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Three chemical plants are the big deal

Parkersburg could be the most important city in the state.

If Odebrecht of Brazil is able to build a cracker for its Braskem subsidiary, Wood County could wind up with a chemical valley that rivals Kanawha County in its heyday.

The best part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's announcement last week is not the cracker, a plant that spins natural gas into gold — well, feedstock for petrochemicals.

But the company also plans to construct three polyethylene plants to go with the cracker (or maybe the cracker goes with the plants).

If this happens, West Virginia will pump the natural gas out of the Marcellus shale formation, turn it into a feedstock and turn that feedstock into polyethylene products, which are so many, the mind reels.

It's trite to say win-win. Think triple play. Or to use the game-changer cliche, Parkersburg will go from playing catch to playing baseball.

Of course, this is far from a done deal. Officials cited financing, marketing and regulation among the issues that lie ahead.

Odebrecht is a good-side company with annual revenues of $43 billion, according to Wikipedia. But Shell has 10 times that revenue and apparently cannot pull off construction of a cracker in Pennsylvania, just north of Wheeling.

On the other hand, Shell has had bad luck in tapping into the various shale formations and its CEO will retire next year at 55.

Size doesn't always matter; remember, Mitchell Energy, a cash-strapped wildcatter, developed the hydraulic fracturing technology in the 1990s that led to the Marcellus boom.

There are environmental concerns. The plant's location is in Washington, W.Va., along the Ohio River, which certainly everyone wants to protect.

Hence, Odebrecht plans to build its own energy generation and water treatment facilities. However, the state should always trust but verify when it comes to regulation.

Foreign companies are investing in the U.S. chemical industry.

"Odebrecht is one of a growing list of companies that have announced plans to expand U.S. chemistry production or explore new investments in major manufacturing facilities," the American Chemistry Council said. "As of November, 135 chemical projects worth nearly $90 billion in proposed capital investment have been announced, with 54 percent coming from companies based overseas."

It's great to see West Virginia make the list.

Charleston residents may wonder why Parkersburg, but Parkersburg's history in the chemistry industry is lengthy, dating back to America's original oil boom in the 1860s.  

American Viscose, a giant in the rayon industry in the 20th century, had its largest plant in Parkersburg.

DuPont's Washington Works will be the proposed complex's neighbor.

"DuPont Washington Works is the site of DuPont's second-largest manufacturing facility in the world. Since opening in 1948, our site has expanded to include the manufacturing of hundreds of products that primarily supply the construction and automotive industries," plant manager Karl J. Boelter said in an online interview with the state Commerce Department.

He later added, "Today, our site is the workplace of choice for more than 1,800 people."

The cracker will be built on the site of the old Borg-Warner plant, which is now owned by the Saudi Arabians, who are shutting it down.

Finding qualified people to make the new complex their "workplace of choice" likely won't be a problem.

Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette knows the area well, having represented Wood and neighboring counties for eight years in the state Senate in the 1980s as he rose to be the state's youngest Senate president in 1989.

The next year, the district voted him out in favor of Republican Frank Deem, a petroleum engineer whom Burdette had ousted in 1982.

Now Burdette heads the team that is facilitating a project that could rocket the area's petrochemical industry back into the big leagues. If there is a happier man in the state, it's Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell. His town could soon be rich.

Surber is an editorial writer. His email is DonSurber@DailyMail.com.


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