GARY, Ind.—For Lori Latham and four other self-described “badass women,” the future of their hometown rests on a battle over 75 acres that lie between a giant steel mill and a failed casino once owned by Donald Trump.
The site sits behind parked railroad cars painted in graffiti, where abandoned concrete silos rise from the sandy southern shore of Lake Michigan, a remnant of a former cement plant that helped build the country’s interstate highway system. Here, a California company called Fulcrum BioEnergy wants to construct a gasification plant and refinery to turn the Chicago area’s trash—as much as 30 percent of it waste plastic—into jet fuel.
It’s a bid, according to Fulcrum, to make a dent in the airline industry’s contribution to climate change while reducing waste at landfills. The city’s mayor, Jerome Prince, touts what he sees as a green energy future in this once-booming vestige of the Rust Belt.
But Latham and the group she co-founded, Gary Advocates for Responsible Development, along with some national environmental experts, smell a ruse.
They question the company’s claims of sustainability in what amounts to a complicated, high-energy production process, and the company’s ability to deploy a new combination of technology intended to turn the trash and plastic waste into a gas used to make aircraft fuel. They also say it’s unfair to locate the plant in an environmental justice community already burdened disproportionately by a century of pollution from heavy industry.
Lori Latham of Gary, Indiana, is a founding member of Gary Advocates for Responsible Development, which is fighting a proposed jet fuel plant on a former cement plant site. Credit: James Bruggers
“We use the term greenwashing, where they make things seem like they’re green technologies when they’re really not,” said Latham, a Gary native who works in business development for an engineering firm and also is chairwoman of the environmental justice and climate committee of Gary’s branch of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. “I feel like Gary is being used based on its location, and also based on its demographics just to be a solution for where to put Chicago’s trash.”
The company’s plans, while embraced by the federal government and the airline industry, do not pass a common sense test, said Jane Williams, executive director of the environmental nonprofit California Communities Against Toxics, who has advised the Gary advocates.
“They are taking trash and applying massive amounts of heat to make a fuel, and then burning it,” Williams said. The proposed gasification process uses intense heat to turn the trash and plastic into a synthetic gas, before another process turns the gas into synthetic crude oil, which in turn is used to make jet fuel in an on-site refinery.
“This is one of the most energy-intensive processes I have reviewed in my career,” she said. “That’s a massive carbon footprint.”
In the Fulcrum proposal, Earthjustice attorney James Pew sees an illustration of a national trend in which facilities that burn waste, including plastic, through a process like gasification or a similar method called pyrolysis, are working to skirt health protections in the Clean Air Act.
“This whole fight at the local, state, and federal levels is about getting gasification and pyrolysis incinerators rebranded as non-incinerators so they can … avoid installing pollution controls and monitoring and reporting their emissions,” Pew said. “EPA’s regulations have defined facilities like Fulcrum as incinerators for almost 30 years.”
GARD is organizing opposition among area residents. It’s challenged the proposed plant’s air pollution permit from Indiana state regulators. And it has filed a Civil Rights Act complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The complaint argues that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s decision to grant Fulcrum its air permit is part of a longstanding pattern and practice of local discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.
Gary’s 68,000 residents, down from 175,000 in 1970, are 78 percent Black. One in three city residents lives in poverty.
For its part, Fulcrum, based in Pleasanton, California, is a sharp contrast with Gary. An affluent suburb of San Francisco with a poverty rate of 5 percent, it touts the economics of making what it describes as an $800 million investment in Gary, providing about 1,000 construction jobs and 130 to 200 permanent jobs.
“We just feel that we have created, designed and now are just a short time away from proving that garbage-to-fuel is possible,” said Fulcrum’s vice president of administration, Rick Barraza. “It’s doable, and it is a sustainable source of renewable fuel going forward.”
He also dismissed the Gary residents’ opposition and encouraged Inside Climate News to do the same. “I certainly hope that you don’t give too much time to the local citizens that just don’t want that facility in their backyard,” Barraza said. “There’s a local group out there that just doesn’t want the project. And so they’re starting to get vocal.”
$4 Billion in Federal Taxes to Develop Sustainable Aviation Fuel
Fulcrum has been working to turn trash into aviation fuel for more than a decade. The company broke ground on the second phase of its first plant near Reno, Nevada, in 2018, where it’s still seeking to begin full production.
Those efforts are part of a global push to develop what the airline industry and federal government call “sustainable aviation fuel,” or SAF. In theory, SAF is made by recycling renewable plant- or animal-based materials as feedstock, offsetting the need to use new fossil fuels that would unleash carbon that scientists say needs to remain locked underground to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
Industry and government scientists are experimenting with different feedstocks ranging from animal fats, plant oils and wood waste to trash and plastics.
Nikita Pavlenko, a program leader with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit environmental research group, says he does not like the term “sustainable aviation fuel” because regardless of what is used to make these new fuels, “it implies it is actually sustainable,” or beneficial. “I always prefer the term ‘alternative aviation fuel,’ because there’s such a wide variation in the climate impacts of those alternatives.”
