Turkey-to-Oil Plant Failing to Live Up to Promises

Published June 1, 2005

In 2003, Changing World Technologies, Inc. touted its Carthage, Missouri Renewable Environmental Solutions (RES) plant as a “green” solution to U.S. dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels.

The firm attempts to identify and profit from emerging technologies that specifically address energy and environmental problems. It promised to turn turkey feces and carcasses into crude oil at a predicted construction cost of $15 million and production costs of $15 per barrel.

Backed by such promises and with the support of environmental activists, the federal government gave RES a $5 million grant to build the plant. Now, just two years later and $25 million over budget, the RES plan to turn fowl waste into crude oil has run afoul of financial and chemical realities.

The new facility cost about $40 million to build, more than twice the original estimate. Then the plant went far over its targeted production costs, with the product coming in at $80 per barrel–five times higher than estimated and twice the market price for crude oil.

Fowl Odor Bothering Neighbors

And now the plant is releasing a stench that’s bothering nearby residents.

“It’s rotten,” Beth Langstaff, a nearby resident, told the April 12 Kansas City Star. “You can’t get away from it. It’s like something out of a horror movie.”

Ann Carter, owner of a nearby food store, said the first time she smelled the RES plant, her initial reaction was to check her back alley for a dead animal. “It was worse than a farm smell,” Carter told the Star. “I figured something had died.”

The worst part for Carthage residents, whose entire town is frequently enveloped by the rank odor, is that they were promised back in 2003 that the “green” RES plant would be an odor-free facility.

Brian Appel, CEO of Changing World Technologies, has argued the stench could be coming from other plants. He claims a handful of vocal critics are responsible for most of the stench complaints. Even so, Appel obtained another federal grant–this one for $12 million–to install odor scrubbers at the plant. It is not yet known whether the scrubbers will successfully reduce or eliminate the odor.

Financial Problems Dire

The odor issue notwithstanding, RES faces overwhelming financial problems. The federal government already has provided more grant money than the entire estimated cost of constructing the plant. With the cost of turkey oil production being twice its market value, the plant continues to run up operating losses.

“I don’t know how long I can keep funding this,” Appel told the April 14 Greenwire.

Serious Inefficiencies Noted

Analysts note this is not the first time “green” energy proposals have failed to deliver on utopian promises.

Tom Tanton, a senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, said, “One cannot make one thing out of anything; and by that I mean they want to make oil, but they want to make it out of everything.

“The universe has been separated into materials and elements for good reason. I’m not sure exactly what those good reasons are, but turning it all back into one thing (i.e., petroleum) just seems counter to the first and second laws of thermodynamics,” Tanton said.

“I would really be interested in seeing what the net energy balance is,” said Tanton, observing that it takes a lot of energy to raise temperature and pressure sufficiently to decompose turkey-waste hydrocarbons. “It reminds me of having diesel-fired tractors out in the cornfields to grow corn to produce ethanol. You end up with less energy in the ethanol than you used in growing the corn in the first place.”

“The energy content of the product has to exceed the energy required to produce the product or it’s useless,” explained Tanton. “I wish the company all the best, but it strikes me as giving new meaning to the term ‘snake oil.'”

Plant’s Future in Doubt

“My obstacles are enormous,” Appel admitted in the Kansas City Star story.

Despite those many obstacles, there’s still some fight left in Changing World Technologies. “I owe it to the people who have been really supportive of what we plan to do, to do everything in my power to turn that around,” Appel told the Star.

The company still receives federal funding, and Missouri Senators Kit Bond (R) and Jim Talent (R), as well as Rep. Roy Blunt (R), still support the technology.

“The plant has great promise, with the hope of reducing our dependency on foreign oil,” Blunt, Bond, and Talent wrote in a March 18 letter to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “We do not want this technology to fail.”

The problem, according to the Star story, is that “without the first $5 million grant, the plant probably never would have opened, but now it’s burning through money so fast that the future is in doubt.”

Changing World Technologies has put on hold plans to build three more plants in the United States, according to the Star story. Instead, the company is exploring possibilities with government officials in Germany, Ireland, and Italy.

Greg McConnell ([email protected]) is a Chicago-based freelance reporter and columnist.