By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"They say the emissions have been dramatically reduced," says Donald Stedman, a chemistry professor at the University of Denver, "but where's the evidence? Ozone hasn't gone down in the last decade, and that means we've done something wrong. Until you get rid of the hydrocarbons almost completely, you shouldn't reduce NOx. If you reduce NOx first, you're just going to make ozone worse where most people breathe. That's what we've been doing in Denver."
Orr's lawsuit challenging Tier 2 dragged on long after the refiners had given up the fight. The battle certainly didn't help his relationship with the agency that was administering his federal grant. With funds from the grant, NAFF had set up a modest screening lab in Golden to try to determine which fuel recipe would work best for the kind of costly, long-term testing in multiple engines that would be needed to prove the value of Octane's patent. Yet the preliminary data from the lab was confusing and unrepeatable; one researcher dubbed it "the frustrated fuel club." Orr's anxiety is evident in an e-mail he sent to a lab supervisor in 2003.
"Our data doesn't confirm anything," he lamented. "It seems we have become a 'never ending' R&D effort with a 'never ending' learning curve with a lot of detours. The EPA sees us as being a garage operation and thinks we are amateurs...They want real data and they want it now!"
In the spring of 2004, the EPA informed NAFF that it would require much more extensive testing of the fuel and its toxicity than had been previously indicated. The agency also launched an audit focusing on how grant money had been spent. Shires, Orr and others involved in NAFF say they received no indication at the conclusion of the audit that anything was amiss. But EPA internal e-mails indicate that people involved in defending the agency from Orr's lawsuit had begun to take an interest in the grant research. "I'd be curious [to know] where he is in terms of getting his product out," reads one communication.
That December, Orr filed a document claiming that the testing he was about to do would demonstrate not only that his fuel worked, but that the Tier 2 sulfur regulations were unnecessary. Around the same time — not so coincidentally, in Orr's view — the director of the EPA's grants administration division, Richard Kuhlman, was conferring with other staffers about pulling the plug on the grant before NAFF could enter into a contract with the Southwest Research Institute for independent testing of the fuel. "We may have to work hard to issue the stop work order," Kuhlman wrote. "They are soon to sign a $1 million contract that I would prefer they not start."
In the next few weeks, Orr's efforts suffered two fatal blows. His lawsuit against Tier 2 was thrown out on a technicality; a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled his trade group didn't have standing to bring the suit. And the EPA notified him that it was withholding future payments under the grant, citing various financial irregularities ranging from NAFF's bookkeeping to Orr's foreign travel to the use of Orr's son David as a consultant.
Shires remembers leaving his house one afternoon in January 2005 and seeing a man and a woman coming toward him in the suburban cul de sac, their hands ducking into their suits. For a moment, he thought they were reaching for guns and wondered "who I pissed off so much to get killed." Instead, the pair produced badges. One was an IRS investigator; the other was from the EPA Inspector General's office. After being assured that he wasn't the target of a criminal investigation, Shires agreed to talk to the agents about Octane and Bill Orr.
It soon became obvious to Shires that the government was probing well beyond the "financial irregularities" cited as the reasons for suspending the grant. The EPA agent, Cory Rumple, seemed openly contemptuous of Orr's patent and declared that it would never go anywhere. When Shires asked why, Rumple said something so startling that Shires took pains to write it down.
"Not in my lifetime," Rumple allegedly said. "Over my dead body and when hell freezes over will manganese come into the U.S. gas market."
Shires was badly shaken. NAFF had already sent a six-figure down payment to Southwest Research to begin the crucial tests. Shires was one week from purchasing the vehicles to use in the tests. After years of wrangling with Orr over his eccentric management style and chaotic recordkeeping, he'd finally persuaded him to step down as NAFF's executive director and bring in a professional to take charge of the organization. He'd felt so confident about the company's direction that he'd recently invited Bob Schaffer to join its board of directors.
Schaffer had not yet attended a single board meeting. He never would. After his conversation with the agents, Shires called up the ex-congressman and urged him to resign from the board immediately.
A globe of the earth sits on Bob Gathers's desk in his airy home outside Castle Rock. The globe spins freely in space, suspended in the middle of an electromagnetic field — except when Gathers slaps his palms on the desk for emphasis. Then the globe bumps into one of the magnets, and the earth stops.