California Energy Commission will make final decision on plant near Tupman

Hydrogen Energy California officials hope that, if all goes well, a $4 billion low-carbon generating plant could be operating near Tupman by 2019.

There are still some hurdles before permits can be issued and construction can begin.

The biggest of those is approval and a license from the California Energy commission, and Kern County is going to have a lot so say about what kind of conditions the CEC will place on the plant if it is licensed.

Tiffany Rau, spokeswoman for HECA, was in Taft this week to talk about the benefits of the plant, which, if permitted will build on a 500-acre site near the Tule Elk Reserve just north of Tupman.

She also discussed the lengthy process to build the plant, which first started five years ago.

The plant is designed to produce 300 megawatts of electricity while eliminating 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions during the process.

It will also produced fertilizer.

Its not a huge plant, but it will produce enough power for 160,000 homes, Rau said, and, more importantly , be another step in the implementation of AB32, the state's far-reaching environmental policy bill to reduce carbon emissions sharply in the coming years.

It will, its backers hope, be a pilot project for future coal gasification facilities.

The carbon dioxide will be sold to Occidental of Elk Hills to enhance oil recovery and then be trapped underground in oil formations.

It is pumped into the underground oil-bearing formations under pressure to move the oil and most remains trapped there.

The use of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery is a proven process, Rau said.

It's been used for four decades in the permian Basin in Texas and Oxy is the industry leader in that method

The process gasifies coal and petroleum coke, a by-product of oil refining.

In addition to the energy, the plant will also produce fertilizer and a waste product HECA is hoping to sell as a road bed or for other uses.

Supporters of the plant point to the environmental and economic benefits.

Opponents point to the extra truck traffic that the plant will bring and the Sierra Club says the plant will contribute to already bad air quality in the county.

Rau said HECA would love to eliminate the need for up to 350 trucks to carry coal from Wasco to the plant site by bringing a railroad spur to the plant, but has been unable to obtain all the right-of-way it would need.

The coal will be shipped to Wasco by train from New Mexico.

Another issue the opponents point out is what the plant would do with the slag leftover from the gasification process.

Rau said dumping it in Kern County isn't an option for financial reasons.

It would cost HECA $75 per ton to dispose of it in the county landfill north of Taft, and that is cost prohibitive.

"They think we are going to dump it in Kern County and that's just not the case," Rau said.

Right now, the process is in its fifth year and about two-thirds of the way through the permitting process.

It was originated in 2008 by BP and Rio Tinto, but both firms later pulled out.

The project lives on, however, and is now awaiting word from the Kern County Planning Department and the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

The county will have a major say in the final permitting process through the CEC, and Rau said conditions sought by the county will no doubt be included in the final permit.

Rau pointed out the economic benefits to the county – hundreds of construction jobs during the 4-year construction process and 200 permanent jobs for western Kern County.

The entire project is expected to cost about $4 billion.