You would think that a modern industrial process that creates $1 billion a year in profits would make its creators and operators proud. You'd think they would be doubly pleased with themselves for doing it under the banner of reducing America's dependence on foreign energy. In fact, you'd think they would want their names in the paper and awards on their wall. But in the case of a strange kind of American alchemy involving coal, don't expect to be welcome on a plant tour. The reason isn't that secrecy is necessary to protect a technological marvel but just the opposite. What you would see behind the curtain is a scheme that would make the Wizard of Oz envious. And you wouldn't be amused, because as an American taxpayer, you're paying for it.
About a mile off the twisting, two-lane road to the south of Central City, Pa., set back in the woods along a private road, past the truck scales and the raw-coal stockpile, invisible from the highway, is the Shade Creek processing plant of PBS Coals Inc. There freshly mined coal is washed, the sulfur, rock, ash and other impurities removed and the cleaned coal carried by an overhead conveyor belt across the dusty road. It goes into a building on the other side that is operated by a second company, Central City Synfuels. Another belt comes out of that building--off limits to the public--carrying what looks a lot like the same coal back across the road and dumps it on a stockpile. Then it's loaded into railcars and shipped to electric utilities.
Except it isn't coal any longer.
Forget that it looks like coal. And will burn like coal. It's now called "synthetic fuel." As such, the coal-like product, along with roughly 50 million tons of similar stuff from more than 50 similar plants in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama and other states, is worth more than $1 billion a year in federal income-tax credits, a corporate giveaway protected by a bipartisan group of supporters in Congress. Those who have profited from the system range from fast-buck artists to giant corporations. They include one of the nation's largest hotel operators, a commodities trader barred from the industry for fraudulent practices, a chain of electronics stores, an electric utility that unplugged the lights during the great blackout of 2003, technology firms run by friends of influential lawmakers, limited partnerships of wealthy investors and scores of individuals and businesses preferring to keep their identities secret.