WASHINGTON BOTTOM, W.V. – Beijing billed President Donald Trump’s 2017 trip as a “state visit-plus” — rolling out the red carpet for an unprecedented private dinner in the Forbidden City, marching a military parade through Tiananmen Square, and hosting a signing ceremony in the colossal Great Hall of the People to unveil business deals totaling more than $250 billion.
One-third of that value was supposed to flow to West Virginia, an energy-rich but high-poverty state whose manufacturing and energy workers handed Trump his widest margin of victory in 2016. He captured more than more than 67% of the vote.
Under the deal, China’s largest state-owned energy giant would spend nearly $84 billion over 20 years to build facilities that extract natural gas and turn it into byproducts that generate power and make consumer goods.
In celebrating the announcement, West Virginia officials said projects would be underway within a year.
“This time next year, you will see construction activity taking place,” the state’s former Commerce secretary, Woody Thrasher, told reporters on Nov. 13, 2017.
A month later, Gov. Jim Justice confirmed that timeline. “It would not surprise me, within my 10-month window of today, to see shovels in the ground,” Justice told a town hall on WSAZ television.
But skepticism about the deal surfaced almost immediately. Officials referenced the general areas where China Energy would invest, but didn’t provide a detailed list of projects or an accompanying timeline. The memorandum of understanding outlining the deal was never made public and remains sealed by judicial order.
CNBC interviewed dozens of local executives, state officials and federal lawmakers about where the deal stands. What emerges is a picture of a proposal hastily assembled for the deadline of Trump’s trip to China without assessments of national security or geopolitical risks – and a cautionary tale as the U.S. tries to hold China to its promises at the federal level.
Eighteen months after the deal was announced with much fanfare, China Energy Investment Corp. has spent no money in West Virginia’s energy projects, Justice tells CNBC. Thrasher – one of three signatories to the deal – points to one reason: “It’s not an enforceable document where we can make them spend their money.”
The wish list
Delegations from China Energy Investment Corp. and Shenhua Group, its parent company, embarked on multiple learning tours in West Virginia to figure out where they would invest. In addition to visiting project sites across West Virginia in 2017, executives took courses at West Virginia University’s Energy Institute and traveled to industry conferences across the Ohio River valley. The trips began to slow as trade tensions heated up between the U.S. and China in early 2018, the governor told CNBC.
Local executives and state lawmakers expected China Energy to assist in building new facilities in three areas: Natural gas-burning power plants, steam crackers that turn gas into ethylene, and an underground reservoir that would store the excess energy until it could be processed or traded.
The goal, according to those involved: Invest in the infrastructure to extract and process the raw materials and send the materials themselves back to China.
But problems arose soon after the deal’s announcement.
China’s involvement in the power plants was blocked by U.S. officials, who raised national security concerns about an adversary obtaining operating knowledge of a state’s power grid.
The source of the opposition with the federal government was not clear, but Thrasher and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said the plants included in the original proposal had been removed from consideration.
“By law, information filed with CFIUS may not be disclosed by CFIUS to the public. Accordingly, the Department does not comment on information relating to specific CFIUS cases, including whether or not certain parties have filed notices for review,” said a representative for the Treasury Department, which leads the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, commonly known as CFIUS.
“We didn’t realize that there may be concerns from CFIUS,” Thrasher said in hindsight. “We thought that would be acceptable. Later on, there were questions about it.”
Energy Solutions Consortium — the U.S.-based company building the power plants in Brooke and Harrison counties — says permits for the plants are in process, and their construction is not predicated on Chinese investment.
A hundred miles away from the power plant sites sits an empty asphalt lot on the banks of the Ohio River that was supposed to host the facility that would “crack” the area’s abundant natural gas into ethylene. A security guard keeps watch 24 hours a day over the area, overgrown with weeds and surrounded by chain-link fencing and barbed wire.
When asked where one would find the cracker — or the beginnings of it — the security guard returned a quizzical stare. “There’s not one,” he told CNBC during a recent reporting trip to the area.
“That’s here,” he said when he was shown a map highlighting the area the Department of Energy had singled out as the investment site. But nothing had ever materialized, he said.
Local executives, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the project, say China Energy’s interest was piqued by the waterfront location and neighboring logistics hubs that would allow the company to easily export what it produced back to Beijing.
China’s financial backing would have added momentum to the cracker’s long-stalled production.
