Happen to have a few extra million jingling around your pockets? Chevron Chemical's got a whale of a deal for you: 700 million tons of fish dung.
Actually, it's 700 million tons of phosphate reserves, along with processing plants and a 100-mile-long slurry pipeline. "Sixty million would probably buy the whole thing," said Gene Schamber, mine superintendent.Chevron has been listening to any and all offers for its Vernal phosphate mine and mills - the only facility of its kind in Utah, and one of a handful in the Western states.
But Schamber and the plant's 115 other employees are hoping the company doesn't sell quite yet. Seems they are trying to buy the plant themselves.
"We know what the company's potential is," Schamber said. "We work here every day and we've made money for the company every year."
But not enough to retire Chevron's substantial capital investment. Schamber said Chevron has spent some $350 million in recent years modernizing the facility, making the company extremely competitive but also making it difficult for the company to recoup its capital investment.
"The company is not losing money; it's just not making as much as the Chevron people would like," he added. "The rate of return is not as high as it is for oil, and that is their point of reference in evaluating the effectiveness of the company. They just can't stand to make money slowly."
Phosphate is not exactly oil. But it is a fossil resource.
"I can't really think of a more delicate way to say this, but phosphate is fish poop," Schamber said. In a marine environment, the fish byproducts roll around on the bottom of the ocean, forming pellets that, given 130 million years or so, form phosphate.
Treated with sulfuric acid, phosphate rock produces water soluble fertilizer, allowing the chemical to be absorbed by plants. Phosphorous is a critical ingredient in stimulating early plant growth, root formation, hastening of plant maturity and promotion of seed production.
Phosphates are also used in soft drinks, pickling, pharmaceuticals, denture cements, textiles, lithography, jellies and sugars. They are also a controversial ingredient in detergents and soaps.
The phosphate is also a stimulant for the economically depressed Uintah Basin, pumping literally millions into the local economy every year. Because mine workers live and shop in nearby Vernal, the effect on the local economy is substantial, added Rep. Dan Price, R-Vernal. "It's more than just jobs. It represents an ongoing attempt to diversify our economy so we aren't so dependent upon oil."
The Vernal mine, about 11 miles north of Vernal, contains phosphate reserves on a 24-square-mile area of private ground on the south flank of the Uinta Mountains. The 18-foot layer of phosphate rock is composed mostly of clay, sand and phosphorous minerals.
The Vernal mine harvests about 2 million tons a year, crushing the rock deposits at a mill on site, and then transporting it by slurry pipeline to Wyoming where it is processed further.
Utah's phosphate is popular because it does not contain trace elements of uranium, as many other phosphate deposits do. The mine competes against mines in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
Most phosphate deposits are buried deep beneath the surface of the earth, requiring deep pit mines. But the geology of eastern Utah tipped the formation so that it now lies barely beneath the surface, making extraction easy and cost-effective.
Schamber said there is no reason to suggest Chevron will close the plant if the right purchase offer doesn't come along. There are customer contracts already in place to keep it operating and making money. And if current rates of extraction hold, there is enough phosphate in the ground to keep workers employed for another 350 years.
"The resource is there, it's a high-quality resource and it's easy to get out of the ground," Schamber said. "Somebody will mine it."
The Vernal mine was opened in 1962 by San Francisco Chemical. Chevron bought the facility in 1981 from Stauffer Chemical and constructed the 94.5-mile slurry pipeline to Rock Springs in 1984.
Chevron's infusion of new technology also enabled the company to produce twice as much phosphate with about half as many employees as 10 years ago.
The company has also won high praise for its efforts to restore the landscape after the strip mining of phosphate reserves. As much as $20,000 a year is spent on planting shrubs and grass reseedings.
A pasture on the property has also become a winter refuge for more than 300 head of elk. "It's getting to be a real public attraction," Schamber said.
It's an attraction that Schamber would like to see owned by local people who have made phosphate their business.