environmental studies and other studies on the impact of the route that would include passage under the Potomac River and C&O canal.
Not everyone is a fan.
Some Eastern Panhandle residents have opposed the pipeline extension over concerns about disruption and property rights.
Laura Bayer, a member of a group called Eastern Panhandle Protectors, spoke out at a public meeting earlier this month to say she’s concerned about the effects of the project.
“I feel like this growth is not going to keep this community a small town,” Bayer told those gathered at the Shepherdstown Community Club. “It’s just going to keep expanding and expanding and expanding and then we are going to keep polluting resources.”
A court fight has sprung up over whether Mountaineer should have access to a 500-acre family farm owned by Patricia and Dean Kesecker. Mountaineer has said the company needs access to 10 acres and that six acres would be part of a permanent right of way.
Eastern Panhandle Protectors grew among Morgan County farmers and landowners who became concerned about what the project might do to property rights and first gathered in 2016 at the Morgan County school board. The group then spread among Berkeley and Jefferson County residents.
“People are galvanized about the land rights issues – especially people who are in line to have this happen to them,” Tracy Cannon of Eastern Panhandle Protectors said in a telephone interview this week. “The question is, how can the government force us to do this?”
Cannon, who lives in Berkeley County, said the group is trying to spread its concerns by speaking publicly at local meetings like the one in Shepherdstown. Issues include environmental impacts and safety.
The Morgan County Commission set aside time to hear pipeline project opponents August 2 in Berkeley Springs.
“Wherever we can get on to get our views out there,” Cannon said. “I think it’s true that even people who will be in the path of the pipeline, the pipeline could be literally in their yard and they don’t know about it yet.
“We seek to have everybody possible aware of it. At the very least if people are going to have this project forced on them they should at least know what’s involved.”
A basic concern, Cannon said, is that those who are affected by the pipeline project might not be those who benefit.
“The expansion of infrastructure to the region in general comes at a cost to the communities that lie between the production areas and the places where they’re going to export it from,” Cannon said.
Discussing those kinds of concerns recently on “Panhandle Live” on WEPM Radio, Delegate John Overington said he is sensitive to striking a balance between private property concerns and development.
But Overington, R-Berkeley, compared the extension of the natural gas pipeline to the construction of major highways years ago.
“I’m a strong believer in property rights,” Overington said. But he added, “I think part of progress is to have the pipelines, to have the interstates. I think if we didn’t have I-81 and there was a need for it, you’d have all types of progress and we’d never get it through.
“I think the gas company has tried to be as sensitive as they can. But it means they’re going to have to take it through people’s land that are not going to like it. It’s always a tradeoff and you try to be as sensitive as you can and respect people’s property rights as much as you can.”
Overington said the pipeline project is a necessary aspect of local development.
“I think pipelines are just part of the infrastructure. Highways, schools – there are just certain things that communities need to move ahead.
“If you go back to 1970, Berkeley County had 36,000 people in it. Today we have almost 120,000. That means a lot of infrastructure that had to be built. In some cases it went through places people would not have liked to have had it go. But it’s just the reality of trying to balance different development rights, opportunities that people have.”
Mountaineer Gas vice president Moses Skaff told the Morgan Messenger this kind of community debate is not a situation his company usually faces.
“Having this type of opposition to what we do is new to us,” Skaff told the newspaper. “Usually they want us to come there and bring gas there.”
“We’ve got requests for gas all over the state.”
For Jefferson County the availability of natural gas is crucial for some potential employers, Reisenweber said.
“Companies like Procter & Gamble, Roxul, larger-scale manufacturers are demanding that critical piece of infrastructure, and if we can’t check that box back to the checkbox list then we’re gonna continue to get passed over,” Reisenweber said.
“It has certainly happened during my tenure here. I know it’s happened decades prior. When companies find out we don’t have natural gas, if that’s a critical need for them, they look elsewhere. So we really need that to level the playing field and better allow us to compete for economic development projects.”
The situation is similar in nearby Morgan County, which also lacks access to natural gas, said Daryl Cowles, who is both a state delegate and the director of the Morgan County Economic Development Authority.
Cowles said a supply of natural gas would strengthen existing businesses such as U.S. Silica, which mines sandstone in Morgan County to be used for products such as flat glass, specialty glass, building products and ceramics.
“Absolutely, it’s a tool we desperately need,” Cowles said.
Berkeley County has a supply of natural gas but it’s nearly tapped out by current development, said Sandy Hamilton, director of that county’s economic development authority.
She, too, is in favor of the project and its ability to provide natural gas for future development.
“We’re in a much better position than, say, Jefferson County for sure. We’re not out, and we have adequate amounts for Procter & Gamble and for the existing businesses and for the customer base here,” Hamilton said. “My concern is the future. I have some businesses now that could potentially come to Berkeley County, but there’s not the gas they need to make that viable.
“So in some cases I’m able to persuade them to go another route with hopes that they’ll be able to tie in in the future. But we’re really at capacity now. We don’t have extra. We don’t have a deficiency, so it’s not like if it doesn’t happen then everything halts. But for the near future we would have a problem. Needless to say I wholeheartedly support that line coming through.”
Back in Jefferson County, Reisenweber says the need is clear.
“Morgan County doesn’t have natural gas, Jefferson County doesn’t have natural gas. And Berkeley County is tapped out,” Reisenweber said.
“We feel like we’re helping to drive the economy statewide, and we know this is a desirable location for businesses to locate. If we don’t have this infrastructure we’re not going to be able to compete. That’s what it boils down to.”