And the shale revolution is yielding big dividends for the state government. Producers pay 5 percent of their gas sales to state coffers in the form of a severance tax. For fiscal 2012, that amounted to more than $90 million — up from $40 million in 2004.
But all that revenue is no guarantee of lasting prosperity. West Virginia has been has been collecting taxes on coal since 1921 — the 5 percent severance tax on it raised more than $500 million in 2012 — without those receipts translating into widespread wealth.
Some of the state's most prominent political figures lament it as a missed opportunity.
"If you could have a do-over, go back 100 years, my God, I think we'd be the most prosperous and wealthy state in the nation," said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the state's former governor. "In a perfect world, you would have laws in place that would have prevented the extraction without leaving anything behind."
But state lawmakers are determined that this time will be different.
Jeff Kessler, president of the state Senate, is pushing a plan to set aside a full quarter of the natural-gas severance tax revenue into a "future fund," money that would sit and collect interest while being off-limits to current spending. Kessler envisions the fund's revenues being spent on infrastructure, education, and other programs intended to make the state more competitive.
"Hopefully we'll have the good discipline, foresight, and courage to do something for future generations, instead of spending every penny when we get it," he said. "We've done that for 100 years. It's time to do something different."
Kessler is modeling his effort on a plan recently put in place by North Dakota, which is undergoing an energy boom of its own thanks to shale oil development in the Bakken oil field. North Dakota has already squirreled away $1.3 billion into their fund, which will be off limits through 2017, Kessler said.
Kessler is hoping to pass legislation starting a similar fund during his state's next legislative session, which kicks off in January. It will be his third try at passing the bill, which last session passed through a few committees but couldn't make it to the floor before the session ended.
It is, after all, not easy to convince politicians to pass legislation that by design will not benefit their constituents until after well after their next election. Kessler said his initial plan was to put money away for 20 years, but he has since revised his expectations.
"It'll probably be around 8 years," he said. "I don't think politicians have the patience to wait 20 years for much of anything."
Even that vision, however, may not be an easy sell, given the ongoing need for social services in West Virginia. In a state where nearly one in five people lives below the poverty line, it's difficult for politicians to explain why they are spending on the future when so many are desperate in the present.