Wesley Clark puts name behind Kosovo coal project


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    Isuf Kesic tends to a single cow in the shadow of smokestacks of the Kosovo-A lignite-fired plant near the town of Obilic.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    The mammoth cooling stacks of the Kosovo-B lignite-powered plant arise in the distance. This plant is fed by conveyor belts that run west from this nearby village.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    The smokestacks of the Kosovo-A power plant appear behind the silhouette of Albania's double-headed eagle flag, which many Kosovo Albanians consider their own.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    A villager from the small town of Obilic scavenges for metal in a pile of construction materials near the Kosovo-A power plant. Obilic is sandwiched between the two Soviet-era coal-burning plants.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    A boy works in the family garden near the Kosovo-A power plant. The area this boy lives in is called the dirtiest place in Europe.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    One of several strip-mining beds where lignite is mined from shallow earth stretches into the distance. These beds surround the plants and feed them with fuel.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    A young boy runs near the base of the Kosovo-B power plant. The plant was commissioned in 1985. Torrents of water pour through this stack to cool the plant.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    Smoke spews from one of the six stacks that tower above the Kosovo-A power plant. The plant, built in the '60s, does not filter the soot to European standards.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    Luan Bardhi takes a break from harvesting wheat in the fields near Obilic. The region in central Kosovo near the capital, Pristina, is a largely agricultural area.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    Kosovo has high hopes to some day join the European Union. Along with a simmering conflict with Serbia to the north, the lack of clean energy sources and a transparent economic systems present a major obstacle.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    Miles-long conveyor belts carry unsifted lignite and soil to the base of the Kosovo-B power plant from one of four strip mines in the immediate area around the power plant.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    Farmers burn off the chaff of a wheat field near a large strip mine. A new proposed power plant will displace hundreds of farmers as the mining operations in central Kosovo grow.

    - Grant Slater/KPCC

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    Valdet Drenovci owns the Wesley Clark Driving School in Fushe Kosove, Kosovo.

    - Nate Tabak

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    Wesley Clark addresses reporters during a visit to Prishtina, Kosovo, on Oct. 18.

    - Nate Tabak

A young boy runs near the base of the Kosovo-B power plant. The plant was commissioned in 1985. Torrents of water pour through this stack to cool the plant.

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.”

A young boy runs near the base of the Kosovo-B power plant. The plant was commissioned in 1985. Torrents of water pour through this stack to cool the plant.

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