By MIKE MYER
Thursday’s announcement that a Chinese company will invest $83.7 billion in natural gas and related industries in our state is breathtakingly important. Consider the amount, written differently than usual: $83,700,000,000. Even over 20 years, as scheduled, that works out to more than $4 billion a year.
It is being said the plan is a game changer for the Mountain State. But will we really change the game?
For many years, the economic game in West Virginia was coal. A substantial portion of our economy rested on the coal industry.
At peak mining industry employment in 1940, 103,457 West Virginians were involved in producing coal. As recently as 1978, nearly 63,000 men and women were receiving paychecks from coal mines. One estimate is that for every direct job in mining, another eight are created indirectly.
No wonder we called the industry “King Coal.”
In 2015, the most recent year for which I found statistics, there were just 15,194 coal jobs in West Virginia.
Tens of thousands of Mountain State residents have suffered from the industry’s collapse. Entire counties have been devastated. Because of the drastic dropoff in coal severance tax collections, the state budget has been hit hard.
Courtesy of the Chinese, we may be on the verge of a comeback. All hail King Gas!
Billions of dollars already have been sunk into the gas industry in our state. Tens of billions more would have been coming even without the Chinese. With them, we may be on the verge of an economic boom.
Just like we were about a century ago when the coal industry seemed as if it would be a perpetual meal ticket.
Then mining companies began coming to the end of coal reserves. The energy industry began turning to surface mines in Wyoming in preference to deep mines in Appalachia. And former President Barack Obama convinced many Americans that we have to shut down all the mines to prevent Miami from becoming an underwater ghost town.
King Coal was dethroned.
And many West Virginians began to wonder if there was any hope for our state. Some of them moved away. Many others can’t even afford to do that.
Some leaders in our state refused to throw up their hands in despair. They suggested ways for us to move forward, to rebuild our economy. Diversification was an idea put forward. So was preparing our children for careers in which they, not anything pulled from the earth, were viewed as the valuable resource.
So, what now?
We have two choices:
We can allow our economy to rely largely on the natural gas under our feet. We can allow state government to sit back and relax with new revenue from the gas/chemical boom. Why not? No need to economize when the money comes easily.
Then we can cross our fingers and hope some new technology doesn’t make gas in some other state more attractive to the energy industry — or that environmental extremists don’t decide to move on from coal and go after gas.
Or, we can do the smart thing.
We can continue to pursue strategies such as “West Virginia Forward”and diversify our economy. We can build tourism, high-tech manufacturing or, perhaps health care innovation.
We can tell our governors and legislators to go ahead with streamlining local and state governments, to find better uses for money other than pouring it into inefficiency. We can put money into former state Sen. Jeff Kessler’s Future Fund. We can improve schools.
We can refuse to become reliant on a single industry. We can stop settling for the status quo just because we can afford it — for now.
In short, the Chinese investment offers us a second chance to get it right in West Virginia. Let’s hope our great-grandchildren don’t ask why on earth we didn’t take it.
Myer can be reached at: [email protected].