By JAY ROCKEFELLER
WASHINGTON -- You may have read some stories in recent days about a field hearing I held as Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The title we put on it was "Shale Gas Development: Meeting the Transportation, Pipeline, and Rail Needs to Renew American Manufacturing." Now, that's just a fancy way of saying we talked about a subject you're familiar with: the boom of shale gas development in West Virginia.
We touched on a number of things during the discussion. For example, Marshall County Sheriff John Gruzinskas told us all about the damage to his community's roads from heavy trucks, and danger from out-of-state subcontractors who are unfamiliar with our winding West Virginia roads. We talked about what is being done by responsible companies to mitigate those problems, and whether we must do more like hiring drivers who know our roads.
But the big picture is that shale gas offers tremendous opportunity to West Virginia. The experts I convened know what it will take to guarantee West Virginia maximizes the full potential of this booming industry. Through the Commerce Committee, my aim was to look at the infrastructure needs we must meet to mobilize a rebirth of West Virginia manufacturing.
The fact is, every aspect of shale development presents us with both challenges and opportunities. In my experience, the only way to maximize opportunities over the long haul is to understand and tackle the challenges smartly. Whether highway issues or pipeline safety, if West Virginia gets it right up front – if we find and follow best practices, meet developers' needs and address community concerns – future success knows no bounds.
We all know that the existence of natural gas in West Virginia isn't new. What's different today is that it can accessed more affordably with new technology and that's creating an economic boom with far-reaching impacts. That's why you see evidence of shale development all the time. It's hard to miss.
My hearing was unique from other discussions about shale gas development and reflected the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee over aspects of the industry. The point is that there are growing infrastructure needs that must be addressed as a high priority.
* Roads and trucks: I know the state and industry have worked together to address local road needs, and many are vigilant about repairs and safety. Road damage happens, but so do repairs and preventive maintenance. It's critical that we understand how companies and communities can work together, better.
* Natural gas pipelines: Gas development is happening across a broad region, and my Committee has an interest in the safety of pipelines. We need to be vigilant in building and operating them to minimize impact on communities while assuring public safety. I was happy we identified some issues to be aware of, and how it's important that we work together to move forward.
* Infrastructure needs of manufacturers: Chemical facilities rely on shale gas liquids, and our state has a long history of chemical manufacturing. We need safe, affordable and competitive rail infrastructure to support the viable movement of goods to market and for exporting.
I'm convinced that if we wisely approach each of these issues now, we can fully capitalize on this opportunity in front of us.
You hear a lot about an ethane "cracker" plant, and for good reason. The processing of ethane to ethylene is a game-changer for jobs, especially those in manufacturing and chemical sectors. This potential manufacturing renaissance -– growing out of the shale boom -– could ripple positive effects across our state for years to come.
But shale gas development, and the promise it holds for West Virginia, is about more than one plant. It's about smart solutions for more than one challenge, be it road, rail or anything else.
It's about doing what we can—when we can—to make sure our state is all that it can be. Shale gas development holds promise. For our future and our families, it's up to us all to get it right.
Rockefeller, a Democrat, is West Virginia's senior U.S. Senator.