"Any time you're talking about trying to invest $700 or $800 million, it's not easy," said Brad Enzi, vice president and Two Elk project leader for North American Power Group Ltd. "It's subject to a lot of things. It's subject to the power market. It's subject to the overall economic condition of our country."
Enzi said he's been talking with a couple prospects to share in the current estimated cost of $800 million, a slightly lower cost than six years ago but still nearly double the initial estimates. A design change a couple years ago from burning only coal to also burning beetle-killed timber — earning Two Elk precertification from California as a renewable energy source for that state — has not yielded any takers, however.
"It feels like it's close, sometimes, and then you might be further apart than you thought," he said. "And then other times you're closer than you thought."
As for the bond funding, it hasn't been spent. North American Power Group bought back the bonds in 2008, and they've been on the shelf ever since.
"Technically, there's no money out there. There's just paper," said Campbell County's bond attorney for Two Elk, Mike Reppe, with the firm Kutak Rock.
Two Elk also got government help in 2009 and 2010 from two Energy Department economic stimulus grants totaling $10 million. Researchers at Montana State and Stanford universities used part of the funding to analyze existing geological data to see if the Two Elk site could store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Under one of the grants, North American Power Group also proposed to drill a deep well to collect more data. How much of that grant got spent isn't clear, but the well didn't get drilled.
Enzi said he didn't know what happened and referred questions about the stimulus funding to Michael Ruffatto, president of North American Power Group, who did not return phone messages.
Representatives from the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., and the department's National Energy Technology Lab in Morgantown, W.Va., which oversaw the project, declined to comment. They referred all questions to an assistant U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh who declined to comment.
On Monday, the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council, a state citizen panel, will consider a seventh permit extension in 16 years for Two Elk. If approved, completion is targeted in 2016, or 19 years after Two Elk's first industrial siting permit.
The panel considers the impacts large industrial projects would have on surrounding communities. If it denies another extension, Two Elk really could be No Elk. Nothing in Wyoming that big can be built without an industrial siting permit.
A lot can change after so much time, and it's time for a full review, said Sandy Shuptrine, the Industrial Siting Council member who requested the upcoming permit extension meeting.
"It's definitely the longest-delayed project that I'm aware of," she said.
Fifteen miles down the road from Two Elk, the coal town of Wright, population 1,800, has been booming thanks to gas, oil and uranium development. The population is up by a third since 2000, making it one of Wyoming's fastest-growing towns. A $10 million recreation center, funded largely by taxes on the minerals industry, is on track for completion this year.
Told that a permit extension for Two Elk is coming up, several townspeople expressed surprise the project was even alive still. They hadn't heard about it in years, they said.
"There might be two elk out there somewhere," joked Tamera Van Vleet as she socialized at Hank's Roadside Bar and Grill on the outskirts of town.
"I think most of us are, 'Yeah, we'll believe it when we see it.' Our rec center is going up faster than their cement pad."