A site near Pine Bluff has won the competition to become home to a multibillion-dollar plant for turning natural gas into liquid fuel, economic development officials say.
The project, by Energy Security Partners LLC of Little Rock, would convert natural gas into liquid diesel and jet fuel and has been touted as the largest economic development endeavor in Arkansas history.
Over the past week, the effort took two significant steps forward.
The Economic Development Corp. for Jefferson County bought nearly 1,100 acres for the project on March 30 and has signed an agreement to lease the land to ESP, which in February identified Jefferson County as a serious contender for the project.
The first phase alone is a $3.7 billion construction effort, according to ESP, led by CEO Roger Williams, a lawyer, engineer and former Exxon executive. Other top management figures are former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark, both Arkansans. The plant would produce 33,000 barrels of fuel per day, ESP officials have said, providing 225 permanent production jobs. It would be the first gas-to-liquid production facility in the United States.
George Makris, chairman of the Economic Development Corp. and Chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff, wrote in an email on Friday that the lease agreement represents a public commitment by ESP to place the project in Jefferson County.
"I do believe the signing of the lease agreement confirms ESP's commitment to establish their plant in Jefferson County," wrote Makris, who signed papers closing the deal on the site, which is near the National Center for Toxicological Research in northern Jefferson County.
The Development Corp., known locally as the tax board, paid $2.8 million for the land, which was bought from multiple sellers, according to Lou Ann Nisbett, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County.
Tax board officials said the sale price was in line with property assessments in the area. At a meeting in February, the board approved $3.9 million in incentives for the project, including up to $3 million for land acquisition. With no dissent, the board authorized Makris to sign the land-sale documents and documents to lease the land to ESP.
The incentives were available under the terms of Jefferson County's sales tax, a three-eighths cent levy approved by voters in 2011 for economic development and administered by the tax board.
Several calls seeking comment from Energy Security Partners were not immediately successful. However, Williams spoke to Rotary Club members in Pine Bluff on March 15, saying that Jefferson County was an ideal location for the plant.
The site has several advantages for ESP, according to tax board officials, including access to rail lines, highways and the Arkansas River. The river is important, Williams has said, because much of the $1 billion worth of equipment for the plant is so heavy it can be transported only by barge. He also noted natural gas pipelines in the vicinity.
In addition to the long-term benefits of the production facility, the county is expecting a significant boon as a result of construction, which officials say could create or support 5,000 jobs in Arkansas over nearly a decade, and add $333 million in annual labor income statewide.
"I believe this is the biggest deal the state has ever experienced," Nisbett said from her office in Pine Bluff. "This will mean 2,500 jobs in construction, and that will last a decade, because there are three phases planned. Phase 1 alone is a $3.7 billion project.
"We're excited. This is good in so many ways. Jefferson County really needs this kind of shot in the arm, and ESP has been a great group to work with."
Nisbett said Energy Security Partners has begun the process of getting permits for all phases of construction, an effort that she said might take two years.
"As soon as all those permits are acquired, we expect construction to begin," she said.