Growth Energy’s annual leadership conference provided members with an in-depth look into top industry issues and their own NASCAR experience.
Las Vegas, Nevada is a 24-hour show. The stage is enormous, the action’s constant, and whether luck’s shining on you or not, the excitement never wanes.
In that regard, the setting for Growth Energy’s 2011 Executive Leadership Conference couldn’t have been more apt. Those in the business of ethanol know that the industry’s fortunes change in an instant. With each victory, a new set of challenges emerge.
Those who attended the event March 3-6, which bore the theme “Racing to Results,” celebrated the accomplishments of challenges met and new partnerships forged, including the exciting new relationship with NASCAR. At the same time, they took a measured look at what’s ahead in an uncertain political climate, an economy shocked with rocketing energy costs, and an environmental community looking for answers.
For every question America faces in terms of transportation fuel, ethanol has an answer.
“We own the solution,” said POET CEO and Growth Energy Co-Chair Jeff Broin on the opening day. “And it will be through our hard work, commitment, and investment that we will overcome these hurdles and allow our industry to reach its full potential.”
America’s security at risk
Unrest in North Africa and the Middle East this year have wreaked havoc on oil prices, and Americans are feeling the effects once again of reliance on foreign oil. It’s a situation that had to take center stage at the ethanol conference.
Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis said America received a wakeup call regarding its vulnerability four decades ago.
“How many times must we hit the ‘snooze’ button before our nation really begins to seriously reduce that addiction to foreign oil?” he said. “The message to the sheiks, the shahs and the ayatollahs should be, ‘America’s not going to go to sleep again. Not this time. Not now. Not ever.’”
The point was explored in greater detail in a panel discussion “Global Realities” with former Ambassador to the European Union and former Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy Diplomacy, C. Boyden Gray, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. U.S. policy has put the nation at risk, but ethanol can answer the challenge, Gray said.
“… the oil depletion allowance, the 3 trillion dollars’ worth of your tax money, has done a marvelous job of depleting us of our independent energy resource and shifting our reliance to the Middle East,” he said. “We’ve got to shift this back, it’s an imperative, and unfortunately it means reversing four or five decades of policy, but we’ve got to do it. You’re on the cutting edge of it; you are the answer, and God bless you and good luck.”
Clark said an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) monopoly gives the term “tax” a whole new meaning. Saudi Arabia adjusts the supply to keep the price of oil where it chooses, and it is choosing a higher and higher price each year. As our foreign oil bill rises from $300 billion to more than $400 billion, it translates to $1,300 for every person in America.
“That money is feeding weapons, industrialization, royal appetites. Some of it is legitimately spent; some of it is not legitimately spent. In places like Nigeria it’s in the double-digit billions per year that are siphoned off from that production and sent to raise the real estate prices on the French Riviera and elsewhere,” Clark said. “This money is our money. That’s money that could be invested in infrastructure, roads and airports, and telecommunications and put kids in college and rebuild communities.”
Americans realize the problem of reliance on foreign oil, Clark and Gray agreed, but the ethanol industry must do a better job tapping into that sentiment.
“You have a huge groundswell to ride on, and I think you have to get out into your communities,” Gray said. “Don’t depend totally on what you see in Washington. Use your local newspapers and media and really keep at it at every level you can in your hometowns.”
Industry issues include E15, Fueling Freedom
Top issues for the industry today include implementing E15 and the current ethanol tax credit transitioning to an investment in infrastructure (the Fueling Freedom plan). Both issues were the subjects of roundtable discussions and featured prominently throughout the event.
Buis said current threats to implementing E15 by certain members of Congress were making a bad situation of high oil prices even worse.
“They’re injecting politics precisely where is doesn’t belong: in a regulatory decision, based strictly on science and the most extensive testing of a fuel ever,” he said.
Broin expressed confidence that the industry’s perseverance will pay off.
“For the first time in 30 years there is now a crack in the blend wall. And even with the incredible opposition to E15, I assure you that in time, we will overcome the hurdles to bring E15 to the market,” he said.
While E15 offers a short-term solution to blending limitations, Growth Energy’s larger vision, the “Fueling Freedom” plan offers the long-term solution. By taking a portion of the tax credit and redirecting it toward blender pump installation, consumers have access to as much clean, homegrown fuel as they care to use. Couple that with more Flex Fuel Vehicles on the road and ethanol pipelines, and the industry will finally be competing on a more level playing field.
“Fueling Freedom is more than just a concept of proposal,” Buis said. “It’s freedom of fuel choice for consumers. It’s freedom from regulatory mandates, and it’s freedom from foreign oil for Americans. What better idea could we have as an industry than that?”
