GILBERTON, Pa. — The heart of Pennsylvania coal country isn’t exactly famous for its fishy smells, and for good reason. Bony piles the slag heaps of discarded coal mining debris seem to be everywhere, standing alongside highways, spilling into back yards of shanties, surreptitiously sitting under stands of white birches, the only trees which enjoy growing in such astonishingly acidic soil.
The trees are fed by silty, anthracite-laden streams which sullenly make their way into stagnant gray ponds covered with what seems to be an impenetrable dirty scum. Even the air seems stale, the breeze whispering sad tales of the coal boom gone bust long ago.
A more unhealthy, unprofitable place could scarcely be imagined this side of Afghanistan, and a pungent, piscine odor was the last thing I expected to encounter in this chiaroscuro world. Something fishy was clearly going on.
That something is John Rich. He owns the fish farm, the only tilapia fish farm in that part of Pennsylvania. He is a born innovator the owner of a half-dozen patents and a third-generation coal-miner. People told him the fish farm wouldn’t work: That wasn’t surprising, since people told him that his combined-cycle coal-generating plant wouldn’t work either.
That was before his plant was producing 80 megawatts and pumping the waste heat to both his fish farm and a nearby state prison. Waste produced by the process is turned into profitable products ranging from cement to an antiskid substance used on highways.
Mr. Rich sees the world differently than most. Where some see black piles of waste, he sees green fields and gushing streams of clear, high-grade diesel fuel being produced through his integration of two processes: Liquefaction and gasification.
The chemistry works because all fossil fuels are built from the same molecular backbone the element carbon. Carbon is released from the coal through the liquefaction and then rearranged into diesel fuel through gasification.
It isn’t easy or cheap to do, and even though the technology has been used successfully in South Africa and elsewhere, no American company has done so. Yet after devoting millions of dollars and nearly a decade of his life to the problem, Mr. Rich seems poised to prove the critics wrong once again.
Construction of the $300 million dollar gasification plant hasn’t begun yet, but Mr. Rich’s company, Waste Management and Processors Inc. (WMPI), has already signed a contract for technical assistance from the people Mr. Rich calls the “Wright brothers,” of the business, the South Africans at SASOL Technology Ltd. Assuming that the final engineering evaluations work and a fair amount of additional funding emerges, Mr. Rich’s plant could be operational by 2003.
By that time, taxpayers will probably have pumped in a fair of help in the form of federally funded research into clean coal technologies. Last year, Mr. Rich received a $7.6 million grant from the Department of Energy to study his plant’s feasibility and design. That was on top of nearly $50 million in the form of tax credits from the Pennsylvania state legislature.
That’s quite a bit of financial fuel, but the payoffs could come barreling in. Mr. Rich estimates he will employ 1,000 people to construct his plant and another 150 to run it. Those newly employed taxpayers will be producing 5,000 barrels of low sulfur, $1.10 per gallon diesel fuel per day. They’ll have plenty to work with Pennsylvania has about 200,000 acres of the bony piles, all of which have to be cleaned up one way or the other. Mr. Rich estimates that cleaning up the piles in his county alone would produce an estimated 19 billion barrels of diesel.
While the diesel he hopes to produce will cost quite a bit more than OPEC crude (roughly $46 per barrel vs. $25 per barrel), Mr. Rich believes that long-term supply contracts coupled with the Environmental Protection Agency’s toughened standards on sulfur in fuel (effective in 2003) could eventually make his diesel fuel highly profitable. At least he hopes so.
Enriching himself further really isn’t the issue, since he could be spending his children’s inheritance instead of mucking about with, well, coal muck. Rather, Mr. Rich hopes that his process will help alleviate America’s dependence on foreign oil. He asks rhetorically, “How many billions do we export to OPEC every month?” (Answer at least $1.5.)
Indeed, much of the reason he is pushing his project so hard is his children’s inheritance. Pointing to a black-and-white photo hanging in his office of his four children in mining gear, he says he hopes they will not have to be sent overseas for oil when there is plenty available here. He is so passionate about increasing supplies of domestic oil that he doesn’t even mind the idea of energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The one oil giant he sees himself competing with? “OPEC.”
Unfortunately, even with his anticipated higher cost per barrel, he is right. So long as America depends on foreign oil, the American economy and the lives of Americans will be vulnerable to the violent vicissitudes of Middle East politics regardless of when the war on terrorism ends. Addressing the demand side won’t do much either. Most sources of renewable energy need renewable sources of federal funding to even pretend to be profitable, improvements in energy efficiency cannot defy the laws of thermodynamics, and if enacted, stringent conservation measures could collapse the economy.
Increasing America’s domestic production of fossil fuels means much more than dollars or jobs it means the blood of Americans. Producing diesel fuel from coal may not be cheap, but, as Mr. Rich never tires of telling, the alternative is much more expensive. There’s nothing fishy about that chiaroscuro choice.
Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages and an editorial writer for The Washington Times.