Six trucks sit parked at an intersection in the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina. They’re filled with coal, which mostly used to heat homes. On an October afternoon, Behram Maloku is offering 1 ton for 50 euros, or about $65. He’ll be lucky if he squeezes out a small profit.
“Ten euros go to gas and 3 euros in food -- just to stay here for the day,” Maloku says. “If I don't sell anything, I lose 13 euros. In three days, my profit’s gone.”
The country has lots of coal, but it’s hard to make any money from it. Kosovo is the world’s fifth largest reserve of lignite, which is the lowest grade of coal. Lignite has a low energy content and is expensive to transport, so it’s rarely transported. Most of lignite mined in Kosovo feeds pair of outdated, highly polluting power plants, where it does little for the economy of Europe’s second poorest country.
Wesley Clark, retired U.S. Army general and former Democratic presidential candidate, is trying to change that. Clark chairs a Canadian energy company called Envidity, which is seeking a license to explore Kosovo’s undergound coal deposits to use to make synthetic fuel for cars and planes.
“I hope we can do it here because if we can, it’ll make a huge difference for the country,” Clark said in an interview when he visited Kosovo on Oct. 18. “It could bring hundreds of millions even billions of dollars worth of foreign direct investment.”
In addition to being Europe’s second poorest country -- after Moldova -- Kosovo has an unemployment rate of about 45 percent. People with jobs make on average less than $6,000 per year.
Clark has a special history in Kosovo, where the Albanian majority largely sees him as a hero. In 1999, as NATO’s supreme allied commander, he led the military intervention that ended then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal campaign against Kosovo Albanian separatists. The campaign expelled Serb security forces from Kosovo and set the stage for Kosovo U.S.-backed independence from Serbia in 2008.
Kosovo’s government would get 30 percent of the profits. Clark chatted about the coal project in his hotel suite as chowed down on dinner.
He recently paid a visit to Kosovo on Oct. 18 to attend a gala in his honor. Clark is a hero to Kosovo Albanian majority. As the NATO supreme allied commander, he helped to end Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal crackdown 13 years ago. It paved the way for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008.
Clark’s company, Envidity, wants to use pair of processes called "underground coal gasification" and "gas to liquid" on Kosovo’s untapped lignite deposits. The method works by drilling into the lignite and creating a chemical reaction that releases gas. The gas is directed to the surface, where it would be converted to liquid fuel.
Underground coal gasification has a long history that dates back to the 19th century, but it isn’t widely practiced. Clark acknowledged that the process poses challenges.
“It’s just like fracking or anything else," he said. "It’s not easy.”
But Clark said Envidity’s method is safe from an environmental standpoint.
“It’s a totally green process. Except, of course, you’re going to use a fossilized carbon, but that’s the way we make liquid fuel right now,” Clark said.
Nezir Sinani, of the Institute for Policy Development in Prishtina, is skeptical of Clark’s project. Sinani said it’s the wrong direction for Kosovo, which would be moving away from lignite in favor of renewable sources of energy. Sinani also said there are potentially risks the underground coal gasification and gas to liquid process.
“Turning coal into liquid means producing something which is damaging to the environment,” Sinani said. “We need to see how that will be dealt with.”
Kosovo’s government so far appears eager to make Wesley Clark’s project possible. The process isn’t covered under existing law, and lawmakers are working on legislation that would change that. The public also is likely to support Clark, given that he’s seen a hero by most people in Kosovo.
“Taking into consideration the war, what we went through and the help that he gave us … when the name Wesley Clark is mentioned, it automatically means a force, a big name,” said Valdet Drenovci, owner of the Wesley Clark Driving School, just outside Prishtina. That notoriety has brought a lot of customers to the school, Drenovci said.
Clark, though, brushed off any suggestion that his status could play a role in his coal project getting off the ground in Kosovo. “No, I think it’s the power of the idea … in this particular economy, it’s extremely powerful.”