NASCAR’s Kobalt 400 highlights ethanol partnership
The theme “Racing to Results” clearly highlighted the new NASCAR partnership, and those who attended were treated to an incredible experience at the Kobalt 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
More than 350 American Ethanol supporters were bussed into the infield with a police escort for the Sprint Cup race, said Growth Energy Director of Public Affairs Chris Thorne. They had access to the Neon Garage, where you could walk up to any of the racing cars, and they had a view of the race from the infield’s Blackjack Center, directly over the pits.
Before the race, Clint Bowyer, who drives the No. 33 Chevrolet car, stopped by and talked with members of the group.
“The best part? Hearing this top-competitive driver, representing one of NASCAR’s top racing teams in Richard Childress Racing, unequivocally endorse ethanol and Sunoco Green E15 as a fuel, and state flat out that this fuel has more horsepower than conventional gasoline,” Thorne said. “I only wish every American driver could hear Clint firsthand like all our Growth Energy members did.”
Jim Leiting of Big River Resources, an American Ethanol Partner, delivered a check to Kurt Busch, who won the American Ethanol Green Flag Re-Start Award at the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in Phoenix, Ariz. Also, FOX produced a piece about Sunoco Green E15 fuel that aired within the broadcast and featured the group of ethanol supports waving green American Ethanol flags.
NASCAR also played a role in the conference discussions. A group of executives from NASCAR participated in a roundtable discussion “American Ethanol & NASCAR” on the first day.
Moving on to action
Thorne said the attitude of those in attendance was very positive and the outlook even-toned.
“Our members clearly see that there will be challenges in the coming years, but they also recognize the opportunities that we have to strengthen America,” he said. “If anything, I think that Growth Energy members left energized and with a realistic view of what needs to happen, and a clear view of their role in making that happen.”
That role in a large part is to engage their lawmakers at the grassroots level.
Buis encouraged members to walk the halls of Congress and discuss the issues important to the ethanol industry.
“The best advocates in the world for any industry are those from back home, the constituents who can go visit their Senators and their Congressmen,” he said.
What happened in Vegas, ethanol supports know, cannot stay in Vegas. The lessons learned and friendships forged at the Growth Energy 2011 Executive Leadership Conference must be put to good use. With camaraderie renewed in a common purpose, they returned to their homes ready to face the challenges and successes of 2011.
In 2009, a film called Fuel explored America’s dependence on oil and the potential of biodiesel. It won numerous awards at film festivals across the world, including Sundance, and earned prestige for filmmaker Josh Tickell. His bus, powered by fuel from used vegetable oil, became a phenomenon.
But the film left out one key piece of the renewable fuel picture. Attendees at Growth Energy’s Executive Leadership Conference in Las Vegas got a sneak peak at the rest of the story.
Although the official release date has not been set, the hundreds in attendance on March 3 saw an exclusive screening of Tickell’s newest film, Freedom, which explores the potential of ethanol to rid the nation of dependence on oil.
The film recounts the history of fuel in America, starting with Henry Ford’s Model T, which was designed to run on ethanol fuel. Ford owned the nation’s largest ethanol facility, a pioneer who was followed by the ethanol producers of today.
But prohibition ended ethanol’s brief role as the fuel of America, and oil entered the picture. That led to the myriad of problems of which those involved in ethanol production are well aware: pollution, economic instability and a serious threat to national security.
Retired four-star General Wesley Clark sums up the extravagant transfer of wealth from America to the Middle East early in the film.
“Can you imagine a nation that would pay $300 billion a year for the privilege of guarding someone else’s natural resources?” Clark asks. “That’s what we’re doing as Americans. It’s about a thousand dollars for every man, woman and child in America. Just subtract it, right from our GDP. It’s money that could have re-circulated in the American economy creating jobs, providing employment and a tax base, funding education, going to health care, fixing broken infrastructure. Instead it goes abroad by the tens of billions of dollars to foreign countries who own those oil wells. Their cities are developing; ours are decaying.”
Tickell looks at ethanol from every angle. He shines the light on the truth behind common myths including food and fuel, land use change and the energy balance of ethanol production.
He goes to small communities such as Baltic, S.D., where a driver filling up with E30 asserts “as a veteran of the United States military … I think we really need to get away from being so dependent on foreign oil. I think we just need to support the local farmers. That’s how we survive.”
He visits a NASCAR track to see the sport grounded in the history of bootlegging, where E15 use today means “fast cars and moonshine are linked once again, but this time moonshine is the fuel.”
He sees Brazil’s infrastructure of ethanol-ready vehicles and pumps and learns about Canada’s efforts to get off fossil fuels and turn waste into ethanol.
And when Tickell’s trip is over, he comes to one conclusion:
“The time has come for us to once again declare our independence, to truly fulfill our forefathers’ vision, to be a prosperous and free people. This is one race we have to win.”