California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy wants to turn trash and plastic into jet fuel at this former cement plant in Gary, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers
In all, aviation contributes about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But when other impacts—including the heat-trapping effects of condensation trails planes paint across the sky—are factored in, aviation accounts for as much as 3.5 percent of warming caused by humans, according to research published last year in the journal Atmospheric Environment.
As aviation has soared, so has pressure to reduce its emissions.
“It doesn’t make sense to give aviation a license to continue polluting if we’re imposing climate policy on (motor vehicle) drivers or people who purchase electricity because those are a much more representative sector of society,” Pavlenko said.
The 290 member airlines of the International Air Transport Association, a global trade association, have committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050. In the United States, IATA members include American, Delta, United and cargo giants UPS and FedEx.
The industry is exploring various strategies including burning hydrogen made from renewable energy, making fuel from captured carbon dioxide and even using battery power in small airplanes; in 2015, United Airlines bought a $30 million stake in Fulcrum. Others suggest solutions such as replacing short-haul air travel with trains.
But the industry’s main focus is on improving airplane efficiency and on the development of SAF.
“The newest commercial airplanes today for passenger or freight…are on the order of 25 percent more efficient than the planes they replaced,” said Robert McCormick, a senior research fellow at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colorado “And the aviation industry thinks they can do that, again, with the next generation of planes, which are still probably 10 years out.”
The International Energy Agency expects passenger growth to offset efficiency gains, though, so the industry is still looking for alternative fuels.
Right now, there’s only one kind of SAF used in the United States, in test flights, said McCormick. It’s made with fats and oils, such as waste cooking oil, beef tallow or soybean oil, he said.
Widespread industry use could be a long time coming.
“As you might imagine, you have to meet some pretty stringent approvals to legally sell them as aviation fuel as compared to say, a diesel fuel, because trucks are not going to fall out of the sky,” he said.
Decarbonizing air travel will be difficult, acknowledged Sebastian Mikosz, a senior vice president of IATA. “Unlike others in the transportation industry, we have to fight with something that they don’t have to fight with, which is gravity,” Mikosz said. “And our biggest problem is that we have to take our source of propulsion, our energy source, with us in the air.”
The industry is getting help from the Biden administration, which has pledged more than $4 billion to support the research and development of low-carbon fuel. The Biden administration has set a goal for the U.S. to produce aviation fuels with half the carbon emissions of conventional fuel, and to make enough of it by 2050 to meet all domestic aviation fuel demand.
The Plastic Problem
Last year, Fulcrum secured $375 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds through the Indiana Finance Authority to support the Gary project.
For Fulcrum’s production here, the company plans to collect and sort municipal waste that otherwise would head to a landfill, and shred it at up to two locations outside of Gary. In all, the company plans to divert 700,000 tons of municipal solid waste from the region each year; Chicago alone produced more than 4 million tons of solid waste in 2020, according to a 2021 University of Illinois at Chicago study.
The Gary plant’s feedstock—about half paper and 30 percent plastic, along with wood and other trash—will be hauled into the city in about 90 trucks a day, the company has said.
The presence of plastic causes two main problems. Plastic is made from a myriad of chemical mixtures. Gasification systems function the best with a consistent feedstock, McCormick said, so plastic waste poses a technical challenge.
Plastic complicates the company’s sustainability claims, as well.
With plastic waste as a feedstock, McCormick said, “you’re going to have to answer the question, ‘To what extent is it a sustainable aviation fuel compared to biomass?’ It’s not going to have as low of a carbon intensity … simply because the plastic is made out of petrochemicals, (or) fossil carbon.”
At least one airline is specifically targeting plastic waste to make fuel. United Kingdom-based Virgin Group, which includes the airline Virgin Atlantic, announced in February that it was partnering with U.S.-based Agilyx to produce synthetic crude oil from plastic waste that will then be refined into what it claims will be a lower-carbon fuel.
Fulcrum officials acknowledge plastic in its feedstock reduces its fuel’s climate benefits, even as it claims SAF from its Reno plant will represent an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to traditional aviation fuel made from fossil fuels. And it expects that percentage to improve at its Gary plant.
Poetry stenciled on boards adorns one of Gary, Indiana’s thousands of abandoned buildings. Credit: James Bruggers
But the company has been less than transparent about how it got to that 80 percent figure. It appears to rely on environmental lifecycle analyses, the kinds of studies that experts often describe as being fraught with assumptions that can skew the conclusions.
And a 2015 lifecycle analysis for the company’s Reno plant estimated that fuel produced there would result in a product claiming a less-robust climate benefit of 60 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared with traditional fossil fuels.
Fulcrum officials said they updated the 2015 study for the California Air Resources Board, which lists the company’s claims as certified. But Fulcrum did not provide a copy of the updated analysis for Inside Climate News to review. Fulcrum also did not provide any analysis of carbon emissions for the proposed Gary plant.
The company claims benefits to the climate from keeping trash out of landfills, where it rots and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But that’s an inexact science as well. Scientists and the EPA have been arguing over how to accurately calculate landfill gas emissions, Inside Climate News reported last year with NPR and Orlando public radio station WMFE.
Environmentalists are skeptical of the company’s claims, though Pavlenko said its fuel would represent “one of the better options” as long as the plastic content is “kept to a limited contribution.”
Keep Environmental Journalism AliveICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now