Letter: Coal-to-diesel scheme full of vague assertions

In his October 16, 2019, letter to the editor, Gregory Merle continued his long justification for the coal-to-diesel plant that he wishes to locate inside the town of Dale, Indiana, over the objections of most local residents. 

His latest missive focuses on the innovative power of “clean coal” technologies that will be able to maintain American energy independence while providing bountiful jobs for the local community. A “clean-coal” technology that was first developed for Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. We all know “clean-coal” does not exist but is merely an advertising gimmick, developed and paid for by the coal associations. Mr. Merle is part of this gimmick.

Those opposed to this development recognize this letter for what it is: a self-serving document written by a commodity broker from Greenwich, CT, who would not have been able to find Dale on a map of Indiana some 10 years ago.  In fact, just like his Eastern establishment buddies, Indiana was a fly-over state, if they even thought about the Midwest at all. Now he wants to save us from economic disaster?

Contrary to Mr. Merle’s assertions regarding American energy independence, the United States is energy independent right now.  By 2020, the US will be a net exporter of petroleum product to the world economy. The only reason we import oil now is to maintain relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.  The tremendous technological success of the fracking revolution has made arguments like Mr. Merle’s outmoded and stale news.

He points to the attack on the Saudi oil fields as a harbinger of US vulnerability.  However, the attack on the Saudi oil field, which did take out a major portion of Saudi oil capacity, did virtually nothing to hurt US supplies.  And given Mr. Merle’s commodity trading background, he should know that markets typically overreact to any outside events.

Coal may be an abundant resource in the US commodity markets, but its sheer abundance does not make it price competitive to natural gas or the declining cost of renewables for power plants; power plants that were the major buyers of coal in years past.  Coal, like buggy whips, is a resource of the past and communities need to focus on the industries of the future. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital manufacturing and advanced medical devices will drive future economic growth as knowledge- based industries have done in other highly developed economies.

Ironically, Mr. Merle’s justification of this refinery is that he is providing environmentally-friendly, low-sulfur fuels to an international shipping market. Meanwhile, if you take the time to read his permit (filed and approved by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management) Mr. Merle is tainting the entire Tri-State with toxic chemical releases and greenhouse gases. I would invite anyone who has not read the 1200-page Riverview Energy permit to read it for yourself. You will find in excess of 750 tons of toxic chemicals being released on our area, each and every year of refinery operations, along with 2.2 million tons of greenhouse gases.

Just as in Mr. Merle’s assertion that his future market is that of providing clean fuels to the ocean shipping market, the facts would indicate that it is more complex than he is willing to describe. The International Maritime Organization has mandated that low-sulfur fuels need to be used in the future as an alternative to heavy bunker fuels. The IMO has set January 2020 as the deadline for ship owners to operate with marine fuels that are lower than 0.5% Sulphur or 5000 parts per million. The international shipping community can take advantage of marine gasoil or medium distillates that are currently in the market or the refining of relatively sweet crude.

This represents bad news for the heavy crude producers like Venezuela and Iran but is good news for the US fracking industry which produces a lighter crude product.  Some operators will instead install scrubbers, making it unnecessary to purchase these new fuels. The world market is already moving forward on these new IMO requirements. By the time Mr. Merle’s refineries are built, the shipping community will be utilizing other remedies. 

For those of you who see no harm in building a refinery in Dale, Indiana, I ask you to take a trip to Port Arthur or Beaumont, Texas, to see what real refinery towns look like.  Heck, you don’t need to go to Texas – drive over to Ashland, Kentucky to see a community that looks like the set from a Mad Max film. Look across the US for refinery towns and you will find communities that have been blighted, their real estate values destroyed, and their families infected with residual impacts of environmental damage; all the result of refineries.

One respondent to Mr. Merle’s letter asked if the project was so good why didn’t he build the refinery in Greenwich, CT?  I’ll tell you why. Greg would never get the permits he needed from the Town of Greenwich, Fairfield County or the State of Connecticut.  Connecticut has already learned its lessons from unregulated industrial development in the 19th century that nearly destroyed the Connecticut River and left vast industrial wastelands in places like Middletown. Hundreds of years later, why is Indiana still inviting this type of industrial nightmare into our state?

Finally, Mr. Merle points to the jobs that the plant will provide.  The 2000 construction jobs are a benefit to construction workers, but one wonders whether Mr. Merle is ready to commit to using union labor?  Have letters of intent been signed with the local unions or will this be yet another broken promise? Are we really trading three years of construction jobs for lifetimes of toxic emissions? These are short-term jobs that will disappear when the plant is finished.  As to the 200 permanent jobs, how likely is that those jobs will be filled by local residents? How many chemical engineers reside locally? Despite the fact that the LEDC said they would release a list of job descriptions for this plant, nothing has been released. This is yet another promise that has not been kept. The local unemployment rate is extremely low and local companies are having problems hiring to fill open positions. Governor Holcomb stated earlier this year that Indiana has 100,000 unfilled job openings that companies cannot find the workers to fill.  Do we need 100,200 unfilled jobs?

The end result of this pipe dream is that the Eastern establishment will once again have foisted an untested idea on a local, rural community and when it collapses, the taxpayers will yet again be forced to pay for the clean-up of another brownfields project, left abandoned by a multi-million dollar company that files bankruptcy so they don’t have to pay for the clean-up.  It happens all the time. Or worse, the plant will sit, idled for years until it crumbles from disuse – all for local residents to stare at for decades on-end. Go to Toledo, OH, to see a community that is living amongst the wreckage of an industrial economic collapse. Do you want Spencer County, Indiana to become the Toledo, OH of the 21st century?

 Lastly, please note that Mr. Merle noted in his LTE of October 16th that “multiple plants across a region” will be built.  If you think these monstrosities will not affect all local communities, think again. Our beautiful section of southwestern Indiana will become nothing more than a vast wasteland of refineries, light pollution, noise pollution, air pollution, etc.  Is this what you want your children to live with for the next decades of their lives?

Spencer County has so much going for it in the way of location, logistics, world-wide tourism recognition, great schools, and good communities. It’s time to play up our strengths. Tell Greg Merle: no thanks. We don’t need your refineries. Spencer County and Southwestern Indiana citizens need to speak to your officials now or we are doomed to live with yet another environmental monstrosity for decades to come.

John J. Stocker, Santa Claus

2 Responses to Letter: Coal-to-diesel scheme full of vague assertions

  1. Dave Conners October 28, 2019 at 12:40 pm #

    Dear John, It seems like you have a pretty grim outlook on life in general. You know you have already passed the point of reason when someone starts a ‘Letter to the Editor’ and uses Adolf Hitler references in the first few lines. The Germans also developed the jet engine around that same time. Do you hate flying too?

    And are you really implying that Dale is in a good position to instead be a leader in artificial intelligence or an advanced logistics hub? Take a look at a map!

    You know what Spencer County does have a lot of? Open fields zoned for exactly this type of project. The major countries around the world are racing to find new uses for this abundant commodity. Shouldn’t the people of Dale play to our strengths and do something innovative with all that coal?

    • John Blair October 28, 2019 at 3:46 pm #

      Mr. Conners: You might want to investigate why Nazi Germany opted to use Fischer Tropsch instead of the technology chosen by Merle for his polluting refinery in Dale. While I have no crystal ball revealing that answer, I suspect it was primarily due to failed economics. It should be noted, too, that South Africa, during apartheid also independently chose to use Fischer Tropsch instead of Merle’s technology to produce liquid fuels even though both were available to them. By the3 way, jet engines worked but Veba Combi Cracker has ye to prove itself viable at commercial scale.