Its construction by Brazil’s petrochemical company Braskem, and Braskem’s parent company, Odebrecht SA, had been on hold for years amid a corruption scandal, financial troubles and ownership questions. Odebrecht’s chief executive in 2016 was sentenced to 19 years in prison for his role in a kickback scheme that lined the pockets of politicians in more than a dozen countries. The same year, Odebrecht and Braskem pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $3.5 billion to U.S. authorities for running afoul of domestic anti-bribery laws. After a deal to sell Braskem to conglomerate to LyondellBasell fell through earlier this month, Odebrecht filed for bankruptcy.
The Department of Energy says the cracker would produce a million annual tons of ethylene, a petrochemical product used to make zip-close bags and clothing fibers. But the earliest date it could come online under current ownership is 2022, according to a DOE report.
Then there’s the Appalachia Storage and Trading Hub, currently in the fundraising and development phase. Steve Hedrick, CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center (MATRIC) and Appalachia Development Group, says he’ll spend the next two years locking in the $3.3 billion he needs to get the project off the ground.
The majority of the funding — $1.9 billion — is expected to come from a Department of Energy loan. The remaining $1.4 billion will come from the private sector, Hedrick says, and so far is not coming from Beijing.
“What we have seen thus far is investment out of the continental United States,” Hedrick told CNBC.
Hedrick maintains that Beijing never made a firm commitment to fund the construction of the hub, despite his joining West Virginia officials in China to announce the $83.7 billion deal. His participation stoked controversy when ProPublica reported that he conducted private business while taxpayers funded his travel. Hedrick repaid his travel costs and told CNBC he provided “chemical industry acumen” during meetings with Chinese officials, at the request of the state.
Lawmakers say the storage hub was always on China Energy’s shortlist.
“We’re talking about 10 to 20 million barrels of ethane storage,” said McKinley. “Our conversation with Shenhua and the China Energy group was, ‘Let’s tap into that.’”
A ‘game-changer’ for the Mountain State
The potential value of the China Energy deal is greater than the value of everything the state of West Virginia produces in a year, which according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve was $77.5 billion in 2018. A third of its 1.8 million people don’t have internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And 19% of residents live below the poverty line, the most recent Census data show.
“It would’ve obviously employed tens of thousands of people,” Thrasher said. “It would’ve been way beyond a game-changer. Way beyond the size of the state.”
West Virginia’s current Commerce secretary, Ed Gaunch, told a West Virginia radio show the investment would produce “hundreds of thousands” of jobs in the energy and petrochemical industries. After meeting with China Energy’s chairman and top officials in China in early June, Gaunch told MetroNews Talkline the two parties moved “one step closer” to announcing at least one of the seven projects Gaunch said China has identified. Gaunch declined to elaborate on the commitment – or the projects – and acknowledged the process has been perplexing.
“In this case it was backwards,” Gaunch told the Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval. “We announced the intention to do those projects, and now we’re waiting for those projects to materialize.”
A spokesperson for Gaunch and the West Virginia Department of Commerce declined repeated requests for comment from CNBC over a three-month period.
The proposed size of the investment – and availability of those projects – has lawmakers and longtime West Virginia drillers scratching their head.
“I think we all knew that was a pretty high figure, particularly in a small state such as ours,” Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told CNBC outside Clarksburg during a recent congressional break.
Dennis Xander, president of West Virginia-based Denex Petroleum, said even if China Energy fully paid for every pipeline under construction in the state, it would only be able to spend about $25 billion.
“I don’t think the projects are here right now,” Xander said. Asked whether they could emerge over a 20-year investment horizon, he said: “I doubt it.”
Denex and MATRIC have not encountered any Chinese bidders participating in existing or future projects where their companies are involved, the two executives said.
“If 10% of that were invested in the state of West Virginia, that would be the single-largest investment in the history of the state,” MATRIC’s Hedrick said. “Whether you get to $83.7 billion or you get to $50 [billion] depends on how long we want to sit at the table and work on it,” Hedrick said.
Hedrick, who was briefed on the investment as part of the 2017 trip, said the specificity of the figure indicated it was the amount China truly intended to spend.
“Someone, somewhere decided that they were going to be precise,” Hedrick said. “Someone did the math and added it up. And it ended up at $83.7.”
Thrasher, the former state Commerce secretary, says the math was done quickly in late 2017, with the “back of a napkin” figure worked out “in a couple of hours,” so the deal could be rolled out weeks later during Trump and Xi’s big reveal.
