If something sounds too good to be true
How many of us thought those words a couple of years ago when West Virginia officials announced the big development deal with China?
Gov. Jim Justice and other state officials announced in late 2017 that they had entered into an agreement with the China Energy Investment Corp. on a number of shale gas development and chemical manufacturing projects in West Virginia over the next 20 years. It truly was a big deal - $83.7 billion.
Since the announcement, few details have been released. Despite efforts by news outlets, including HD Media, to obtain a copy of the memorandum of understanding signed between the state and the corporation, it has been sealed by a judge. In short, we've been told there is a deal, but no one knows what the timetables are or what the state's obligations are.
Earlier this month, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., expressed concerns about the China deal at a Senate committee meeting. Manchin said he believes China wants the LNG, propane, ethane and butane, but the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has not done a review on such a request.
"It could take away our building stock for manufacturing," he said. "And I can't believe that this administration would allow in any way, shape or form for this project to go on."
Doubters might note that Manchin is being coy about whether he will run for governor next year and this could be an early attack on Justice. In this particular case, Manchin's motives are irrelevant to the substance of his remarks.
At the time the China deal was announced, West Virginia was desperate for some good news regarding shale gas liquids. Some natural gas wells also produce liquids such as ethane that can be used as feedstocks to make more valuable materials. The question has been whether the natural gas liquids produced in West Virginia would be used here or shipped elsewhere. Multibillion-dollar projects taking advantage of natural gas liquids are in the works in Pennsylvania and Ohio. As far as the public knows, no viable plans are in the works in West Virginia.
Justice has been mum about the contents of the memorandum. Among the people who know what was in the deal was Woody Thrasher. At the time he was Justice's secretary of commerce. Thrasher has since had a falling out with Justice and has switched parties to run against the governor in next year's Republican primary. This month, Thrasher said through a spokesperson that his office worked with China Energy on an investment deal just as it would with any other company or business.
"We did not offer them any incentives, and they did not ask for any," Thrasher said. "China Energy never suggested to me that they had any desire to take out our resources. China Energy would add value to our natural resources by building bricks-and-mortar facilities within our state, hiring our people and paying taxes."
The China deal was supposed to bring West Virginia into the natural gas liquids industry. So far it's been nothing but a mystery at best and a joke at worst.
Where does this development deal stand now? What was in that memorandum of understanding? What has changed in the past two years?
West Virginians would like some answers, but Justice is not offering any, and the courts are providing him cover. Neither is acceptable.