EPA gives Nevada firm approval to turn trash to synthetic fuel oil

A northern Nevada industrial plant can begin turning tons of garbage into a synthetic oil that can be refined into fuel for airplanes, following a recent Environmental Protection Agency rule change.

After five years, the EPA on June 3 finalized the rule sought by Fulcrum BioEnergy's Sierra BioFuels Plant in Storey County.

A company official told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the facility would permanently employ roughly 120 people.

Once operating, it will process 175,000 tons of landfill garbage into 11 million gallons of synthetic fuel oil each year, company officials said.

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who helped guide the company through the bureaucratic maze, said she hoped the plant would create more than a thousand indirect jobs throughout the state while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

She called the project “an entirely new industry.”

After the project stalled at the EPA during the Trump and Biden administrations, Cortez Masto pushed for a regulatory rule change that will allow the synthetic fuel oils to be produced, marketed and sold.

“I wouldn't let unnecessary government bureaucracy stand in the way of this innovative new facility,” Cortez Masto said in a statement detailing her involvement with the process since 2017.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency actions and rules issued for the Renewable Fuel Standard program are “steps to increase the availability of homegrown biofuels.”

Regan added that the intent of new rules on renewable fuel standards is to “provide more options for consumers at the pump.”

In the case of the Sierra BioFuels Plant, the synthetic material may be used in aviation, said Eric Pryor, Fulcrum's president and chief executive officer, in a statement announcing operations at the facility east of Reno.

“Fulcrum is launching an entirely new source of low-cost, domestically produced, net-zero carbon transportation fuel, which will contribute to the aviation industry's carbon reduction goals, U.S. energy security and address climate stability,” Pryor said in a statement.

In an interview with the Review-Journal, Benny Wong, Fulcrum BioEnergy managing director of fuels and regulatory affairs, said the northern Nevada site was chosen because of the regulatory climate in the state, the landfill and the proximity to markets.

The EPA's rule change was one of the final hurdles to moving ahead with the project, he said.

“Our Sierra project would be the first municipal solid waste-to-fuel in the nation,” Wong said.

Such projects take several years to plan and build, Wong said.

Fulcrum BioEnergy first received a $105 million loan guarantee in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start research and planning on the project.

Cortez Masto, who is also a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, helped the company secure that financial support from the department in 2017. Construction began in 2018 and finished in 2021.

Still, EPA rule changes were needed. EPA continued to review the Renewable Fuel Standards program over two presidential administrations.

Cortez Masto talked recently with Regan and pushed the EPA to provide the regulatory “fix” in new rules. Regan announced that change in a batch of new rules issued by the agency.

Regan said the EPA's new rules would “help to reduce our reliance on oil and put the (Renewable Fuel Standards) program back on track after years of challenges and mismanagement.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced this month that it would invest $700 million in biofuel producers who were economically hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The funds are part of the $2.2 trillion relief bill passed by Congress in 2020.