“The temptation was too great not to sort of announce that deal,” Thrasher said.
The White House declined to comment on its role in assembling the deal or President Trump’s discussions about it with Governor Justice. Shortly after CNBC reached out for comment, Justice and the President spoke by phone, tweeting that they discussed West Virginia’s public schools. Gov. Justice said he and Pres. Trump are “bound at the hip,” and that Trump has done “remarkable work that has been tremendously beneficial for WV!”
The U.S. Department of Commerce, which arranged the deals and the delegations, says it is still working on the agreement but acknowledged its outcome is unclear.
“Work on this particular deal continues to this day. The initial announcement for this trade mission showed that it was a Memorandum of Understanding, which can signify that the agreement is early in the process,” a spokesperson for the department tells CNBC.
The deal signed was a “memorandum of understanding” involvingChina Energy, the state of West Virginia and West Virginia University. It’s not legally binding. And the state’s residents only know as much about the investment as a handful of principals are willing to tell them.
China Energy Investment Corp. is no more forthcoming. It declined to provide any executives to discuss the deal or information about its progress, although it did provide the following statement to CNBC: “CEIC’s project in West Virginia is currently progressing as planned. However, because this stage of work involves business secrets, it is not suitable for media interviews.”
Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a nonprofit public interest law and policy organization, sued West Virginia University after it declined a November 2017 Freedom of Information Act request to release the deal documents, a list of projects under consideration, and any correspondence related to China.
A West Virginia circuit court denied the request, saying the document trove could contain “proprietary trade secrets” and is “protected by the economic development privilege.” Judge Russell M. Clawges Jr. found the request to be “unduly burdensome.”
Appalachian Mountain Advocates declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation. The case is currently being appealed.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democratic former governor and West Virginia’s current senior U.S. senator, has hosted delegations from China Energy but still hasn’t been able to obtain adequate information about the deal.
“To say you’re going to make an investment and not tell us what it is going to be about was absolutely wrong,” Manchin told CNBC outside a hearing in Washington. “I never thought it would come to maturity — I really didn’t — and I never did see anything concrete.”
Holding out hope
Not everyone shares Manchin’s skepticism. Capito, his Republican colleague in the Senate, said West Virginia and China Energy are in a “holding pattern” until the U.S. and China resolve their trade issues. Justice, who switched from Democrat to Republican after being elected governor, said a resolution at the national level could give China Energy a “green light” to move forward — and that other nations, including energy-rich Qatar, have expressed interest in the meantime.
Thrasher, who is running to unseat Justice as governor, believes, perhaps unsurprisingly, a gubernatorial change could breathe new life into the deal.
McKinley says neither the value of the raw materials underneath the state nor China’s need for them has changed.
“I’ve met with them in Beijing. I’ve met them in Shanghai. We’ve had meetings in Morgantown,” McKinley says. “They’re still interested.”
China appears to be keeping its options open. Even as the trade disputes simmered, two dozen CEIC officials traveled to Morgantown in late 2018 for an executive education program at West Virginia University. A spokesperson for the school said “the lectures were given by members of the WVU faculty, and industry experts using open-source materials.” Topics covered in the course included U.S. permitting processes, midstream and downstream gas liquids trading, and transportation.
“Delegations have come and come, so we’re very appreciative of that and everything,” Justice told CNBC. But he says they haven’t been back since late 2018, and the only revenue they’ve brought to the state is from tourism.
The deal’s stagnation is a disappointment for West Virginia. But as a microcosm of the broader deal Trump is trying to negotiate with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it’s a cautionary tale.
The current deal is structured as a series of memoranda of understanding that will cover separate topics, all governed by the negotiated enforcement mechanism. Asked by a reporter in January how long these particular memoranda would be in effect, Trump publicly disagreed with his top trade official to say he hoped the two countries’ eventual deal would be more ironclad.
“I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything,” Trump said at one point during the lengthy back-and-forth with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, one of the leading negotiators with China. “A memorandum of understanding is exactly that: It’s a memorandum of what our understanding is, … how long will it take to put that into a final, binding contract?”
In his State of the State address just months after the West Virginia deal was announced, Justice told constituents the deal would happen because of two “Trump cards”: Trump’s desire to cut the U.S. trade deficit, and his desire to help the state.
“And I’ll promise you — President Trump and I are friends,” Justice told the crowd at the West Virginia state house in Charleston. “And President Trump doesn’t want me calling him, saying, ‘Donald, why isn’t it happening?’”