SAN RAFAEL -- In the Dominican Republic and its troubled neighbor Haiti people whisper about a vast, untapped source of oil, mysteriously ignored by the government and foreign mining teams.
The rumor is born of constant shortages, because in truth the entire Caribbean island of Hispaniola has no oil reserves at all.
[caption id="attachment_69865" align="alignright" width="199"] Bruce Keith was born in the Dominican Republic to a father in the mining industry and a mother in the U.S. diplomatic corps.[/caption]
"Silver, gold, nickel and bauxite -- yes," said Bruce Keith (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former resident with a passion for the island. "But the Dominican Republic and Haiti have to import every drop of oil to us, and lots of it is low-grade and polluting."
He has a clean-fuel production model that would employ small farmers to grow feedstock for biodiesel. Converted in local plants and sold to both the public and private sectors, the biodiesel could eventually supply about a third of the Dominican Republic's energy needs.
The Marin entrepreneur was born in the Dominican Republic to a mining executive father and a mother who was in the diplomatic corps. Before moving to Marin County, Mr. Keith spent a number of years in Latin America building or turning around companies.
His familiarity with the Dominican Republic -- a stable though cash-strapped democracy -- its people, terrain, climate and needs has convinced Mr. Keith it's the ideal launching pad for a model that could be easily deployed in other oil-poor nations, notably Haiti.
"I call it the triple-bottom-line model, because the benefits are threefold," he said. "We have a positive social and environmental impact and create an enduring, profitable economic generator.
"The environmental advantages to having a source of clean fuel are enormous. Most of the island's electricity is produced by generators -- the energy grid is woeful -- burning low-grade fuel."
Economically, a thriving, sustainable biodiesel industry would benefit investors, farmers, factory workers, the mining industry -- now forced to import diesel for its operations at high cost -- and the government, which is solidly behind the project.
[caption id="attachment_69864" align="alignleft" width="240"] Velazquez, a poor Dominican farmer, proudly shows off his thriving plot, planted with jatropha on his own initiative.[/caption]
The model has social benefits as well. Originally small-scale farmers, the Dominican and Haitian people have migrated into cities in search of work. Drawing them back to the land to grow a cash crop would provide them with an improved and longer life.
"There's no shortage of workers on our initial plots," said Mr. Keith. "Farmers, laborers and migrant Haitian workers abound."
One land-poor farmer -- Velasquez -- was so eager to be a part of the project he has planted and tended his own plots and his neighbors' as a volunteer, just to prove himself.
The plots are planted to jatropha, a hardy native shrub that grows well in arid, deforested soil. While it takes up to five years to reach maturity, harvests begin after one year and the plant lasts for over 30 years.
Now Mr. Keith is beating the bushes for capital to build a pilot refining plant. He has partnered with the Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI), a local nonprofit organization focused on development projects, micro-loans, housing and green industries, among other endeavors.