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Study says Eastern Panhandle gas pipeline feasible

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The bottom line is that it is feasible to construct a large-scale natural gas pipeline to serve Berkeley and Jefferson counties, according to Mike Hines, the director of business development for Thrasher Engineering Inc.

“This area is poised to grow over the next 20 years, increasing demand for natural gas,” he told members of Region 9 Planning and Development Council during their meeting Monday. “That demand will be created by residential growth, as well as a combination of industrial and commercial customers. And there are two pipelines in the region that go by here every day that could supply the need.”

Region 9 oversaw a $80,000 natural gas feasibility study that was funded by the Jefferson County Commission, Berkeley County Council, Mountaineer Gas Co. and the West Virginia Development Office. Region 9 formed a study committee, which worked closely with Thrasher on the study. Thrasher is located in Bridgeport.

Now, natural gas is supplied on a limited basis by Mountaineer Gas to mainly the Martinsburg area, Hines said. Mountaineer is the only natural gas supplier authorized by the West Virginia Public Service Commission to operate locally, he said. Mountaineer has about 137 miles of pipeline in the area, he said. Mountaineer’s current service is 18 million cubic feet per day to about 5,600 customers, he said.

Mountaineer’s capacity is at about 85 percent of maximum, Hines said, which is what natural gas suppliers shoot for so they can increase capacity when customer demand increases, for example, during weather extremes.

Hines said there are three options available to bring natural gas to Berkeley and Jefferson counties, but only two are feasible. He said there are large interstate transmission lines to the north, south and east. He said the one to the east is at capacity and could not handle more demand.

However, the lines to the north and south both have capacity available to supply Berkeley and Jefferson counties with natural gas, he said. Both lines are owned by Columbia Gas.

The northern line, which in the feasibility study is called Proposed Option 1, runs west to east in southern Pennsylvania. If a trunk line were extended from that line southward to West Virginia, it would have to go through Maryland and cross the Potomac River. This line would enter Berkeley County a little west of the Marlowe area. It would be 31.5 miles long and would cost about $101 million to construct.

The southern line, called Proposed Option 2, runs west to east through the mid-Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. A line from it would run northward, crossing the state line in south-central Jefferson County. It would be 33 miles long and cost about $106 million.

In either case, the line would be extended to about midway between Martinsburg and Charles Town near W.Va. 9. It would then split with one line going east to the Burr Industrial Park and the Ranson/Charles Town area. The other line would head west toward the Eastern Regional Airport business park and the Tabler Station Industrial Park along Interstate 81.

Hines emphasized that the proposed routes of both the northern and southern options are very preliminary. He would expect the routes to change if the project were to come to fruition.

The project presents some challenges, Tom Marion, project manager for Thrasher, said Monday.

“We are in unchartered territory – this it not your typical pipeline,” he said. “It’s a chicken and egg situation. Usually, 85 percent of a line’s capacity is spoken for before construction. Currently, there is not 85 percent of this line’s capacity spoken for.”

Development officials have said repeatedly that if natural gas were available, they could attract industries to Berkeley and Jefferson counties that need natural gas.

“The (Jefferson County) Development Authority is working with a couple of large prospects, and they’ll most likely walk away without (natural gas),” John Reisenweber, executive director of the JCDA, said earlier. “There are 15,000 jobs on the line. A local manufacturer may leave the area if they can’t improve their energy infrastructure. It’s not just about attracting new business, it’s also about keeping what we have.”

Stephen Christian, executive director of the BCDA, described the situation as having reached a level of urgency.

“We don’t have the capacity to continue to grow (without natural gas),” he said Monday after the meeting. “Companies come here. They want to be here. They want to take advantage of what we have. But we can’t check the natural gas box. We have had prospects that are heavy gas users that will not look at Berkeley County. One large manufacturing firm took a walk.”

Marion said the next steps include continuing to build political support for a natural gas extension in Berkeley and Jefferson counties; identify funding sources to construct the pipeline; and to firm up potential users.

The Thrasher team and Region 9 will continue to work on these objectives over the next several months, Bill Clark, Region 9 executive director, said Monday.

– Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128.

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