DURANT — Biodiesel production is good for everyone, Morgan Freeman said following the grand opening of the new BioWillie plant in this community.

He added his major concern with biodiesel is a worry that people will chop down forests to convert them into farmland to raise the crops necessary for biodiesel production.

The Academy Award winning actor is one of six members of the board of directors for Earth Biofuels, which officially opened a plant in Durant Sunday.

The new plant, which is located in a former feed store on East Main Street, will produce about 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel made from soybean oil when it goes into operation next week, according to Jimmy Stevens, plant manager. The plant will have 75 employees during the first year, he said. That number will gradually increase to 150 and plant production will go up to 10 million gallons per year, he added.

“In fact, we’re already looking at the possibility of putting an ethanol manufacturing plant here as well,” said board member Bill Luckett.

Greg Pyle, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said he believes the new plant is beneficial not only to stockholder and the city of Durant, but to everyone, a sentiment echoed by country music legend Willie Nelson, who is also on the board of Earth Biofuels and who lends his name to the product manufactured in Durant.

“It’s good for the city, it’s good for the state and it’s good for the world,” Nelson said, adding that fuel produced from organic material such as soybeans is better for the environment than that produced from petroleum.

Nelson said he believes that producing fuels from crops will help the nation’s economy and environment in a variety of ways, from helping farmers have a place to sell their crops to providing cleaner fuels and helping relieve the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

“I’ve long been concerned with the plight of the farmer because I are one,” Nelson said with a smile. “But seriously, I’m concerned about the small family farmer and I hope things like this will help them.”

Nelson said he’s getting “a lot of positive feedback from farmers” and estimated the plant will have a direct $20 million per year impact on Oklahoma’s economy.

Asked if biodiesel will be subsidized by the government, since the crops from which it will be made are subsidized, board member Tommy Johnson pointed out that the petroleum industry is also heavily subsidized.

Freeman said that even though he’s concerned about the world’s forest he’s equally concerned that so much of the world, and the U.S. in particular, is dependent on petroleum-based fuels. “Why should we continue to by oil from countries that want our demise?” he asked.

Dennis McLaughlin, chief executive officer of Earth Biofuels, said, “There are a lot of costs not factored in to using petrodiesel that should be.” For one thing, he said, petroleum-based fuels add many non-organic substances to the atmosphere, increasing the chances for the “greenhouse effect,” which some scientists say increases the world’s temperature by trapping certain gases in the atmosphere, allowing more of the sun’s energy to reach the earth and not allowing it to escape back into space. Another side effect of burning petroleum-based fuels may be an increase in certain types of diseases, such as some cancers, McLaughlin said.

Board member Bill Luckett said the diesel engine was initially made to run on peanut oil. But, as petroleum-based fuels became more abundant and were produced more cheaply in the first part of the 20th Century, the engines were changed to run on petroleum-based diesel, or petrodiesel.

“We’ve come full circle,” Johnson said. “When the diesel engine first came out, petrodiesel was a lot cheaper than peanut oil. Now we can produce biodiesel a lot cheaper. We’ve come full circle.

“It’s back to the future.”

People from around the company attended the grand opening Sunday. Among them was Richard Blake, an independent film maker from Colorado.

“I’ve been interested in alternative energy quite a while,” he said, adding that his father worked on the solar panels that powered the Mariner expedition to Mercury. “Biodiesel is probably the most promising of all alternative fuels right now,” he said.

Ron Lewis, a Web site developer from Houston, said he, too, has long been interested in alternative fuels, so when he was doing some research on the Internet and Earth Biofuels showed up, he grew interested. How much so? “I’m a stockholder now,” he said. “This is something I believe is important and it’s something I believe will take off.”

From a quick walk-through, the BioWillie plant isn’t very impressive, nothing more than a variety of tanks that can be interconnected through a series of hose. And the tanks hardly look capable of producing nearly enough fuel to make much of a difference in the nation’s dependence on petroleum.

But looks can be deceiving, Stevens said, adding the reaction time — the time it takes to convert soy oil to diesel — is about 45 minutes. Add that to the fact that the plant will operate 24 hours a day, and the manufacturing claims of biodiesel supporters begin to make sense.

Although it can be run in vehicles completely by itself, biodiesel is usually mixed with petrodiesel, Stevens said, adding that some people are concerned that biodiesel could harm older engines.

Kenneth Smith, a consulting chemist whose company has been working on biodiesel and possible problems associated with it, said the fuel can be made from just about any organic material that contains fats, including animal fats such as that discarded at poultry or hog processing plants. The problem with manufacturing biodiesel from animal fats is that the animal fats contain a high amount of free fatty acids, so one byproduct of processing them is a form of soap. That makes producing fuel from the fats cost prohibitive because the soaps clog machinery and are difficult to separate from the fuel.

But isn’t there a possible way of using both the soaps and the fuel that would make such production economical? “We’re working on it,” Smith said.

Tommy Kramer, executive director of the Durant Industrial Authority, said officials in the community were excited to get the plant located there, but hadn’t given any kind of incentive money for the location.

“Of course, we did some infrastructure improvements and they got a break on their water bill and things like that, but actual incentive money — we didn’t do that,” Kramer said.

A major selling point for the city of Durant is that “We’ve got three of the top six Class I rail carriers running though here,” he said. In fact, a Union Pacific train rattled through on a line about 50 yards from the new BioWillie plant shortly after he spoke to the McAlester News-Capital.

The city is working with Earth Biofuels to get a grant for a new railroad spur directly to the plant, said John Cathey, chairman of the city’s industrial authority. The company will repay any money the city has to put up for matching funds, he added. “They came here because they want to be here, that’s basically the reason for the site selection,” he said.

Gov. Brad Henry signed documents giving the company a tax break to locate in Oklahoma, McLaughlin said, adding that demand for the biodiesel fuel is so high that “What we make here is going to stay here,” even though Dallas was initially considered to be the market area for the fuel.

Although the plant is located in a relatively populated area, not far from some of the city’s retail businesses, officials said they’re not worried about the dangers of fire or explosion, as they would be if it was a petroleum-based operation.

“The fire chief and others were involved from the start,” Cathey said. “They’re satisfied the facility will be safe.”

Earth Biofuels donated $100,000 to the Durant Fire Department and an additional $100,000 to be split among the 18 Bryan County volunteer fire departments.

Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., said he believes the plant is important in a number of ways, not least of which is because alternative energy sources are extremely important to the nation and the world. “I’m glad to see them here, but I’m hoping there’ll be more,” he said, adding biodiesel could have a major impact on the agriculture economy of the state and the nation.

Luckett said he hopes the BioWillie plant is among the first of many in Oklahoma. Does that include McAlester?

“I can’t say at this point because I don’t know,” he said.

“I don’t even know if McAlester was considered as an initial site.”

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