CHARLESTON, W.Va. --If West Virginia political leaders want a multibillion-dollar natural gas "cracker" plant to be built in Wood County, they might have to swallow a bitter pill: state restrictions on the amount of greenhouse gases the facility could spew into the air.
West Virginia elected officials generally don't acknowledge the scientific consensus that industrial emissions are making the world warmer, threatening a wide variety of negative impacts. State leaders oppose efforts to curb global warming pollution, and are fighting Obama administration proposals to mandate such reductions.
But a little-noticed state regulation -- approved by lawmakers in 2011 -- requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to address greenhouse gas emissions when it reviews air pollution permits for major industrial facilities, such as a large-scale cracker plant.
Before it could approve such a permit, the DEP's Division of Air Quality would be required to conclude that the Brazilian firm Odebrecht designed the facility with the "best available control technology" to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Last week, DEP air quality officials met privately with Odebrecht representatives to begin discussing the project, in anticipation of an air pollution permit application being filed sometime during the second quarter of 2014. Review of the application could take up to two years, officials said.
"It's going to be a difficult permitting process," said John Benedict, the DEP's air quality director.
In mid-November, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced that Odebrecht would "explore the development" of a new petrochemical complex in Wood County. If built, the complex would include an ethane cracker, a facility that would process ethane from Marcellus Shale natural gas production to make ethylene, one of the primary building blocks for petrochemicals and important raw materials for countless everyday items.
State and company representatives have provided few details about the size of the facility, and say it's too soon to say much about the specifics of the plant's potential environmental footprint.
Officials from Odebrecht declined a request for an interview about the plant's environmental impacts, but provided a prepared statement expressing a commitment to operating in a sustainable manner.
"Protecting the quality of our land, our air and our water is a priority for us as community partners," said the statement, issued by company spokesman Chuck Glazer. "Our approach will be to use best practices and to work closely with the appropriate local, state, interstate and federal authorities to be sure that our facility is constructed and operated to satisfy all applicable regulatory and permitting requirements."
Last week, the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project warned that the boom in natural gas production has so far brought with it a "tidal wave" of new or expanded chemical, fertilizer and petroleum plants that will release as much green house gas pollution as more than 20 large coal-fired power plants.
Since January 2012, companies have proposed or already obtained 95 Clean Air Act permits across the country for new compressors, pipelines, and other major facilities made possible by cheap shale-gas production. The climate change implications of these new sites "are considerable," the group said.
"It's important that we understand the full climate change picture when it comes to America's shale gas boom and the related tradeoffs," said EIP director Eric Schaeffer.
"As natural gas replaces coal as the fuel of choice for electric power plants, greenhouse gas emissions from that sector will decline, since gas releases less than half as much carbon as coal per kilowatt of electricity generated," Schaefer said. "But the data suggest that declining CO2 emissions from the electric power sector will be partially offset by higher emissions from other industries cashing in on cheap and abundant supplies of oil and gas from shale deposits."