CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson County Commissioners have agreed to help fund a study on bringing natural gas infrastructure here in hopes of adding more jobs.
[cleeng_content id="697671051" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Commissioners Walt Pellish, Jane Tabb and Patsy Noland supported the $20,000 contribution to an investigation of what Development Authority Executive Director John Reisenweber called “one of the top economic development issues in Jefferson County.”
“Natural gas is a game-changer,” Reisenweber told commissioners.
Pellish agreed, In a subsequent interview, he said the boom in natural gas production due to the recently-refined technique of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” presents the region with numerous secondary economic opportunities that can benefit Jefferson County if it has infrastructure in place to take advantage of it.
“The product is there in abundance. The difficulty is getting it to users,” he said. “The biggest thing we’re missing here is gas. We’ve got companies that want to be here. They like all the other amenities we have here in the county. But they need gas.”
Commissioners Dale Manuel and Lyn Widmyer sought to push the vote to this week’s meeting, arguing that they had not been provided with sufficient information in order decide whether to fund the study.
Reisenweber said a “pre-feasibility” study funded by the Cities of Charles Town and Ranson along with private sector partners had found that there were no “show-stoppers” that would make it impossible to run natural gas into the county.
Reisenweber said natural gas is available nowhere in the county other than the former 3M/Kodak plant in Middleway, which has remained vacant since it closed eight years ago. Finding a prospective company to redevelop that site has been problematic since it is contaminated, he said.
The new study – which he told the commission will likely cost between $60,000 and $80,000 with additional funding coming from the state, Berkeley County, Mountaineer Gas and other private-sector partners – will examine whether there is sufficient demand for the low-cost fuel to justify the estimated $20 million to $25 million investment in the build-out of a pipeline. The study will also examine the possibility of extending natural gas lines to residential developments.
Mountaineer has also agreed to donate its technical staff’s time to aid the firm that wins the study contract.
“We are working with a couple of large prospects right now as we speak that will walk if we don’t get the gas in here,” Reisenweber said.
Though he would not identify the prospective businesses, Reisenweber did say that one was a major manufacturer who could bring 1,500 relatively high-wage jobs to the county.
Reisenweber said another company now in the county could go out of business if they are unable to transition to natural gas.
In a subsequent interview, Reisenweber said natural gas is a preferred resource for many companies with high-energy needs because it is cheaper than alternatives like propane and can also provide a backup source of electrical power.
“If we get this kind of infrastructure, people will be pounding on our door to get in here,” he said. “We will be able to pick and choose.”
In voting against the funding request, Widmyer said she needed more information before she could support funding the study, particularly given the county’s budget straits.
In particular, she said she needed to know who would administer the funding and what the study would be expected to produce.
Reisenweber said that there were several possible options available for who would administer the study, including either the Jefferson or Berkeley development authorities, but that they had not yet determined who would do so. He also pointed out that a scope of work document outlining the objectives of the study had been produced.
Manuel said he worried about the long-term impact of the study on county finances, particularly if the county had to float bonds to cover construction costs.
“Who is responsible for the debt service on those bonds?” he asked. “Because if we built a $19 million or a $25 million pipeline, somebody is going to have to pay for it.”
In a subsequent interview Manuel argued that in a time of tightly constrained budgets it behooved the commission to show more caution than it did last week.
“We have a crisis on our hands, and $20,000 is a lot of money,” he said. “We’re talking about another study. We haven’t been real successful with studies in Jefferson County.”
“What I was looking for was a mission statement and clear objectives,” he said.
Noland said she was convinced of the need to move forward with the study at a recent stakeholder meeting held at the development authority. She said that leaders of many important employers in the county had strongly underlined the need for the project.
“These people couldn’t express loudly enough the need for natural gas,” she said. “They’re excited about this opportunity.”
The Berkeley County Development Authority is expected to present a similar $20,000 funding request to the Berkeley County Commission this week.