Coal-to-gasoline project in Wyoming sparks hope, doubt
By JEREMY FUGLEBERG Star-Tribune energy reporter
HANNA — With a pointed finger and a laugh, Pat Ryan knows he has his man.
“This is the man you want,” he says to a visiting journalist, twisting on his seat and pointing down the bar to Larry Korkow.
Korkow is public works manager for Hanna, an old coal town along the railroad in southern Carbon County. But it’s after hours, so he’s enjoying a beer at Poulos’ Nugget Bar under the rhythmic laughs of a comedy show on a television perched on the wall.
His job means he would be on the forefront of changes the dying town would need in order to host the workers and business likely to flood Hanna if a much-delayed, multi-billion-dollar coal-to-gasoline plant is constructed only a few miles away.
In the meantime, he says, how do you prepare for something that isn’t yet a sure thing?
“Until you know something’s coming in, you got to put it on the back burner,” he said.
There’s no doubt the arrival of the DKRW Advanced Fuels plant would affect the town, home to 873 people in the latest U.S. Census — or “456 water connections,” as Korkow puts it. Between 30 to 40 homes sit vacant, he says, but a local man has bought up some houses and an apartment building to prepare for the expected boom.
One thing Korkow’s sure about: The town could use a boost.
“We’ve got to have something come in,” he said. “It’s always boom and bust around here.”
Lately in Hanna and the surrounding area, it’s been more bust than boom. It’s been several years since the nearby coal mine was in operation and Houston-based DKRW first said the plant would go into operation in 2008.
Beset by financing troubles, company officials now say they’re planning for a 2015 open date for the $1.7 billion to $2 billion plant, assuming they secure the necessary funding.
“It’s a difficult process, but you know, it’s not unlike other large industrial developments,” said Bob Kelly, executive chairman of DRKW.
The project would employ 2,215 workers while under construction and provide 415 jobs when it opens, DKRW officials told the Carbon County Commission in December.
The project sits on 200 acres only a few miles up County Road 3 from Elk Mountain and about a dozen miles south of Medicine Bow. It is adjacent to the Elk Mountain surface coal mine and the Saddleback Hills underground coal mine.
Late last year DKRW asked the state to approve $300 million in state industrial development bonds for the project, a request still under consideration. In January the Carbon County Commission signed off on the issuance of $245 million in tax-exempt bonds that will be backed by the project.
In Rawlins, the county seat, Terry Weickum is both positive and hopeful. The county commissioner says the coal-to-gasoline conversion plant would be good for the county and the state, because the company would find a new way to use coal and bring jobs to the area.
“We should support ourselves,” he said. “We can.”
Weickum has vocally supported the project, and he estimates 97 percent of county residents in the county agree with him. To him, that’s a mandate calling on Carbon County to do all it can to help DKRW build its plant.
“In no way, shape or form is Carbon County going to be the reason they don’t succeed,” he said.
In ElK Mountain, population 192, some residents wish county officials would ask tougher questions. A group gathers in Ken Casner’s ElK Mountain Trading Co. to talk about the project and is quick to knock down the idea that the county is almost entirely supportive of the DKRW plant.
“We’re so desperate and so blind, when the dog and pony show rolls in, we go for it,” said Sue Jones, board member of the county economic development corporation. She and husband Wiley Jones run Sunrise Sanitation Service in nearby Saratoga.
Questions and doubts abound: Is there enough coal for the plant to operate for decades? What about the water? What about sage grouse in the project area? Where will DKRW get enough water for the water-intensive conversion methods the plant will use? And why year after year of delays?
“It’s been simplified, and it’s not simple,” Jones said. “Nothing’s solid. It’s pie in the sky and bounce all over.”
Janeen Jones, an Elk mountain councilwoman, said she’s worried the town’s small percentage of state-granted impact fees won’t be enough to ready the town for what could be a deluge of workers seeking a beer and a cooked meal.
If workers fill up the town’s vacant housing and lots, Elk Mountain would quickly grow by 45 percent, she said.
“Our gut feeling is, we don’t want to have our streets full of 4,000 workers going up the hill,” said Casner, misstating the number of workers but making his point. “We’re not prepared for that.”
The project will mean a lot of new people and economic development in Carbon County, and likely adjoining Albany County as well, if workers decid to commute from Laramie, Sue Jones said.
There’s some cheerfully nervous talk about whether those who have vocally questioned the project could get stoned when they visit Medicine Bow, a nearby town with ambitious plans to benefit from the plant’s construction and operation.
Jones, the councilwoman, compared opposing the project to opposing a war and then getting labeled an anti-war protester.
“It’s the same thing locally,” She said. “If you speak out on this, you’re not pro-industry, you’re not pro-mineral.”
But she wishes the myriad questions about the plant would get some answers.
As long as those questions go unanswered, there will continue to be doubt about the project, even among those who might welcome the jobs and business it could bring.
“Is it real? That’s all we want to know,” Sue Jones said.
Medicine Bow’s ready, said mayor Kevin Colman, leaning back in his office chair in the town hall.
“We agreed first we were going to make all our plans, get everything ready to go,” he said. “So when they announced ‘We’re coming,’ then all we have to do is pull the trigger.”
Medicine Bow is home to 304 people, according to the latest census. The town leaders want to be ready if that number swells with construction workers and, just maybe, plant employees.
The town has upgraded its power lines and water system. Town council members have split up the duties of contacting potential housing developers; looked at public works, maintenance and waste disposal issues, and examined what it would take to create a police force from scratch.
“When you look at that, you need to to prepare now,” Colman said.
Town officials have said they would welcome a DKRW man camp, or temporary housing, for construction workers.
Colman said DRKW will bring the boom. And then the town should look for support businesses to sustain the workers while at the same time keep Medicine Bow flush with residents and alive after the construction and worker boom ends, Colman said.
“If we look at DKRW as a catalyst instead of a savior, that’s where we’ll see us able to create that cycle so we’re not so down on that boom and bust,” he said.
But first, to bring hope to communities and a reason for residents to stay and for others to move in, DKRW has to announce firm plans to start construction, Colman said.
“They just need to be willing to say, ‘Now’s the time,’” he said.
Back in Hanna, Korkow sips his beer and talks about the plant, and everyone gets distracted by the shenanigans on the TV comedy channel.
Pat Ryan, heavily bearded and with a hat smashed atop his head, decides to leave. He opens the door, and then pauses, shooting a hard glance back at the bar. He has a parting message.
“I’m not cautiously pessimistic, I’m pessimistic,” he said.
And with that, he closed the door.
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