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It's time to go back to the future in WV

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Keith Burdette Keith Burdette

Keith Burdette is cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Commerce and executive director of the West Virginia Development Office. He has been a businessman and has served in the West Virginia House of Delegates and the State Senate.

In "The Tempest," William Shakespeare wrote, "What's past is prologue."

What happens in our past sets the stage for what happens in our present. Take West Virginia's chemical history, for example. The first ethane cracker was developed in Kanawha County in the mid 1920s — the result of an unexpected discovery, the entrepreneurial spirit and technological know-how.

It started when a researcher's experiments accidentally produced a byproduct, ethylene, which had no known commercial use back then. The researcher had an entrepreneurial streak and soon figured out that ethylene could become the basis of other chemicals. A company then called Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corp. had the expertise to unlock its commercial value. Using ideas and technology from several sources, Carbide developed a process to crack ethane and create ethylene. 

With ethylene, you can make 40 to 60 percent of the world's chemicals. When the company commissioned a study to see where in the country it could find natural gas with the highest percentage of ethane, the answer was right here, in West Virginia.

In 1927, Carbide built the first true petrochemical company in South Charleston. The rest is history.

That past proved to be prologue for the chemical industry. West Virginia companies have been innovators in chemicals and plastics throughout this country's history.

West Virginia is a manufacturing state. We have led in the past. And we have the experience, talent, technology and resources to lead again.

A resource in the news for the past several years has been the gas-rich Marcellus and Utica shales. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy commissioned a three-part study of shale energy by independent global energy research firm IHS. The study reports that through 2012, shale energy supported nearly 12,000 West Virginia jobs related to extraction. By 2020, the figure is expected to climb to 29,656 jobs in the state.

I am still very optimistic that West Virginia can attract an ethane cracker plant. The cracker facility could draw manufacturers to the area that can take advantage of an abundant and lower cost feedstock supply. Hundreds if not thousands of related jobs could be created. 

From fiscal, political and geographic perspectives, we are favorably positioned for gas production. The state's fiscal house is in order. West Virginia's Marcellus gas rules are clear and competitive with surrounding states.  West Virginia is close to East Coast markets, making obtaining feedstock here, manufacturing here and transporting from here an advantage.

In "The Tempest," the full quote that Shakespeare wrote says "Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come, In yours and my discharge." To me, that says West Virginia has a past in energy and manufacturing — and we have a future, too. What is to come — how bright that future will be — depends on the work we do today to achieve our potential tomorrow. 

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