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The Dallas Morning News: Think diesel

Refiner Jeff Morris says he knows how to reduce air pollution and America’s dependence on foreign oil

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 6, 2008
By ELIZABETH SOUDER / The Dallas Morning News
[email protected]

Jeff Morris’ dream car is a Cadillac CTS with a diesel engine.

Diesel vehicles typically use 20 percent less fuel than comparable gasoline vehicles. That means a diesel car emits less pollution and greenhouse gas than a gasoline car. And by using less fuel, diesels could cut U.S. dependence on oil.

Mr. Morris is making a $200 million bet that Americans will wake up to the benefits. He’s refurbishing a California refinery to double its diesel production capacity.

Meanwhile, he bugs friends who are shopping for cars to test-drive diesels. And he flies to Washington to ask lawmakers to help the diesel industry along.

The question is, will Americans ever get over their memories of smelly, greasy diesel and embrace it as a clean fuel?

In November, research institute Rand Corp. came to a startling conclusion: New diesel engines are better for the environment and cheaper to operate than gasoline vehicles, hybrids or cars that run on E85 ethanol.

How can this be?

Diesel is more efficient than gasoline, cutting fuel costs.

And now, diesel is just as clean as gasoline, thanks to a new type of fuel called ultra low sulfur diesel. By 2009, diesel engines will have to meet the same Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards as gasoline engines.

About 3.5 percent of the new passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. last year had diesel engines. Diesel proponents would like to boost that to 15 percent in the next few years. Compare that with Europe, where around half of new vehicles are diesel.

In the U.S., diesel passenger vehicles tend to be pickup trucks or Mercedes. But in a few years Americans will have more choices as other manufacturers introduce diesel cars.

General Motors Corp. says it could add diesel engines to its cars – including the Cadillac CTS – if consumers seem interested.

“If I can walk into Sewell Cadillac and order a CTS diesel, tell Carl he has a customer – I’ll buy the first one,” Mr. Morris said.

Mr. Sewell laughs when he hears about Mr. Morris’ enthusiasm.

“I think that will happen,” said the Dallas car dealer. “I just don’t know what year.”

Mr. Sewell said some of his customers definitely want a diesel Cadillac, but it’s a small number. He doubts Americans will embrace diesel as fully as Mr. Morris hopes.

So far in his professional life, Mr. Morris has proved more visionary than quixotic.

The Fort Worth native, who wears cowboy boots to the office, holds several patents. And he invented a way to manufacture plastics in the 1980s that’s still in use today.

He devoted most of his working life to refining crude into fuel, mostly at a refinery in Big Spring. That’s where he began his career in 1974 after graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in chemical engineering.

Fifteen years later, he was running the plant. By then, the West Texas refinery was crumbling after decades of neglect by its owner, Fina. If Mr. Morris didn’t fix things, Fina would shut the plant down.

The young manager developed what he calls a “no excuses” approach, calling on employees to take personal responsibility for the plant.

The changes rubbed some folks the wrong way.

“He was smart,” said D.C. Lee, a retired plant operator who worked for Mr. Morris. “He was probably too smart.”

But Mr. Morris knew the only way his little refinery could compete with the behemoths on the Gulf Coast was to become the most efficient in the land.

In 1996, the Big Spring refinery achieved the ranking of best small refinery in the U.S., according to the industry’s benchmark rankings by Solomon Associates. And Big Spring still holds the title.

Mr. Morris even put his career on the line for the plant in 1999 when Fina was sold to Total. The new owner sold the U.S. operations to an Israeli investor with no refining experience, Alon USA.

Against the advice of his wife, Karen, a Big Spring native, Mr. Morris turned down a cushy corporate position with Total in Houston and stuck with the refineries.

“I just knew in my bones, my heart, my soul that plant would be successful,” Mr. Morris said.

Plus, he negotiated a sweet deal for himself.

25 Year Club

By then, Mr. Morris had earned the respect of Mr. Lee and the other plant workers. They inducted him into their club for people who worked at the Big Spring refinery for at least 25 years. Mr. Morris now wears his gold 25 Year Club ring every day.

