The story of the Carter administration's monumental new synthetic fuels program is most often cast in terms of high policy.
But for entrepreneurs as diverse as the Union Oil Co., a molasses farmer in Hawaii, the Seneca Indian Nation and a distillery in Maryland, it has the glint and promise of a ship coming in.
They are among the hundreds of organizations from 46 states who have submitted proposals to the Department of Energy so far, describing their plans for alternative fuel projects and asking for a slice of the billions in grants and guarantees which Congress has anted up to minimize the risks.
An outfit called Grasp Inc. thinks it can produce 40 million gallons a year of ethanol (for gasohol) from corn and milo, in Talladega County, Ala. The Modoc Lumber Co. of Klamath Falls, Ore., would turn its "wood biomass residue" (sawdust) into a solid fuel.
From a stack of nearly 1,000 proposals, DOE last month selected 110 to receive some $200 million in awards in the first round. (There will be other chances for proposing in the future.)
Most of the millions went to larger entities, including 20 energy companies and utilities. But around 17 percent, or $34 million, by DOE estimate, went to small and minority-owned business "people who just think they have a good idea."
Many, for instance, are in a position to produce some kind of energy from a byproduct of their normal business. Hilo Coast Processing on the island of Hawaii is one example. A nonprofit cooperative which serves 260 sugar cane farmers, its main concern is the production of thousands of tons annually of sugar and molasses.
But the co-op also produces steam and electric energy from the milled cane fibers and supplies not only most of its own energy needs but 25 percent of the needs of the whole island, as Terris H. Inglett, its chief executive officer, explained.
So it is a natural step to consider converting most of their molasses into ethanol for gasohol."Most sugar producers have a distillery of some kind connected with them," Inglett said.
The federal government's program to share the risks of producing a basic commodity so generously is supposed to move the infant industry out of its little foxhole of demonstration and pilot projects and into full-scale commercial production as fast as possible.
Still, the first step in the offensive is -- another round of studies.
One half of the initial $200 million shoots straight through, not to the companies who plan to produce the fuels, but to consultants hired by them to carry out what are known as feasibility studies.
Some congressional sources contend that this is just another windfall for consultants, a group they contend DOE depends on too heavily.
"I'm not sure they had to do this much in feasibility studies," said one staff source on the House energy and power subcommittee. "As it was presented to us, hell, this stuff was practically off the shelf and all you needed was capital costs." He added that the alcohol fuels [for gasohol] process is "just a goddam still."
The subcommittee has notified DOE that it plans to have the whole program carefully monitored, he said.
There is at least mild disagreement from industry.
"There's no doubt -- I could make alcohol from molasses on my desk here today, just start cooking it up," said Hilo Coast's Inglett. "But we have to know what our operating costs are going to be, who's going to buy it, the investment costs, the return on investment, the most efficient way to make it and so on . . . We're not in this to lose millions of dollars."
Those are the kinds of questions the feasibility study is supposed to answer, after the consultant has examined the specifics of site, process, marketing, etc. In other words as a DOE official put it, "Will it make a fistful of dollars?"
Awards for these studies on some of the larger projects were as much as $4 million.
Science Applications Inc. of McLean is an example of a large engineering consulting firm which was in a position to take advantage of the new program.
Last spring, two representatives of the firm visited the tribal council of the Seneca Nation of Indians in western New York and, as Seneca representative Marlene Johnson said, "made us aware of what was available undner the DOE program."
Knowing there was natural gas on the more than 50,000 square acres of reservation land, she said, "they made a proposal that they'd do this [prepare a feasibility study] on our behalf.
"This doesn't mean the tribal council will approve," she added. "We won't have lost anything. It's nice to know what's under there."
The tribe, and indirectly, Science Applications, won an award of $896,638 for the study. They proposed to find out if they could profitably exploit the so-called unconventional gas on their land.
Science Applications already had strong ties to DOE, as it primary support contractor for its unconventional gas recovery program, according to Nick Trentacoste, a vice president who specializes in developing new business for the company.
"We knew through several discussions with people in the state that the Seneca Indians were sitting on top of these Devonian Shales [rock which experts believe holds huge reserves of gas; to release the gas the rock was to be fractured]. So we went up there to find out if there was any real interest."
In about 15 months, if all goes well, he said, his company will complete a report on the study and the Indian tribe will have at its disposal the blueprint for a new resource, which could supply energy for the new town the tribe is building, or attract industry to its industrial park.
Some critics of the synfuels program claim it will benefit primarily the big, wealthy energy companies who lobbied for it, and who ought to be risking their own money instead of taking public funds for something they would have done anyway.
"It's an energy welfare system for private industry," said Ed Rothchild, of the consumer-oriented Energy Action group.
Federal officials insist industry needs the lure of federal dollars to speed up the timetable on this untried technology. Commercial production, they contend, would otherwise lag far behind the market demand. The goal: to increase the country's energy independence by producing the equivalent of 2 million barrels of oil a day by 1992.
"We knew synthetic fuels had to happen, so we've been oriented toward fuel from coal since 1971," said Galen E. Andersen, 34, president of the Nokota Co., of Bismarck, N.D. His proposal won an initial award of $4 million for a feasibility study. The company is in the domestic oil drilling business.
Andersen acknowledged he feels some conflict in his philosophical position. He, like a number of businessmen, has complained about the heavy hand of Big Government. But now he is taking advantage of an unprecedented entry of government into his business.
In a way, he argued, it's the least government can do."This industry was beginning to go in the early '70s, but the government came back with so many discussions, reports, controversy over what technology to use, environmental problems, hearings -- they just wore most people out . . . The government now is merely undoing the harm it did."
In any case, for what one official called "that whole army of guys who've dedicated their entire lives to what was once an esoteric technology," things are finally popping, even though to the uninformed they still seem slow as molasses.