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It’s Tebow time for West Virginia

WEST Virginia wants a cracker. In case you are unfamiliar, a cracker is the Tim Tebow of economics.

Tim Tebow has become a mythical figure for making fourth-quarter miracles happen on the football field. When Tim Tebow touches water, it turns into Gatorade.

A cracker promises economic miracles in downtrodden Appalachian states.

You know how there's a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow? A cracker takes the colors of the rainbows, breaks them down and turns them into streams of cash.

West Virginia is vying with Ohio and Pennsylvania for an industrial plant that will transform dusty Appalachian roads into streets of gold.

This state has seen booms before. But they're distant memories, long decaying.

Here's hoping our cracker dream doesn't let us down. Some might say we're putting all our eggs in one basket. Maybe it's OK. The cracker is a golden goose.

Our economic renaissance is possible because of pockets of natural gas in a section of earth called the Marcellus shale. Underground, the shale is black, fragmented rock. From space, this geological wonder is marked with a dollars sign.

Natural gas is formed by decomposition of ancient organic material under high pressure. It used to be hard to capture.

A few years ago, though, geologists discovered a way to plunge big sippy straws sideways into the ground to get the gas. Then water and a mixture of chemicals that you would not ever, under any circumstances, actually want in your Capri Sun juice bag are pumped into the rock under high pressure in a process known as hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing is what Tim Tebow does to opponents' facemasks.

Hydraulic fracturing also releases the gas from the shale.

From there, the natural gas goes to a natural gas processing plant called a "cracker."

Crackers break byproducts of drilling into parts and process them into useful products — usually elongated pieces of green paper adorned with U.S. presidents.

This is expressed through a chemical formula that looks like this: ethane = $$$.

The components are the basic building blocks of a wide range of other products such as Ford F-150s and flat-screen TVs.

Crackers are usually built close to the source of the natural gas, but they're rarely built at all. The last one built in the United States was in 2001.

The last time there was the possibility of such a rich investment in West Virginia was when Jay Rockefeller was thinking about moving here.

Now Shell and some other chemical companies are tossing around the idea of plopping a cracker down on Appalachian soil. And by "plopping down," I mean building giant chemical plants that would employ, precisely speaking, scads of construction workers and then lots of chemical workers.

This is making West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state leaders more excited than kids at Christmas.

The Legislature pushed through a generous tax package. Then, like a kid visiting Santa, Tomblin took the package on a plane to chemical company execs in Houston.

The cracker kings told Tomblin he has been a good boy and he needs to be even better.

"We may have to come back to the Legislature another time in order to satisfy some of their needs," the governor told The Associated Press.

He wouldn't say what their needs are. They're probably more elaborate than cookies and milk.

In West Virginia, all eyes are on the possibility of a cracker miracle.

There are a lot of questions about the natural gas boom too: What will happen to our roads? What will happen to our water?

Most of all, will the cracker live up to its promise? Is it really an industrial money machine?

I hope West Virginia gets the cracker. And I hope it's all it's cracked up to be.

I hope this is the land of the fourth-quarter industrial miracle.

McElhinny is the Daily Mail's managing editor. He can be reached at 304-348-1703, bradmc@dailymail.com or at Twitter.com/BradMcElhinny.


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