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Big Things Take Time (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

2 min read

They like to gamble now in Jefferson County. But the odds around a proposed $3.7 billion natural gas-to-liquid fuel plant there make the project look less like something you’d bet against.

In February 2016, I might have told you different. That’s when we reported on arkansasbusiness.com that a company called Energy Security Partners was considering building a plant in Arkansas to convert natural gas into diesel fuel and naphtha. What’s more, the facility — which could be sited in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the state — would require a construction workforce of more than 2,500 people, and then at least 200 more permanently at an average wage of $40 an hour.

Nearly eight years ago, that seemed almost as pie-in-the-sky as legalized casino gambling in Arkansas.

Flash-forward to 2023, and there’s a $300 million Saracen Casino Resort in Jefferson County open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 15 miles to the north ESP is prepping an 1,800-acre site for what could be the largest single industrial project in state history.

Assistant Editor Kyle Massey has been following ESP from the beginning, from its first two years focused on site procurement and early financing, to early environmental permitting and a COVID-19 lull in activity. At various points, we wondered whether the project would continue, or if its early promises of a better economy for Jefferson County had been a mirage.

But ESP isn’t a fly-by-night outfit. From the beginning, its big-name backers have afforded the plan the credibility — and no doubt the connections — to keep it viable. Two Arkansans lead the pack: former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO troops in Europe and once ran for president.

Others have conferred votes of confidence, through money, resources or endorsements, including county economic development leaders, banker George Makris Jr. and a significant, early investor, the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System.

Big things take time. (See Arkansas’ other budding new industry, lithium, in south Arkansas.) And the steps ESP and its subsidiary, GTL Americas, have taken to attain its latest milestones, detailed in Massey’s cover story this week, have been myriad.

But if it all comes together, Arkansas stands to gain a high-paying employer and in a needy part of the state — and play a significant role in the energy economy. It would give the U.S. its first natural gas-to-liquid fuel plant, one of only eight in the world, and, according to ESP CEO Roger Williams, help make the country more energy independent.

“We want to produce liquid transportation fuels within the U.S., from a U.S. source of feed stock,” he told us back in 2016. Slowly but surely, the company is inching closer to that reality.

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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