Some see federal ruling as opportunity to revisit canceling trash-to-ethanol contract

2013-02-03T00:00:00Z 2013-02-03T21:05:05Z Some see federal ruling as opportunity to revisit canceling trash-to-ethanol contractMarc Chase, (219) 662-5330
February 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A recent federal ruling paints a picture of the national alternative-fuels scene that closely mirrors what Lake County has experienced for four years in its trash-to-ethanol plan: lots of promises and no results.

And at least one Lake County Solid Waste Management District Board member said it provides yet another argument for why the district should ditch the contract for a trash-to-ethanol plant that has failed to deliver on promises to consolidate the county's trash processing at a savings to taxpayers.

In a Jan. 25 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., threw out U.S. Environmental Projection Agency quotas placed on petroleum fuel producers for using cellulosic biofuels, such as those that are supposed to be produced by would-be waste-to-ethanol operations.

The court concluded congressional energy policy and the EPA have "let wish be the father to the thought" behind requirements for the fuel producers to use cellulosic ethanol when, in fact, the actual production of such fuels has been near zero.

"These standards for cellulosic biofuel assumed significant innovation in the industry," the ruling states.

That innovation has yet to be realized, but the EPA has continued to push the requirements based on exaggerated promises from the waste-to-ethanol industry, the ruling concluded.

Now that the appeals court has scrapped the quotas, Lake County Solid Waste Management District Board member Rick Ryfa, also a Griffith councilman, believes it is time to revisit possibly canceling the controversial Lake County trash-to-ethanol project in Schneider.

"It's absolutely an opportunity for that," said Ryfa, who has helped lead charges to kill the contract as the contracted developer, Powers Energy of America, has failed to meet several promised deadlines — since signing the contract in November 2008 — to show financing for the proposed $300 million-plus plant and secure land for the deal.

"I think what the ruling says is that a false market was created for this type of fuel that really wasn't there," Ryfa said.

Ryfa also said he was concerned by recent news that petroleum giant BP backed out of a deal late last year that would have constructed a $350 million cellulosic biofuels plant in Florida's Highlands County.

"Given the large and growing portfolio of investment opportunities available to BP globally, we believe it is in the best interest of our shareholders to redeploy the considerable capital required to build this facility into other more attractive projects," BP Vice President for Communications Geoff Morell said in a written statement last year.

However, BP announced it would continue to fund biofuels research and demonstration plants.

The BP plant would have used sugarcane and other vegetative matter to make cellulosic fuel, according to a report in the MIT Technology Review. The would-be Lake County plant proposes to use carbon-based trash put out to the curb by county residents.

"It's certainly a cause for great concern when one of the largest refiners in the world is backing out of something like this," Ryfa said. "We rushed in too quickly — locally — on the trash-to-ethanol plan without proven technology or testing."

For now, the Lake County trash-to-ethanol plan is where it has been for months: on hold.

Powers Energy owner Earl Powers has said he intends to sell his license to trash-to-ethanol technology to a consortium of region construction contractors.

That consortium has said it wants to buy the license and move the Lake County trash-to-ethanol contract forward, but only if a much smaller cellulosic waste-to-ethanol facility successfully produces fuel-grade ethanol.

Last year, INEOS Bio, which owns the technology that would be used in Lake County, had estimated it would be producing commercially viable ethanol by the end of 2012. Members of the local construction consortium have said that INEOS now has its sights on the first part of 2013 for that goal.

Consortium representative Ed Cleveland has said the local deal remains on hold — as does any financing the project can receive — until the INEOS plant shows it can create a viable, sustainable product.

Lake County Solid Waste Management District Executive Director Jeff Langbehn did not return Times' calls seeking comment on the matter Friday.

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