Has Ethanol Become the Fly in the Punch Bowl?

We can beat Big Oil, but as we move ahead, part of the go-forward strategy, even at this late date, has to be to a stronger emphasis on selling the merits of ethanol to the public. If we are going to win the war, we need more than just farmers.
By Mike Bryan | February 14, 2014

I thought perhaps that I should write something in this column about the current renewable fuel standard issue and then realized that probably everything that can be said, has been said and, likely, many times over. Then I began to wonder how we got into this position in the first place.

In the early years, ethanol was viewed by many as the darling of the dance, the future of domestic energy and the savior of rural America. Somehow along the way, we became the fly floating in the punch bowl. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but the unbridled exuberance that built this industry has begun to wane and the passion that once drove us on to great things has become the staid love of a 30-year marriage. 

What’s changed? Ethanol still is the finest domestically produced renewable fuel in the world. It continues to pump billions of dollars into the rural economy, contributes to a cleaner environment and creates thousands of jobs. In fact, ethanol remains the unchallenged champion of renewable liquid fuels. 

On the other hand, many things have changed. The production process of ethanol is 50 percent more efficient today than it was at its inception. We get 20 percent more ethanol from a bushel of corn than we did in 1985. In terms of production efficiency, ethanol has made greater advancements than oil. So while the basic premise of ethanol has not changed since the very beginning, the energy efficiency, the cost of production and the resulting environmental contributions have changed dramatically.

If we examine where we are today compared to where we were 30 years ago, we can emphatically say that the reason ethanol was introduced in the first place has not changed and the production process has substantially improved. So why, one has to ask, have we suddenly become the fly in the punch bowl?

It’s easy to blame Big Oil and, make no mistake, if we peel back the onion on much of our industry’s problems, we will find millions of dollars with oil stains on them. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think we have never really sold the public on ethanol. You see, most people in the city think food comes from the supermarket, they simply do not equate food on the table with farming and the financial risks that farming entails. To ask them to try and understand why ethanol helps the farmer, who feeds the people, who think milk comes from a carton, may be a bridge too far. 

I think that we need to examine some of our strategies of the past to better assess where we are today. We are in a battle for the life of this industry with a competitor that has polluted our environment, had a multitude of environmental disasters and driven the price of driving nearly out of reach of many Americans, while they rake in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits, and we’re losing!

Why? Because we don’t have the general public on our side. We have the farming community, at least most of them, but we have not convinced the general public that ethanol is important to agriculture, important to the environment and, as a result, is important to them. 

We can beat Big Oil, as we have in the past, but as we move forward, part of the go-forward strategy, even at this late date, has to be to a stronger emphasis on selling the merits of ethanol to the public. I know this is a timeworn effort that never seems to go anywhere, but if we are going to win the war, we need more troops than just farmers.

That’s the way I see it!

Author: Mike Bryan
Chairman, BBI International
mbryan@bbiinternational.com