Gasification plant reborn
Bill Schaefer/Idaho State Journal Bill Meadows, left, of the Power County Development Authority, listens while Ramesh Raman, right, CEO of Refined Energy Holding Co., discusses the new site of his proposed energy plant in the field across Lake Channel Road during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

AMERICAN FALLS - New site, new end product, same technology.

A coal gasification proposal that shook Southeast Idaho when it was first announced two years ago was officially reborn Wednesday with the announcement of a $2 billion facility located just outside American Falls.

As reported earlier this week by the Journal, the plant will produce fertilizer and ultra-low-sulfur diesel when it begins operations in 2011 or 2012.

The plans had previously called for coal gasification to generate power, which would have been sold on the open market.

"It really came down to what products are more attractive to the region," said Ramesh Raman, president of Southeast Idaho Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Refined Energy Holdings.

Raman's group purchased 450 acres of farmland located near ConAgra Food's Lamb Weston plant from two landowners nd secured senior water rights as well. The land is zoned as heavy industrial, due ironically to a previous Idaho Power plan to build a coal plant, and lies near the Snake River, though officials maintain no wastewater would be discharged into Southern Idaho's main waterway.

Raman acknowledged he and other officials will have to work with the county to address traffic concerns and may have to move a road to accommodate building plans, but said he's confident the plant will be built.

"We've already spent millions of dollars on this," he said. "This is so much different than burning or pulverizing coal."

Two years ago, Raman's plan sparked widespread opposition in Pocatello, where many residents feared the facility could negatively impact local air quality.

And despite the changes, some remained skeptical about the facility's environmental footprint.

"Some of the same issues are still there," said John Schmidt, a local activist and Greater Yellowstone Coalition board member. "It's going to be a huge emitter (of carbon dioxide)."

But from Power County's perspective, the benefits appear obvious.

The plant is expected to employ between 150 to 200 people at an average salary of $50,000. As many as 1,000 workers are also slated to be employed during the construction phase.

Raman said he's made it clear to local officials he'd like most of those employees to come from Southeast Idaho.

"The impact on the regional economy is going to be significant," he said, alluding also to the significant contribution a fully operational plant would make to the local tax base.

Raman said he's currently negotiating coal contracts and expects to bring in 4,000 tons of coal daily from mines in Utah and Wyoming.

The coal will reportedly be unloaded into Eurosiles, 150-foot high enclosures that protect the coal from blowing away and feed it gradually into slurry that can be handled by the plant.

Raman said the group is about two or three weeks away from filing air permit applications with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

Though he said the fertilizer products couldn't contain mercury, he admitted there might be trace amounts of the hazardous element emitted.

But he and other proponents of the plan downplayed environmental concerns.

"You can't be next to a french fry factory and taint the air in any way," said Kent Rudeen, chairman of the Power County Development Authority, in reference to nearby Lamb Weston.

Raman, for one, remains optimistic despite the original plan's lack of success.

Holding up a bottle of water, he said, "The diesel looks like this."

But neither the diesel nor the fertilizers, which include ammonia and urea, are currently widely produced in Idaho.

"Right now, all the ammonia is being shipped up from the gulf or transferred from overseas," Raman said.

Other sites are located at Kingsport, Tenn. and Coffeyville, Kan., but Raman said the energy center would be unique to the Intermountain West.

The technology is more widespread in Asia due to a lack of natural oil deposits.

"It's something that's been done for years," Raman said.

And with gas prices going up, proponents of the technology predict the American Falls plant would be a harbinger of things to come.

"I think you're going to see this happening countrywide," said Rudeen.

Though an artist's depiction hasn't been completed yet, blueprints for the plant call for an exterior fence to wrap around the entire facility for security reasons.

An administration building would be located near the plant's entrance.

Looking out over the green fields where construction of the plant could begin by the end of 2008, a coal gasification plant is hard to imagine. To Raman and other proponents, however, optimism runs deep.

Though much has changed in two years, it's an idea that's refused to die.