Something's fishy in Columbiana County
CLEVELAND — Baard Energy’s claims that it has lined up financing for its coal refinery in Columbiana County are highly questionable, based on an analysis of the timeline of recent events:
September 20 – Columbiana County Port Authority Director Tracy Drake reports that the Ohio Department of Development is likely to grant a three-month extension, to the end of the year, of a $4.5 million state loan for acquisition of the property for the coal refinery.
Week of September 21 – Wellsville Chamber of Commerce announces that Baard Energy CEO John Baardson will be the keynote speaker at their annual dinner on October 23 and will report to the community on the progress of his project.
September 27 – U.S. District Court in Cincinnati rules that Baard Energy has defaulted on over $220,000 owed to CH2MHill for consulting work on the coal refinery project.
October 4—Christopher Jones, former head of Ohio EPA, who had been hired by Baard in July after another law firm dropped the case, abruptly withdraws as Baard’s attorney at the Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC). Baardson later admits to the Columbus Dispatch that the attorneys withdrew because he couldn’t pay them.
October 6 – Ohio Attorney General, representing Ohio EPA, asks ERAC for extension of the permit hearing schedule and states, “Due to the abrupt withdrawal of counsel, the status of the permit and the underlying need for the permit are unknown.”
October 6 – Ohio Department of Development sends Port Authority a letter extending the loan, not three months, but to October 31, saying “the closing date will not be further extended.”
October 18 – Columbiana County Port Authority Director Tracy Drake announces that Baard has a new investor, Planck Trading LLC, who will pay the required $220,000 to extend the purchase options on the property (which had expired on September 30), and that the Port Authority was entering into an agreement with Planck to buy the land “over the next year.” The agreement did not require Planck to purchase the land. Drake says the Port Authority will forgo the $4.5 million state loan/grant for the Baard project and ask the state to apply it to another local project.
October 23 – Baard Energy CEO John Baardson tells the Wellsville Chamber of Commerce that he has secured a commitment of $2.5 billion in investment and that he plans to start purchasing land in two weeks and begin construction in the spring.
Press coverage of the event features Baard supporters U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, and State Rep. Linda Bolon, who are in tough re-election campaigns, front and center.
October 25 – Baard misses an ERAC deadline to come up with a new legal counsel to replace Christopher Jones to defend the critically important air pollution permit (as of November 5, Baard has still not come up with an attorney)
November 2 – Governor Ted Strickland, Rep. Charlie Wilson, and Rep. Linda Bolon all lose their bids for re-election
It’s just common sense, and common practice, that if Mr. Baardson knew in late September or early October that he had an investor who was prepared to spend “$2.5 billion” on the project, or even the $5 million to acquire the land for the project, he would have been able to convince his attorney, Christopher Jones, former head of Ohio EPA, to remain on the case. The project will not be able to move forward if the air permit has expired, as attorneys for Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club are contending in the legal case.
Mr. Baardson and Mr. Drake announced in mid-October that they would let the state loan expire. Of course, they had already been told it would expire by October 31 if Baard didn’t come up with financing by then. Since the state loan would have converted to a grant if a certain number of construction jobs were created, it seems quite unusual that either the Port Authority or Baard Energy would want to turn down $4.5 million in “free” taxpayer money. Perhaps they were just putting a good face on the fact that they were unable to meet the loan requirements. If Mr. Baardson really had funding lined up by October 23, wouldn’t he or his investors want to save $4.5 million?
One possible explanation for recent events is that Mr. Baardson does not intend to build a coal refinery, but may intend to build something else—perhaps a natural gas plant—on the land in question. If so, he wouldn’t need the coal refinery air permit and he might need much less land than would be required for a coal refinery. The timing of his Wellsville Chamber of Commerce appearance certainly seems to have been geared toward bolstering the re-election campaigns of Baard’s staunch supporters, but that effort was unsuccessful.
— Sandy Buchanan, Executive Director, Ohio Citizen Action