CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called it "a defining moment" in West Virginia's economic development. The Daily Mail agrees.
Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht's November announcement that it is exploring the possibility of building a multi-billion dollar petrochemical complex in Wood County is the Daily Mail's pick for top West Virginia business story of 2013.
While Project ASCENT -- which stands for Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise -- is still in its exploratory phase, its potential to reshape the state's economy, if completed, is difficult to overstate.
Odebrecht officials announced they hope to not only build a new ethylene cracker plant, but three new polyethylene plastic resin plants and additional facilities for water treatment and power generation at the Washington Bottom site currently occupied by SABIC Innovative Plastics.
"It represents the single largest industrial project in the history of the state of West Virginia," state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said in November.
While Odebrecht is still evaluating specifics relating to the project's cost and potential for new jobs, a recent American Chemistry Council report estimated building just a cracker plant, which takes natural gas and converts it into other usable chemical products, could amount to about a $3.2 billion investment in the state.
The study estimated the cracker facility would lead to development of other plants using those products, resulting in up to $7 billion in additional chemical industry activity each year and up to 12,000 new jobs.
It may still be years before Odebrecht moves forward with constructing the complex, but officials are confident it will be built. If it is, Project ASCENT could have an effect on the annual top business stories list for many years to come.
Other top business stories for 2013, as chosen by the Daily Mail, include:
2. Obamacare arrives for consumers, delayed for business
The bungled rollout of Healthcare.gov -- they key insurance exchange set up under President Barack Obama's landmark health reform law -- has been a major headache for consumers hoping to secure insurance before the law's so-called individual mandate goes into effect in 2014.
While uninsured individuals will still have to be covered by next year or face a penalty, many businesses across the country received a major reprieve earlier this year.
In July, the Obama administration announced a one-year delay in the law's employer mandate. That meant businesses with 50 or more full-time workers would have an extra year -- until 2015 -- to provide coverage to their employees or face a fine.
Many state business owners were panicking earlier this year as they attempted to wrap their heads around all of the law's business-related provisions, said state Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, who is president of Custom Business Solutions, a Beckley-based professional employer organization that manages and advises businesses on their human resources and benefits programs.
He said the delay would give those businesses extra time to see how the exchanges play out and to evaluate the law's effect on insurance rates next year.
However, West Virginians who use the state exchange, operated in partnership with the federal government, do have fewer choices than the rest of the country.
Only one insurance provider -- Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Virginia -- opted to participate in the exchange this year, putting West Virginians among just 5 percent of the national population that have fewer than two providers to choose from on the exchange.
Early data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources showed monthly premium rates on West Virginia's exchange were higher than the national average. The report indicated states with fewer provider options generally faced higher prices. Experts said the state's poor health statistics likely factored in to the higher rates as well.
3. Patriot reaches pact with retirees, emerges from bankruptcy
For some 23,000 retired United Mine Workers of America members, 2013 began with the fear they might soon lose their health insurance to Patriot Coal's bankruptcy restructuring.
However, by the end of the year, the union and the company had made a pact that not only allowed retirees' health care to continue, but also helped the company emerge from bankruptcy.
Thousands of retirees and union supporters filled the streets of downtown Charleston in April, one of many protests organized by the union in its fight against Patriot's plan to cut retiree benefits as part of its restructuring.
Patriot had been formed by a spin-off of Peabody Energy in 2007, and acquired another Arch Coal subsidiary the following year.
As part of the process, Patriot inherited the health and retirement responsibilities for nearly 23,000 retired workers, widows and dependents. About 90 percent of the retirees Patriot was responsible for had never worked for the company.
In May, federal Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States approved Patriot's plan to cut benefits, but in August, the union and company announced they had reached a pact to restore some of those benefits.
The plan was further bolstered in October when Patriot settled with Peabody and Arch in a civil case regarding the benefits. The settlement plan provided nearly $400 million that will be spent to pay for benefits in the coming years, and also gave the company financial resources that helped it emerge from bankruptcy.
A judge approved Patriot's final reorganization plan Dec. 17, and the company emerged from bankruptcy the following day.
4. Exports continue to boost W.Va. economy
While national economic growth remained sluggish through early 2013, West Virginia's economy continued to benefit from rapid growth in exports.
State officials announced early in 2013 that West Virginia exports hit another record last year, topping out at $11.3 billion, up 25 percent from the $9 billion reported the year before.
Fifty-two companies, mostly small businesses, were recognized by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in June for exporting to new countries last year. In total, the 52 companies shipped their products to 136 new countries last year.
"They're demonstrating that our ability to compete in the global market is very real," Tomblin said at the time.
West Virginia University Bureau for Business and Economic Research director John Deskins said in October the importance of exports to the state's economy has more than tripled in the last 12 years.
While most of that early growth was due to booming coal exports, Deskins reported in the bureau's 2014 economic outlook that state export growth should continue to grow at a healthy pace in the coming years.
Both the export growth and boom in natural gas production helped West Virginia tie for eighth-fasted growth in state gross domestic product in 2012. West Virginia's economy grew at 3.3 percent last year, compared to an overall U.S. growth rate of 2.5 percent.
Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which publishes monthly "State Coincident Indexes" measuring economic activity, has ranked West Virginia in the top 10 for fastest rate of growth over both the last three months and last year.
5. Toyota: 10 million strong and growing
In May, Toyota Motor Manufacturing's Buffalo plant became the company's first plant outside of Japan to produce more than 10 million powertrain units.
The 1,300 workers at the Buffalo plant produce engine parts for nine Toyota and Lexus models. Every 20 seconds, a Toyota vehicle rolls off a North American assembly line containing engine parts produced at the West Virginia plant.
Toyota initially invested $400 million and employed 350 people when the Buffalo plant first opened in 1998. Between 1999 and 2012, the company had invested an additional $900 million and hired nearly 1,000 more people in seven different expansions.
In August, the company announced an eighth expansion -- a $90 million investment designed to increase transmission production at the plant by roughly 240,000 units a year.
The move will add an additional 80 jobs at the Buffalo site and bring Toyota's total investment in the facility to more than $1.4 billion.
"Once again, Toyota is proving to be one of West Virginia's biggest boosters and economic success stories, and I never miss a chance to brag on the fantastic teamworkers who make up its Buffalo plant," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in August.
Toyota, the world's best-selling automaker, has taken strides over the last year to boost production in North America, its largest market. It has already announced more than $2 billion in plant investments across its existing factories to help expand capacity across the region.
6. Carbonyx plant to boost coal demand
The November announcement that Carbonyx International USA planned to build a new synthetic coke plant in Jackson County was good news for both the local economy and the state's coal industry.