It all started with an episode of Extreme Makeover. When a Berks County family was selected for a home renovation in 2010, the county expedited the process of getting all necessary approvals so the producers could meet their tight shooting schedule. The informal process worked so well that County Commissioner Christian Leinbach decided to formalize it in 2012 and call it the Joint Express Approval Program (JEAP). The program was one of the carrots the county dangled in front of EmberClear’s eyes when the Canadian firm was looking for a site for its Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) facility.
GTL facilities convert gas into gasoline, propane, and other products including wax. There are only five in the world, none in the United States, so the residents of South Heidelberg Township were shocked to discover that the 63-acre farm near their homes was going to be turned into a massive gas refinery. For one thing, the farm was zoned for light industrial uses. The small notice in the newspaper and the few letters distributed to owners of properties adjacent to the farm didn’t grab the attention of most people. Those who read that something was happening didn’t understand what that something was.
That something, as it turns out, was the approval of an industrial overlay for the specific purpose of allowing a gas facility to be built, one that would allow structures to stand three times taller than surrounding structures, mostly homes, schools, and small businesses, one that would invite lots of new truck traffic to the tranquil community, and, oh yeah, one that could blow up. The joint zoning board unanimously approved the overlay in November. About a month ago, EmberClear appeared on the scene in the form of its U.S. subsidiary, Future Power Pennsylvania, to do a presentation at the zoning meeting where it would be asking for approval of its plans.
This time, word spread quickly through the community. A standing-room only crowd turned out for the zoning meeting and many voiced concerns, but, once again, the zoning board voted unanimously in favor of the plans. Community members immediately came together to form the South Heidelberg Community Association. They’ve formed committees, made t-shirts and yard signs, started a petition, done research, hired an attorney to challenge the way the overlay was handled, started fundraising, and hosted a community meeting that drew a crowd of nearly 700 people from their community and surrounding municipalities.
Many who attended the meeting were concerned about the GTL facility. A two-mile evacuation perimeter was established after the LNG explosion in Washington state last week. Many people reside well within two miles of the proposed GTL site. Many others who attended were concerned about the pipeline projects proposed to bring gas to and take product away from the refinery. Twelve Berks County municipalities would be in the path of either the 7-mile spur of the Texas Eastern pipeline that would deliver Marcellus gas to the plant or the Mariner East pipeline that would transport the finished products to Marcus Hook for export. Sunoco, who operates the Mariner East pipeline, has applied to the PUC for utility status. If granted, the private, for-profit company would be able to operate as a utility, circumventing rules as it goes.
As recently as February, the Energy Information Administration stated that GTL facilities are not viable in the United States. The up front and operating costs are enormous. EmberClear would build the plant, but turn it over to another company to operate it. Shell, the operator of the largest GTL facility in the world in Qatar, scrapped plans to build a plant on the Gulf coast because of the costs involved. It’s possible that EmberClear will not find a partner. It’s also possible that the partner will be Sunoco and that the GTL facility will be operated by a company with utility status. Right now, there are more questions than answers, but the South Heidelberg Community Association is committed to fighting the project every step of the way. The back of their t-shirt sums it up, “Act Now or Live with This Forever”.
Visit our Berks as a Gas Hub page for more information and updates.