Mr. Morris credits Myra Robinson with ultimately saving the refinery. She’s a gray-haired member of Midland’s Petroleum Museum Hall of Fame and head of Robinson Drilling of Texas. When the chips were down at the refinery, Ms. Robinson persuaded town leaders to keep supporting Mr. Morris.

“We’re still raw and green enough out here that we think if we try hard enough, we can get things done,” Ms. Robinson said.

Now Mr. Morris is making diesel part of his growth strategy. And the more Americans who shift to diesel, the more profitable that strategy will be.

“Our industry offers people a choice: clean air or more fuel. That’s not what people want to hear,” Mr. Morris said. “It’s our job to do both.”

Alon USA recently bought refineries in Paramount, Calif., and Long Beach, Calif. The plants aren’t performing well, and Mr. Morris knows he can turn them around, as he did the Big Spring refinery.

Plus, to help land permits and stave off public protests, he’s promising California politicians that the refineries will be the least-polluting in the state.

Wrapped up in this strategy is Mr. Morris’ investment in equipment to boost diesel production. The output for most U.S. refineries is one-third diesel, two-thirds gasoline. At Alon’s California plants, the output will be the opposite.

Mr. Morris concedes it’s not a very risky bet, since the truck traffic around the busy Long Beach port keeps diesel demand high.

But if more than one-third of Americans switch to diesel cars in coming years, other refineries will have to invest in equipment to make more diesel. And Alon will be in a profitable position, having already made the switch.

Refiners’ view

That’s not a popular outlook in the refining industry, though many refiners agree that diesel can solve some energy woes.

“I’ve been extremely surprised that the penetration of diesel in the U.S. isn’t higher,” said Rob Routs, executive director of oil products and chemicals for Royal Dutch Shell.

Shell is building a massive refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, with partner Saudi Aramco. The plant will have the usual output of one-third diesel, two-thirds gasoline.

Mr. Morris has been busy lobbying lawmakers in Washington about his California refinery and diesel. He wants them to shift government fleets to diesel and to offer tax incentives for diesel hybrids, which Mr. Morris considers the holy grail of clean fuel.

Mr. Morris met with is Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Mr. Dingell is “very supportive of boosting diesel use in passenger vehicles,” according to a spokeswoman.

Mr. Morris also said he met with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But the executive didn’t make as deep an impression on the senator. His aides couldn’t quite remember Mr. Morris, and a spokesman said the senator doubts there’s a role for the federal government in promoting diesel.

Still, Mr. Morris was happy to land meetings with chairmen and members of the California and Texas delegations.

“You never get the chairman. Never. That never happens,” he said.

Mr. Morris promises to attack the situation with the pioneering spirit he learned in West Texas – that optimism that allowed folks to scratch a living out of the dry, dusty land.

“If the good guys are tenacious and fight for it, they win,” he said – but “the good guys have to fight for it.”

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/bus/stories/DN-diesel_06bus.ART0.State.Edition1.2af09c3.html

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2 Comments on “The Dallas Morning News: Think diesel”

  1. #1 Johnnye Baton
    on Mar 11th, 2008 at 20:29

    Mr. Morris,

    I am very delighted to hear about your plans to refurbish this plant, good luck. Yes we do need a cleaner fuel to run pur cars. I think diesel is a great answer, what do you htink about the V-Power Fuel GTL ( Gas To Liquid ) I am very excited about that thought. I again wish you great luck and hope to see you someday in your CTS diesel at a red light ! Thanks , Johnnye Baton I
    If you are building a plant for diesel have given given thought to the GTL ?

  2. #2 Johnnye Baton
    on Mar 11th, 2008 at 20:23

    Mr. Morris, I am very concerned about Shell-Mobil-Exxon and the V-Power Diesel GTL ( Gas To Liquid ) fuel….. I don’t understand why we are not offered this great fuel, if it burns cleaner and stronger ??? WHY////// Thanks, Johnnye Baton
    PS I love your idea of diesel car CTS 🙂

    I have Escalade and wish it where diesel…. I have Mega Cab Dodge Dually diesel that I love… diesel is to me a far better product than regular gas. GOOD LUCK I hope you win your bet!

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