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West Virginia Advances Natural Gas Power Sites Bill

The state is the nation’s fourth-largest producer of marketed natural gas, but it powered just 4 percent of the state’s net electricity generation in 2021. The legislation would designate suitable sites for natural gas electric generation projects.

(TNS) — A West Virginia Senate committee has advanced a bill that says the phrase 'natural gas' 34 times.

Word counts became an issue Wednesday afternoon as the Senate Economic Development Committee considered the bill, which would direct the Department of Economic Development secretary to identify and designate sites deemed suitable for natural gas electric generation projects.

The committee's approval of Senate Bill 188 followed an argument from West Virginia Coal Association president Chris Hamilton that SB 188's legislative findings would be used to establish that natural gas is the state's preferred fuel for generating electricity.

SB 188 asserts that production of electricity using natural gas is "highly underdeveloped" compared to nearby states competing for economic development projects. The bill holds that advancement of technology and drilling practices have opened up "opportunity for efficient development of natural gas" in West Virginia.

"[W]e have asked that those findings just be toned down a little bit," Hamilton said of SB 188, which doesn't mention coal.

"I don't view this as a dispute between oil and gas and coal," Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia lobbyist Philip Reale responded. "I view this as a matter about West Virginia realizing the value of its natural resources beyond just production."

Reale contended that natural gas-fired power plants would lower consumer electricity costs, create construction jobs and significant economic investment.

"[T]here are a lot of people out there looking to put money into natural gas-fired power," Reale told the committee.

West Virginia is the nation's fourth-largest producer of marketed natural gas, but natural gas fueled just 4 percent of the state's net electricity generation in 2021 — far below the national clip of 38 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas was easily the largest source of net electricity generation in Ohio and Pennsylvania, states where Reale lamented gas-fired power is much more prominent than in West Virginia.

The committee rejected an amendment from Sen. David Stover, R- Wyoming, that would have added 'coal' as an endorsed electricity generation source in the bill everywhere where the phrase 'natural gas' is included. Stover said that move would avoid appearing to favor one of the fossil fuel industries over the other.

"We need to find a way to speed this up for every industry," Sen. Mike Stuart, R- Kanawha, said.

The bill would require the state Air Quality Board to hear all appeals of permits issued or denied for construction and operation of a natural gas electric generation facility within 60 days. Committee counsel indicated the provision would guard against multiple hearing continuances.

The Economic Development Committee advanced SB 188 to the full Senate.

The bill is a carryover from last year's regular legislative session, when the similar House Bill 4622 stalled in that chamber's Energy and Manufacturing Committee.

West Virginia Manufacturers Association president Rebecca McPhail lobbied for legislation similar to HB 4622 at last month's state Public Energy Authority meeting.

McPhail criticized West Virginia's disparity between gas production and electricity generation in her presentation before the Public Energy Authority, and argued that increasing natural gas power generation would lower greenhouse gas emissions and provide greater reliability than intermittent renewable energy sources.

Sean O'Leary, senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, a pro-renewable energy think tank based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, criticized the intent of HB 4622 prior to the release of SB 188, contending that utility-scale power generation isn't an effective foundation for economic development or job creation.

"[Fossil fuel power generation] is struggling to remain competitive with renewable energy and is subject to boom-and-bust cycles because the price of its feedstock is susceptible to the whims of volatile global commodity markets," O'Leary noted in an email last month.

A 2021 Ohio River Valley Institute report found that a rise in natural gas production from 2008 to 2019 did little to lift up the economies in 22 gas drilling-heavy counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In 2021, the International Energy Agency said there was no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects in its proposed pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050.

But West Virginia Climate Alliance co-founder Perry Bryant supported combined-cycle gas-fired power generation with carbon capture and storage in an op-ed published by the Gazette-Mail earlier this month. Combined-cycle natural gas plants use turbine exhaust heat to generate electric power.

West Virginia persists in relying on coal far more than any other state in the nation for electricity generation. Coal comprised 91 percent of the state's electricity generation in 2021 — 16 percentage points more than the next-highest coal percentage, Missouri.

(c)2023 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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