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Hopes high for cracker plant across river from WV

WHEELING, W.Va. — Most of the steel mills, glass factories and other plants that once employed tens of thousands along the Ohio River are closed, but officials believe landing the $5.7 billion ethane cracker complex in Belmont County would allow Ohio and West Virginia to become manufacturing powerhouses once again.

So plentiful is the oil and natural gas in the region that those discussing the matter in Wheeling Tuesday believe they are dealing with what can become known as “Shale Valley” – much like the San Francisco Bay area has become known as “Silicon Valley.”

“It’s a once in several lifetimes opportunity. If we get it right with the first facility, more will come,” John Molinaro, president and CEO of the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, said during the discussion, which featured numerous elected officials, business leaders, labor representatives and members of the higher education community.

In September, officials with Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical agreed to spend $100 million for engineering and design plans for the complex that would fill about 500 acres worth of space along the Ohio River and Ohio 7 to the south of the Moundsville Bridge in the Dilles Bottom area.

“This is a huge investment for them,” Molinaro said, noting he believes the firm continues making progress.

Moreover, officials with Royal Dutch Shell continue working on a potential ethane cracker near Monaca, Pa., while West Virginia officials still hope for the Odebrecht cracker project in Wood County.

However, industry leaders believe there is enough ethane in the region to justify more than one cracker.

“One will beget another one,” said Scott Rotruck, director of Energy and Transportation Services for the Spillman, Thomas & Battle law firm. “We have what are called ‘stacked plays.’ That means we have a whole lot of capacity to fill these crackers.”

By a stacked play, Rotruck means that much of the Marcellus Shale sits atop the Utica Shale, which in turn sits atop the Rogersville Shale in southern West Virginia. Even deeper may be other formations that could yield ethane.

Tom Gellrich, founder of Top-Line Analytics, said the PTT project would create thousands of temporary construction jobs and hundreds of full-time jobs – in addition to spurring more jobs in plastic processing.

“All of this generates direct payroll,” he said.

Gellrich said the shale gas, in all its forms, provides the Upper Ohio Valley both the raw materials needed for an ethane cracker, but also a relatively low-cost form of energy.

Currently, the ATEX Express ethane pipeline, as well as the Sunoco Logistics Mariner East and Mariner West pipelines, ship Marcellus and Utica shale ethane to crackers along the Gulf Coast and in Canada, or to the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex near Philadelphia for for export to Europe.

However, Steve Hedrick, president and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center, said this is not a problem because of how abundant the material is.

“There is more than enough ethane for us to do this,” he said, adding he believes the region could accommodate up to six petrochemical complexes.

Contractors working for FirstEnergy Inc. continue working to demolish the former R.E. Burger power plant that would constitute a significant portion of the acreage needed for the ethane cracker, while the owners of the adjacent Ohio-West Virginia Excavating land have a tentative agreement to sell their property to PTT.

And although it’s been almost four years since announcement of the proposed Monaca, Pa., cracker, experts believe the facility will eventually be built.

“Shell is continuing to make massive investments,” Molinaro said. “They seem to be very committed to moving forward.”

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