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University of Charleston panel touts natural gas

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A panel of industry representatives and a state official touted West Virginia's increasingly abundant natural gas reserves Monday at the University of Charleston.

The center of the discussion mostly revolved around natural gas-powered vehicles. The event was hosted by the University of Charleston Enactus team, a chapter of an international business organization.

The event featured representatives from Triana Energy, Chesapeake Energy, IGS Energy and the West Virginia Department of Transportation. Each panelist traded thoughts and opinions on the future of natural gas in West Virginia.

The organizers were mostly focused on "how innovation is being used in West Virginia to promote capitalism, such as retrofitting state-owned fleet vehicles to run off natural gas, and whether state or federal government should play a role in regulating natural gas extraction or its uses."

Paul Mattox, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Transportation, said the state is looking at natural gas because it has lower rates of emissions than gasoline. When burned, natural gas produces fewer pollutants than traditional gasoline-fired engines.

"We're also looking to save the taxpayers money because it is a cheaper fuel than gasoline," Mattox said.

T.J Meadows, CNG business manager for IGS Energy, said the price of compressed natural gas can be around half of the equivalent price of gasoline. In addition to cost savings, Meadows and the other panelists discussed the benefit of utilizing natural gas over gasoline in terms of global economic security.

"Why send all of those dollars offshore when we can use a cheap, abundant resources produced right here in West Virginia?" Meadows said.

Will natural gas growth displace coal? Maribeth Anderson, director of corporate development at Chesapeake Energy, said that's not happening yet. Most of the state's energy is still produced by coal.

"The inhibiting of mine operations has more to do with the EPA regulations than the marketplace," said Henry Harmon, president and CEO of Triana Energy.

One question presented to the panel was whether natural gas activity could replace declining tax revenue from decreased coal production. Harmon said that is the job of state legislators to figure out how to best capitalize the growth of the industry.

The industry has grown rapidly and lawmakers have scrambled to keep up. Anderson said just a few years ago, even people in the industry didn't talk much about the Marcellus shale. Now, the region is among the top-producing areas in the world.

The economic impacts, the panelists stated, are spread throughout various parts of the industry. Harmon said one of the keys to best use of natural gas is finding "value-added" uses of natural gas. He said simply exporting the gas is a wasted opportunity and akin to the economic strategy of a "third-world country."

Anderson said one of the biggest opportunities exist in some of the downstream opportunities such as manufacturing businesses that use natural gas elements as a feedstock.

"That industry is going to continue to grow in West Virginia," Anderson said.