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On a remote patch of rolling plain in western North Dakota lies a massive labyrinth of buildings, tanks, towers, pipes and conveyors. This industrial behemoth — the Great Plains Synfuels Plant — is designed to turn the vast deposits of lignite coal that lie in the ground into substitute natural gas.

It is a blisteringly cold December morning, and the plant is nearly obscured by a thick blanket of steam. Still, Daryl Hill, a middle-aged Midwesterner dressed in jeans, low hikers and a burgundy pullover, is chipper. He doesn’t complain about the cold and snow, or the hour-long drive he took through some of the bleakest countryside imaginable for this meeting. Hill has done media relations for Basin Electric, the cooperative that owns the synfuels plant, for 30 years. “It’s been just a heck of an education for this old farm boy,” he says. The Great Plains Synfuels Plant was conceived in the early 1970s, when the United States was in the midst of an energy crisis marked by oil embargoes, skyrocketing energy prices and rumors of dwindling natural gas supplies. As the country scrambled to develop new sources of homegrown energy, some people touted solar power. Others touted wind. A small group of gasmen from Detroit, however, envisioned an entirely different solution — a fleet of “gasification” plants that would turn the country’s vast supplies of coal into substitute natural gas, or syngas. But by 1984, when the Great Plains plant opened for business, the national energy crisis had passed. The other plants were never built. Today Great Plains is still the only commercial plant in the country that turns coal into gas.

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