By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Orr and his attorney, Paul Grant, contend that his prosecution is the result of an EPA vendetta. Orr had been involved in a legal challenge of EPA standards for several years, claiming that new sulfur regulations for gasoline were based on bad science, increased the price of gasoline significantly and actually hurt air quality. Testing his product and its supposed benefits might have demonstrated that the costly new standards weren't truly necessary — hence the motive, Grant suggests, for shutting down Orr's operation before further tests could be conducted.
"Had the tests been run, Bill Orr would have been vindicated or proven wrong," Grant says. "Had Orr been proven right, the EPA would have been terribly humiliated. Government agencies don't want naysayers proving them wrong. They had a lot to lose, and I think they would have lost had the tests been run."
The vendetta theory has been strongly embraced by Orr's supporters. That's the only explanation, they say, for how an audit that found some minor irregularities in the administration of a federal grant mushroomed into a lengthy criminal investigation involving the EPA, the IRS, postal inspectors, the Securities and Exchange Commission — even, at one point, the Department of Homeland Security. A motion for a new trial filed by Grant accuses federal prosecutors of misrepresenting evidence in the case, smearing Orr with unproven innuendos and lying to the jury. "The trial tactics of these prosecutors offer a primer in how to convict a defendant without evidence," the motion states.
Federal prosecutors have declined to comment on Grant's allegations, pending a formal response filed in court. But U.S. Attorney Troy Eid has defended the prosecution as a welcome deterrent to the kind of snake-oil schemes foisted on consumers and investors in response to soaring prices at the pump. "With increased focus on alternative fuels," he said, "this conviction is a reminder: Always check under the hood."
Orr compares himself to Preston Tucker, the visionary automaker whose revolutionary "Tucker Torpedo" was quickly sunk by unfounded fraud allegations. "I was told years ago by people in Congress that it was suicide to get involved in alternative fuels," he says. "There's a lot of lip service in support of it, but you're up against an entrenched, big-oil mentality. It's a multibillion-dollar mature industry that isn't going to let any share of its market go to outsiders."
At 56, with short-cropped hair and mild eyes, Bill Orr doesn't seem cut out for the part of mad inventor or conspiracy theorist. His apartment is crowded with stacks of canned goods and files, giving off that lonely air of the middle-aged entrepreneur, definitely single (divorced ten years, two sons), in need of more storage space. It's only when he begins to talk, at length and with great authority, about patent law, fuel recipes and global warming that he reveals the eclectic nature of his obsessions.
Friends describe Orr as frugal, eccentric and brilliant, with the organizational skills of a small child. They say he correctly predicted, more than a year in advance and within 1,500 miles of its epicenter, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. But he's also been known to show up for a meeting with the royal family of Bahrain wearing mismatched shoes. "I have joked that he would have a hard time falling out of a wet paper bag," says Shires, who first met Orr eighteen years ago while working on the John Andrews gubernatorial campaign. "But he's also a near genius in many regards."
An Air Force brat, Orr was born in Ohio but traveled widely as a child. His family put down roots in Colorado long enough for him to finish high school in Aurora. He returned to the state after studying science and engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and earned a degree in business from the University of Colorado. Then he went to work as a CPA, but only for a short while. "I couldn't stand accounting," he says now. "I got headaches."
In 1979, another accountant introduced him to a tax shelter that involved the use of methanol in gasoline. Orr became fascinated with the economics and chemistry of the product. Better known as wood alcohol, methanol has a long history as a high-powered automotive fuel, from the days of the Model T to the modern Indy 500. It has drawbacks, including its corrosive effects on aluminum engines and rubber seals, but Orr saw huge potential for blending methanol with other alcohols as an octane-enhancing additive. At the time, the government was in the process of phasing out the use of lead in gas, and refiners were searching for an alternative octane booster. Methanol extracted from natural gas cost a fraction of the price of gasoline even then, and Orr realized that even a modest piece of the growing market for gas-alcohol mixes could be worth millions.
Over the next few years, Orr organized the American Synthetic Fuels Company, later known as Energos Systems. The company obtained the very first waiver for a methanol-unleaded gas blend from the EPA, then under the direction of former Colorado lawmaker Anne Gorsuch. Orr began working with refineries in the Southwest seeking a cheap source of octane, while giant Arco started selling its own methanol-laced gas on the East Coast. The market seemed poised to take off.