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WVU Energy Institute director lauds ‘biggest single investment’

By ANDREA LANNOM

CNHI Statehouse Reporter

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The director of West Virginia University’s Energy Institute called a memorandum of understanding signed Thursday between the Mountain State and China the “biggest single investment in the history of the state.”

Brian Anderson, who also is a chemical engineering professor at WVU, said the state has been a partner with the Shenhua Group, a state-owned coal mining company that recently merged with another energy producer into China Energy, in researching coal liquefaction.

Anderson said he thinks the agreement, if finalized, could potentially have a big economic effect on the state.

State Commerce Secretary H. Wood Thrasher and China Energy President Ling Wen

signed the MOU Thursday afternoon in Beijing (just after midnight here), joined by President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the state Department of Commerce announced.

The announcement of the China Energy investment in West Virginia was the largest in a series of projects in U.S. corporations and other states which totaled about $250 billion.

West Virginia University plans to work closely with the state Department of Commerce and other state officials to help coordinate the investment with funding focused on developing an Appalachia Storage and Training Hub.

“The investment by China Energy is the culmination of years of relationship-building, both by West Virginia University and the state,” WVU President Gordon Gee said in a news release. “It is also an excellent example of the possibilities that we have been discussing within the West Virginia Forward initiative with our partners at the state Department of Commerce and Marshall University.”

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert issued a statement commending Thrasher, Gov. Jim Justice and Economic Development Director Kris Hopkins on the announcement. Gilbert called the agreement a “game changer” for the state.

“One of my priorities as president is economic development for West Virginia and ensuring Marshall is a full partner with the Department of Commerce,” Gilbert said in the statement. “Our faculty has the expertise and, through our College of Information Technology and Engineering and our College of Science, is equipping our students with the necessary skill sets to be leaders in this global economy providing top-notch researchers to develop new technologies. We also are helping our state workforce train for the jobs of tomorrow through RCBI, our center of excellence in advanced manufacturing.”

The Appalachian Storage and Training Hub is a network of pipelines and storage subsurface geologic units to contain natural gas storage liquids, serving as a warehouse to trade liquids, Anderson said.

He said it gives potential cracker facilities access to raw materials on a financial market as opposed to locking in individual longterm contracts.

“We view it as the absolute necessary platform infrastructure for building out the petrochemical industry in our region based off of all these consumer goods that ends up in things like textiles, plastic bottles and diapers,” he said. “That’s what the trading hub is. It’s physically a bunch of pipes and storage, but really, you’re creating a market for trading these materials to these companies.”

Anderson said he anticipates the agreement to have an economic effect on the state, saying “tens of thousands” of jobs could be created across a wide-range of fields including truck drivers, civil engineers and chemical technicians.

“It’s going to be a lot of new jobs across an entire spectrum of existing skill sets that people have in the state,” he said.

Anderson said the regions of the state that could potentially benefit the most are not fully determined. In an interview with Hoppy Kercheval of MetroNews, Thrasher mentioned tentative sites in Brooke and Harrison counties but he said the sites have not been finalized.

Anderson said the Northern Panhandle and Kanawha Valley could likely benefit.

“The Kanawha Valley has a century’s worth of history in chemical manufacturing,” he said. “We have that existing platform in the Kanawha and Ohio valleys stretching all the way into the Northern Panhandle into the Kanawha Valley,” he said. “Those are the prime locations and opportunities and it spans a few hundred miles.”

Anderson said WVU’s partnership with Shenhua goes back 15 years. He said WVU started with a research topic of coal liquefaction. Shinhua partnered with carbon products and WVU under a Department of Energy program to help collaborate across the U.S. and China to help work with them on coal liquefaction technology.

“Alongside of that, we’ve been constantly cooperating joint research building up to the point where we see a tremendous investment opportunity for raw materials,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have Marcellus shale. Now, we have low-cost valuable raw material for building and constructing the entire petrochemical sector.”

Last October, WVU and Shenhua signed a partnership agreement in areas of comprehensive strategic cooperation to establish West Virginia as the priority area for Shenhua Group’s investment into U.S. markets, natural gas power plant development, shale gas development including investment in upstream and downstream businesses, technologies in clean coal and power and training.

“The MOU provides a really good framework for implementation in partnership with the state of West Virginia,” Anderson said of the agreement. “You can’t really call it the beginning because it’s been 15 years in the making and we’ve been working closely over the past couple of years to identify opportunities for investment. Right now, this is where the rubber hits the road.”

Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @AndreaLannom.

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