The Free Press, Mankato, MN


October 21, 2012

The new ethanol: A debate over corn, oil and progress



Most ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn, but several expensive bio-refineries are under construction to produce cellulosic ethanol. These refineries will use as their feedstock corn stover, essentially the leftover corn stalk after corn cobs have been harvested. In the future, this product won’t compete with food crops.

What happens with the fuel standard is also a jobs issue. Not only is the ethanol market huge for corn growers, it creates all sorts of related jobs, from farm products to the truck drivers who deliver corn around the clock to ethanol plants.

“It’s an economic issue, and we simply want the issue to be decided based upon the facts. We want people to think about those unanticipated consequences,” said Chris Standlee, executive vice president of Abengoa Bioenergy in Chesterfield, Mo., operator of six bio-refineries capable of producing 400 million gallons of ethanol annually. “What happens if you take actions to reduce that, not only what happens now to the economy and health of rural America, but a year from now if ethanol is reduced and oil prices go back to $150 a barrel? That’s not good for anybody.”

Standlee estimates there are about 1,500 jobs created around his plants, beyond the company’s own hires. McClatchy toured the bustling Abengoa plant in Madison, Ill., in August, before the drought led to refinery closures across the country. The Madison plant is now idled for maintenance. Soaring corn prices have idled plants across the country, as the feedstock prices erode profitability. Corn for future delivery now fetches around $7.73 a bushel vs. an average price of $2.13 a bushel in 2002. One bushel yields about 2.75 gallons of ethanol.

On the presidential campaign trail, ethanol is a background issue. Both presidential candidates tout plans to boost the growing domestic production of oil, particularly in the promising Bakken formation oil deposits buried beneath shale rock in Montana and North Dakota.

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