Ever since ethanol went into production as a gasoline additive, the industry has been on the defensive. It has fought Big Oil, Washington politicians and state governments to be part of a movement to lessen the nation's reliance on foreign oil.
Following last week's series of stories by the Associated Press about how ethanol has hurt the environment, the ethanol industry went on the offensive with Tuesday morning's public briefing at the Capitol Theater in downtown Burlington.
Ray Defenbaugh, CEO of Big River Resources in West Burlington, invited some heavyweight speakers to address the facts about ethanol and its positive effects on the environment and the rural economy.
"They tried to blame ethanol for all the ills of the world," said Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, of the AP series. "It's not based on facts, it's based on fiction."
Buis said the ethanol program has reduced the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
"We've taken out a lot of carbon out of the air," said the leader of ethanol's leading lobbying group.
Buis emphasized politicians grease squeaky wheels and urged the large audience to send an email, write a letter or make a phone call to their U.S. representatives, senators or even the White House to state the importance of ethanol in terms of a cleaner environment, the effect on rural economies and reducing reliance on Middle East oil.
Jeff Broin, co-founder and CEO of Poet, the world's largest ethanol producer, portrayed what the corn-based fuel has done for farmers.
"We stabilized commodity prices and rural America," he said.
Broin's father built an ethanol plant early on at the family's southeast Minnesota farm. The younger Broin has seen Poet grow to 27 U.S. plants, which produces 1.7 billion gallons of ethanol per year.
For decades, farmers simply were considered growers of food. Broin said that image has changed now.
"This is a food and energy game," he said of farming. "Ethanol is the only way to cheapen fuel and cheapen food."
With a record harvest of 13.9 billion bushels of corn raised in 2013, Broin pointed out there is more than enough grain for food and fuel. One of the criticisms of the AP series was farmers are diverting too many crops from food to fuel. With increasing yields in today's corn hybrids, Broin said farmers can meet the demands of the world's food and its fuel needs.
However, he said the country is at a crossroads and must choose to stick to the goal to reach 36 billion gallons of ethanol produced a year by 2022.
"We need to band together and fight," Broin said of the Midwest making sure Washington, D.C., keeps its promises.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander and 38-year Army veteran, noted many of American wars were directly or indirectly attributed to oil. In essence, he said, the U.S. has been protecting its oil concerns as the nation has spent at least $300 billion a year for foreign oil each of the last five years.
"We are against the biggest industry in the world," Clark said, referring to America's oil industry.
Clark said Big Oil can be kept in check if the American public speaks up.
"You've really got to talk to this White House," he said. "We must keep the renewable fuel standard intact."
The fourth member of the panel was Richard Childress, president of Richard Childress Racing and a member of the American Ethanol Board.
Childress said his race teams have proven the positive effects of ethanol, as E15 has been used in 5 million miles of competitive racing and won many titles.
"The engines run cooler and cleaner," he said. "We're proud to run E15 in our race cars."
He said if race car engines last longer because of ethanol, think what it does for every American's car.
In a question-and-answer period after the speeches, the panel was asked about cellulosic ethanol, where the fuel is made from corn stalk.
"We are seeing a great future for cellulosic fuel," Broin said.
Broin's company, Poet, is building a cellulosic ethanol plant outside of Emmetsburg.
Dubbed Project Liberty, it is scheduled to begin operations early next year. Using corncobs, leaves, husks and portions of the stalk that passes through the combine during harvest called stover, it expects to produce up to 25 million gallons per year. In the process, cellulosic ethanol creates another revenue stream for farmers. Poet will pay farmers $65 per ton of stover, which is the average yield per acre.
By taking 25 percent to 50 percent of the stover off a field, the soil warms faster in the spring, which helps with planting and germination.
The briefing preceded a Growth Energy board meeting and accentuated ethanol's positives and the constant fight it faces with the oil industry as a competitor.