Visions of a $3.5 billion plant to turn natural gas into liquid fuel have tantalized Jefferson County ever since Energy Security Partners of Little Rock announced its ambitious plan for energizing the downtrodden region four years ago.
Doubters have seen the project, touted as the largest industrial development endeavor ever in Arkansas, as just pie in the sky.
But with two of four crucial environmental permits in hand, that pie could be going into the oven soon. The superproject could be complete and producing 33,000 barrels of super-clean diesel a day by 2023, according to previous accounts of ESP executives, and two remaining necessary permits are to be decided soon, sources say.
ESP, which counts Gen. Wesley Clark and former U.S. Transportation Secretaries Andrew Card and Rodney Slater as partners, has received a wastewater discharge permit from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and a water plan compliance permit from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. Those permits, both issued in June, leave two major permitting hurdles for ESP’s 1,800-acre site 15 miles northwest of Pine Bluff: an air emissions clearance from ADEQ and a streams-and-wetlands clearance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The gas-to-liquid plant would use century-old technology to chemically transform cheap natural gas into engine fuel and naptha, achieving arbitrage between gas and oil prices that can be locked in for long terms, in Williams’ vision.
The Project’s Backers
ESP secured a $30 million investment last year from the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System to complete front-end engineering for the site between Interstate 530 and the Arkansas River. Construction would bring 2,500 jobs to the depressed Delta, and the plant would provide another 200 permanent jobs “at excellent wages,” said Slater, a former Arkansas highway commissioner before joining the Bill Clinton administration.
Williams and ESP have gone publicly mum since earlier this year, but former Jefferson County economic developer Lou Ann Nisbett, who retired in September, told Whispers that a major announcement on the project is due early next year.
The front-end engineering design contractor is TechnicFMC in France.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has approved GTL diesel production in the U.S., and the project has strong support from Jefferson County, the state and Arkansas’ congressional delegation.
ATRS, the state’s largest public pension fund with $17 billion in assets, has held back an additional $10 million for potential investment, which would take its stake in the project to $40 million.