Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was in Arizona for Sen. John McCain’s memorials last week, but he took time to telephone Whispers about the $3.5 billion gas-to-liquid fuel plant project he’s involved with near Pine Bluff.

A University of Arkansas School of Law graduate who grew up in Marianna, Slater was a chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission before serving in the Clinton administration. McCain chaired the committee that confirmed him to the cabinet.

“We had to, as they say, get up close and personal” during that process, Slater said, describing McCain as a person dear to him. “I’m so proud to be here to pay tribute to a life well lived.”

Talk turned to business, specifically the Jefferson County project, which would be the largest economic development endeavor in Arkansas history. Slater, who runs the transportation and infrastructure practice at Squire Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., is also a partner in Energy Security Partners, the Little Rock company that has been working on the GTL project for years.

The project, which has always had its skeptics, took a leap forward last month when the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System committed a $30 million investment for front-end engineering and design.

A Mark of Approval

Energy Security Partners has secured more than 100 acres near the Arkansas River in northern Jefferson County to build the plant, which would use chemical processes to turn piped-in natural gas into 33,000 barrels per day of diesel, jet fuel and other products.

Slater predicts the plant could be running “somewhere around 2023.”

“We’ve got a few parcels of land to purchase and some design and things of that nature,” he said.

“But this gives us the kind of money we need to do basic things and front-end design. The teacher retirement investment is a real shot in the arm, and with their extensive due diligence, I think it is a statement of approval and support and a sign that this is a very real effort indeed.”

Slater praised ESP CEO Roger Williams and another partner, Gen. Wesley Clark, for keeping the project on track. He also applauded Leon Codron, ESP’s chief development officer. “People are going to start seeing things happening quickly, and it’s important. Construction will mean about 2,500 jobs in the area, and eventually the plant itself will have more than 200 workers making excellent wages.”

Slater, who was involved in Boston’s Big Dig as transportation secretary, compared the GTL plant to that tunnel project.

“By the time it was finished, that was a $16 billion project, and it changed the face of that city. This plant could do something like that for Arkansas.”

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