Natural gas company signs deal to develop Jefferson County fuel factory

Gerald Robinson (second left), county judge of Jefferson County, and his wife, Joni Alexander Robinson, greet officials with GTL (Gas To Liquid) Americas and Hyundai ENG America at the Little Rock Marriott on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. The group was part of a signing ceremony among GTLA, Hyundai and S&B Engineers and Constructors. From right are H.S. Hong, chief executive officer of Hyundai ENG America, and GTL Americas President Leon Codron. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

LITTLE ROCK — GTL Americas LP, the company that is establishing a $3.5 billion-plus gas-to-liquid facility near Pine Bluff that will be the first of its kind in the United States, formally signed an agreement on Wednesday with Hyundai ENG America and S&B Engineers and Constructors Ltd. for front-end engineering and design.

Huyndai and S&B are also teaming up to work on the engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning. The front-end engineering and design is expected to take 18 to 24 months.

The signing ceremony Wednesday at the Little Rock Marriott marked the first significant milestone in the effort to build in Jefferson County what developers call a world-class facility to convert natural gas into liquid transportation fuels. The project promises 2,500 construction workers with 225 to 250 full-time employees during Phase 1 operations at the plant, which will be located 15 miles northwest of Pine Bluff near the National Center for Toxicological Research, with access to the Arkansas River.

The project is considered the largest single-industrial development undertaking in Arkansas history.

“I think it’s very exciting, not only for our two companies, but also GTLA to be able to contribute to a project that has the potential to rebuild a city that’s struggled,” said Brook Brookshire, chief executive officer of S&B.

Jefferson County officials had been waiting for the formal start of the facility's development ever since it was initially announced in 2016.

“This is beyond exciting,” said Allison Thompson, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County. “You can put ‘thrilling’ on this one. A project of this size takes time. And then, throw some significant hurdles in the way like covid, which slows things down.”

The project was first announced by Energy Security Partners, the parent company of GTL Americas. Energy Security Partners was cofounded by former U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark and is directed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, both of whom grew up in Arkansas.

Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said the project would be a much-needed boost for her economically challenged city of fewer than 40,000 people. She said she had been hopeful for years that the covid-19 pandemic wouldn't scuttle plans for the facility.

“Covid was a really anxious time because we heard nothing,” she said. “And, then, I started thinking about the project — let me see if it’s still moving. So, I called Leon Codron [president of GTL Americas], and he said, ‘Yes, we are.’”

Codron said his thesis of manufacturing liquid fuel from natural gas has been fully validated with Wednesday’s development. He noted that the gas-to-liquid procedure, or GTL, is different from the procedure to make liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Liquefied natural gas is a physical freezing of natural gas for transportation, while GTL is a chemical process that produces a fuel that Codron said looks as clear as water.

“We have added another element to energy security,” Codron said. “It provides for an exciting opportunity.”

Thompson and GTL officials said Jefferson County was the ideal location for the facility for multiple reasons: The facility will be outside the hurricane zone but still have access to gas pipelines, product pipelines, a navigable river, the Union Pacific railway, multiple interstates, high-voltage transmission lines and the Little Rock airport.

There are currently seven GTL facilities in the world. The largest of which, the Secunda owned by Sasol in South Africa, produces the equivalent of 190,000 barrels of oil per day. The Pearl, owned by Shell in Qatar, produces the equivalent of 140,000 barrels per day. GTL Americas is expected to operate at the equivalent of 41,000 barrels per day with a projected start date in either 2028 or 2029.

That rate is estimated to be less than 1% of the regional fuel demand, according to GTL Americas.

Of the natural gas processed in the Pine Bluff plant, about 45% to 75% of the yield is expected to be high cetane synthetic fuel for diesel fuel. If the yield is closer to 45%, then about 30% of the yield will be synthetic jet fuel, and the remaining 25% of the yield will be paraffinic synthetic naphtha for petrochemical feedstock. Officials say the plant will also export about 150 megawatts of power to the electric grid with zero hydrocarbon utilization.

GTL says Hyundai’s engineering services will help the Jefferson County plant carry a higher capacity than a similar facility that went online in Uzbekistan last year. That plant produces the equivalent of 38,000 barrels of oil.

“This is very similar in capacity and conditions and technologies,” Hyundai ENG America CEO H.S. Hong said. “We had a lot of lessons learned from the project in Uzbekistan. We are committed to carrying out the Pine Bluff project because we have lots of experiences.”

GTL Americas says in a profile that it “aims to be a catalyst for growth, helping to restore and improve quality of life and driving sustained economic development.” It expects to produce ultra-clean, low-emission, biodegradable fuels essential for transportation.

“I’m very excited about it,” Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson said. “We’ve been working on this project for years, and I’m so thankful that Jefferson County is making a statement, that we have the resources to bring good companies here. And, so, this will be the largest industrial project in the state, and I’m so very happy about it.”

Through its 2,500 construction jobs, GTL Americas is expected to have a $200 million-per-year impact on the Pine Bluff metropolitan statistical area in labor income. An estimated 350 jobs in metro Pine Bluff are expected to generate $20 million per year in income and $100 million per year in gross regional product.

Washington said that while the project is northwest of the Pine Bluff city limits, the potential economic impact on her city can be realized with high-paying jobs for college students and other residents.

“Kids come there for college, and they may decide to live in Pine Bluff since there is this wonderful job opportunity that’s going to be right near Pine Bluff,” Washington said.

The Pine Bluff mayor was hopeful that GTL America’s presence in the area could help with student retention at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“I think with that being said, it may also draw people to our city to build homes,” she said. “I think there will be residual jobs as a result of this major industrial project coming in, those auxiliary jobs that will come in that will also be a good boost for job creation and entrepreneurship as we move forward.”