FEW: General session tells it like it is

By Ron Kotrba | June 02, 2008
Web exclusive posted June 17, 2008 at 9:29 p.m. CST

The celebration at the 24th annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo general session was bittersweet as the ethanol industry pioneer who hand-crafted the world's most renowned ethanol conference nearly a quarter-century ago—Kathy Bryan, president of BBI International—was absent for the first time since the show's inception due to her battle with cancer. "The industry wouldn't be what it is today were it not for Kathy," said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. A woman with "indomitable spirit," in the words of Dinneen, Bryan received a heartfelt standing ovation from the audience and warm wishes for a speedy recovery.

Opening remarks were given by Mike Bryan, chief executive officer of BBI International. "It's been a year of success and tremendous abuse for the industry," he said, referring to the relentless attack on corn-based ethanol from all sides. "What bothers me the most is the abuse that agriculture is taking," he said, adding that the ethanol industry can't allow the continued vilification of the American farmer for raising the price of food.

Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Ken Givens said, "We have a long history in Tennessee of adding value to corn products," referring to the state's rich history of whiskey distilleries. Despite this history, fuel ethanol is something relatively new for Tennessee, but the state is moving forward quickly to develop an environment conducive to renewable fuels production and use. Givens mentioned the $72 million state investment in a switchgrass-to-ethanol pilot plant developed by Mascoma Corp. in partnership with the University of Tennessee. The commissioner also said the state is working on the creation of green corridors where motorists can find ethanol- and biodiesel-blended fuels.

With his powerful pastor-like presence, Dinneen told the audience that in January he thought his speech at this year's FEW would be a "victory lap" after the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007 was passed, but since then, the vicious assaults on corn-based ethanol ramped up exponentially. According to Dinneen, the oil companies are behind it all. He said with the passing of the 36 billion-gallon renewable fuels standard, the oil barons saw one-third of their market share slipping away and concocted an enormous campaign against renewables. "They sit on editorial boards of every major newspaper," he said, adding that Big Oil "bought themselves some studies" and teamed up with major food companies to create a giant smokescreen. "They need to stop us now, but they won't," he said, adding that rising food prices are in part due to demand from developing countries like China and India, and changing diets of people around the world. "Now people want a pork chop with their rice," he said. Of course, the price of oil is paramount to this entire debate, and Dinneen hit home this message by saying, "We can't produce $2.50 corn with $4.50 diesel."

Speaking of oil, the morning's keynote speaker Robert Zubrin, author of Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil, gave a compelling account of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries strategic will to power through the constriction of global oil supplies. In 1972, the United States spent $4 billion on oil imports, or 4.5 percent of the U.S. defense budget. In comparison, 35 years later, the United States spends $650 billion on imported oil. As Zubrin put it, "$650 billion isn't just money, it's power." What's bad for wealthy countries like the United States is crushing for developing countries such as Kenya, he said. OPEC's "slow choke" on oil supplies is smarter than a complete shutoff due to the military consequences the United States would exact on such a move. To hammer home Dinneen's point about oil interests controlling editorial content of major media outlets, Zubrin said the Saudis partially own the Wall Street Journal. He quipped the paper should be renamed the Wahhabi Street Journal. "OPEC is taxing the industrial world into depression," he continued. The United States could open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but it would do little good. "That's a desperation card," Zubrin said. "It's not the way to go. Oil is trump right now, so how do we change the trump suit?" His answer is mandating all vehicles sold in the United States to be flex-fueled, giving consumers a fuel choice. A flexible-fuel vehicle mandate would end the chicken and egg dilemma, and would make E85 pumps appear rapidly across the country. "This would crash the oil price to $50 a barrel," he told the crowd. "This is how you smash OPEC." His plan states that, once the U.S. farmers have produced all the ethanol they can, trade barriers should be abolished, beginning the importation of ethanol from friends in Latin America and elsewhere to help them reap the prosperity now enjoyed by OPEC countries. "It would be a terrific financial engine for world development," Zubrin said. "Instead of selling Citibank to Saudi princes, we can be selling tractors to Africa. … We cannot afford to leave this power in the hands of the enemies of freedom."