Iowa Public Television


Obama Pays Visit to World's Largest Ethanol Producer

posted on April 30, 2010

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As part of his "White House to Main Street" tour, the President also visited POET Biorefining in Macon, Missouri.

With 25 other plants scattered across seven states, the company's 1,500 employees produce 1.6 billion gallons of renewable fuel annually, making POET, the world's largest producer of ethanol.

President Obama: "In the two years I spent running for President and visiting towns like these, a lot of folks talked about how the American Dream was getting harder and harder to reach. Families were having a tough time getting ahead. Farmers were having a tough time getting by. And worse, many of our young people grew convinced that their only chance to find opportunity was to seek it someplace else. But success stories like POET prove that doesn't have to be the case."

Speaking at a Macon, Missouri biorefinery operated by South Dakota-based POET, President Obama renewed his commitment to homegrown, renewable energy.

While the president claims his administration's investment in clean, alternative sources of domestic fuel is expected to create or save more than 700,000 jobs across America by the end of 2012 – he focused on the productivity of a smaller workforce.

President Obama: "Ten years ago next month, this plant produced its first gallon of ethanol. Today, 45 employees produce 46 million gallons a year. So one of you is overachieving. Congratulations to all of you."

POET CEO Jeff Broin was clearly pleased that the President chose to highlight his company.

Jeff Broin, CEO, POET: "There isn't a market for ethanol so we can't build cellulosic plants. As to the future, we need to move to flex-fuel vehicles and blender pumps to open the market up so it can be a true competitor to oil. We have the raw materials to make a lot of ethanol in this country. Today we don't have a market. We have a 90-percent mandate for gasoline today."

Energy initiatives in rural America have hit a bumpy road in recent years. Skyrocketing food prices, record-setting input costs, and high-price corn tossed some ethanol plants into bankruptcy. POET has largely survived ethanol's perfect storm pivoting towards future production and launching an aggressive marketing campaign."

Broin did raise some concerns to President Obama during his visit. Currently, federal regulations permit a maximum of 10 percent ethanol to be mixed with 90 percent gasoline. Since U.S. motorists consume 140 billion gallons of gasoline annually, a 10 percent limit means 14 billion gallons is the maximum amount of ethanol that can be consumed domestically. Broin believes the industry needs to proceed well beyond the 10 percent "blend wall" to survive and grow. The Obama Administration EPA is considering a raise in federal standards to E15 in the coming months.

Jeff Broin, CEO, POET: "I think he's interested in explanding biofuels. I think the President knows we have a wall today that doesn't allow ethanol to go any further, a 90-percent mandate. He's very interested in helping us remove that wall."

Together with Growth Energy, a leading biofuel advocacy group on Capitol Hill, POET's image strategy attempts to defend biofuel against critics and define ethanol as a 21st Century answer to oil.

Tom Buis, CEO, Growth Energy: "And I think people are starting to base the debate on facts and not on misinformation like the big food companies or big oil have done around ethanol. People understand and I think the President understands this is jobs, this is jobs right here in America when we need them."

But critics remain in an industry hoping to regain its public footing as the chief alternative to gasoline. POET announced plans in March to slash the amount of water used to produce ethanol. Currently, the company uses 3 gallons of water per gallon of biofuel and new five-year benchmarks aim to cut that figure to 2.33 gallons of water – a potential 22 percent drop.

America's largest biofuel company is also trying to squeeze more energy from leftover corn stalks, leaves, and cobs – a process known as cellulosic ethanol.

POET's cellulosic endeavor, called Project Liberty, is a $200 million joint venture between the biofuel company and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Jeff Broin, CEO, POET: "We've lowered the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol from $4 per gallon a year and a half ago to $2.35 today. We have a goal of our Project Liberty in Emmetsburg to start up in late 2011 or early 2012. We believe it can be $2 a gallon by then. The government has made a wise investment in driving for technology around cellulosic ethanol. They will get a payback many times over for that ethanol."

Further government investments in biofuel, including substantial funding from the Obama Administration's Recovery Act, have been funneled towards renewable fuel.

President Obama: "It included $800 million in funding for ethanol fueling infrastructure, biorefinery construction, and advanced biofuels research to help us reach a goal I've set: to more than triple America's biofuels production in the next twelve years."

President Obama: "I may be President these days, but I used to be a Senator from Illinois. I didn't just discover the merits of biofuels like ethanol when I first hopped on the campaign bus. I believe in their potential to contribute to our rural economies and our clean energy economy."

The rural economy is exactly what John Eggleston had in mind when he convinced fellow farmers and rural Missouri investors to launch the state's first ethanol plant in Macon ten years ago. According to POET, the Macon plant is more than 80-percent owned by a group of 316 Missouri corn farmers and most of the ethanol produced is shipped by truck to nearby St. Louis, Missouri.

John Eggleston, President, POET Macon: "This thing had a lot of risk. We were the first in Missouri. We came through a time in the late 90s when there was $5 corn. Everyone said it wouldn't work and there were times when we weren't sure that it would. But, we knew it would develop a market. We were convinced we would have control over part of our grain if we built a facility so we got a lot of people to buy in. Most people who bought in are still in it."

Farmers like Eggleston admit many of the opportunities to invest in the ground floor of ethanol production have come and gone. But he insists that a nearby ethanol plant has benefited not just investors and corn farmers but all rural citizens.

President Obama: "Here at POET, you do more than just help stake America's claim on that future. You stake Macon's claim on America's future. And I'm committed to making sure that communities like this one have a bright future of opportunity to look forward to. Thank you, everybody."

Tags: agriculture alternative energy Barack Obama biofuels energy policy Energy/Environment ethanol military Missouri news presidents renewable fuels