CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher says he will be leading a small group to China this weekend to continue to develop relationships and work toward progress from the memorandum of understanding on energy development that was announced by the state a few weeks ago.
“Of course, the China announcement is significant and like all things of that magnitude, it’s sort of one step at a time,” Thrasher told legislators on Tuesday.
The Commerce secretary spoke before a combined meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy and the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development.
There has been excitement surrounding West Virginia’s potential $83.7 billion deal with China since it was announced in November. But there has also been significant curiosity.
Details have been scarce all along, with state officials saying they don’t want to endanger any aspects of the agreement by saying too much too soon.
Officials have hinted at Chinese interest in developing a regional natural gas storage hub that could supply feedstock to manufacturers.
They have also talked more broadly about the benefit of the investment as a primer for the development of secondary products, rather than just raw energy material.
In the presentation Tuesday morning, lawmakers seemed just as curious as the general public.
“Can you tell us exactly what the Chinese investment is and does, and is there a transferred ownership of a resource?” asked Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette.
Thrasher responded, “It is not a transfer of a resource,” meaning that it wouldn’t just mean exporting natural gas from West Virginia overseas. He instead described the likelihood of “brick and mortar” development.
“It’s an investment that somebody wants to build bricks and mortar facilities, employ our facilities, pay taxes to our state government, buy that value-added product made in West Virginia,” Thrasher said. “It is not, in any way, shape or form, purchasing of our resources.”
Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, asked the next question. “My question is on the timeline. What would that look like?”
“I can’t give you those specific timelines,” Thrasher responded. “There is a great sense of urgency by our counter parts. That’s why we’re going back to make sure things are on track. Our goal is to expedite an initial project as quickly as we can.”
He added, “I’m hopeful the details of those will be available in the next few months. Our goal is to move that first project as quickly as we can.”
Delegate John Shott, a Republican from Mercer County, said he presumes the greatest potential for development is in the region with the natural gas — north central West Virginia. But, Shott asked, “Are there opportunities for those of us in other parts of the state?”
Thrasher said any development that improves the state economy is good for all regions. But, he acknowledged, “Specifically, those brick and mortar facilities will be located near the natural resources.”
Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, wanted to know if more policy tools need to be in place to generate the raw material required for the development of products. Legislators seem likely to consider a variety of bills related to natural gas production this session. “Is that something we have to get right?” Zatezalo asked.
Thrasher acknowledged that West Virginia is competing regionally. “I think that’s important because wee’re not the only ones who have it,” he said. “That raw material could come from Pennsylvania, from Ohio.”
Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, wanted to know if the Justice administration plans to back any legislation specifically having to do with the China deal or the storage hub.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Thrasher said.
With all the natural gas talk, Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker, wanted to know if there’s any possibility in Chinese investment in clean coal technology. Smith works for a mining company.
“Has any consideration been given to coal fired power plants? Finally, this technology is affordable,” Smith said, more broadly citing Asian investment in carbon capture technology.
Thrasher said, generally, there has been more talk about clean coal technology than there has been willingness to invest.
“There’s been a lot of talk but there hasn’t been much resulting from that,” Thrasher said. “We rarely see the capital behind it that’s capable of turning it into a reality.”