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Energy Security Partners plans to invest at least $3.5 billion to build a Jefferson County plant that will convert natural gas into liquid, CEO Roger Williams said Tuesday.

Approximately 1,100 acres 10 miles north of Pine Bluff and 4 miles from the Arkansas River have been selected for the project. Williams urged patience with the process, though, noting the plant is unlikely to open for at least five years.

Lengthy processes for securing permitting and funding, plus a three-year construction timeline will keep the operation from opening any sooner than "late 2021 or early 2022." Once operational, as many as 1,370 jobs will be created by the project, said Williams, who began talking with officials in Arkansas four years ago.

"It's basically a 10-year project from start to finished operation," Williams said, after a speaking engagement at the Little Rock Rotary Club. "We're on a 10-year schedule and that's unfortunate, but that's just the way it is."

Williams, whose office is in Little Rock, said the $100 million necessary to fund initial engineering work should be in place by the end of the year or early 2017. Energy Security Partners, which was co-founded by Gen. Wesley Clark and has support from former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, is "canvassing the world" for financing, Williams said. Clark and Slater both have Arkansas ties.

Financing for the project will come from a mix of investment funds owned by international governments, infrastructure fund investors and "major banks." Williams said he's spent more than two years working to secure financing and visited bankers in cities including New York, Houston, London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Energy Security Partners, which aims to convert natural gas into diesel and naphtha using technology that has been in place since the 1920s, but rarely used in the United States, has yet to secure any incentives from the state to help fund the project. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in an emailed statement that the state would thoroughly evaluate the company and its plans before committing to help.

"As we do with all of our economic development projects, we commit to a significant due diligence process before investing taxpayer dollars. We are currently in this stage on this specific project," Hutchinson said in the email. "I have met with the leadership team and I am following the development of the project with great interest. I am delighted that Jefferson County is the designated location for this investment that will benefit Arkansas in many ways. We are always working toward creating high-value, high-paying jobs for Arkansans and look forward to continuing to work with the leadership of Energy Security Partners."

Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said the agency has met with Williams "several times and are very aware of this project. Talks between the state and Williams began under former economic development agency head Grant Tennille.

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"At this point the state has not offered incentives but as the project develops we will stay in close contact with the company and our partners in Pine Bluff," Preston said in an emailed statement. "Should this project come to fruition, this would certainly have a significant economic impact on Pine Bluff and the state."

Before any economic impact can be felt -- Williams said as much as $72 million in annual wages will be paid once operation begins -- Energy Security Partners must clear permitting hurdles with the Environmental Protection Agency, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Construction over a 2½- to 3-year period will create 5,250 direct and indirect jobs for the state, according to economic impact estimates provided by Williams. Another 1,370 jobs will be created once the plant is operational when taking into account affiliated industries that will settle in Jefferson County.

Getting equipment in place that can handle the conversion process will require "the world's largest crane," Williams told the audience. A dock will be built to offload construction equipment and barges will be used to ship fuel on the Arkansas River.

Production at the plant could reach 33,000 barrels per day, Williams said. That is just for the first phase of the project and additional plants could be built on the land owned by Energy Security Partners.

Lou Ann Nisbett, president and CEO of the Jefferson County Economic Development Alliance, said the time needed to get Energy Security Partners operational is not unexpected. Permitting is a challenge for a project of this size, but she remains optimistic that the plant will open as promised.

"Some people don't understand the permitting process and how long it takes," Nisbett said. "It's not that simple. Mountains are being moved in Jefferson County. We have to keep educating people. I'm a person of hope and optimism. I have complete confidence in Roger and his people. We meet with them every week."

Business on 09/28/2016

Print Headline: Energy project planned near PB; $3.5B gas plant called 10-year job

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