As corn prices rise and alternative energy sources emerge, the much-anticipated and contested $185 million ethanol plant in Webster County appears to be going nowhere fast.
“I am not aware of any active effort going on there at present, and I think I would know,” said Gary Clark, director of market development for the Missouri Corn Growers Association.
Mount Vernon-based Gulfstream Bioflex Energy LLC had planned to build the facility – capable of producing 100 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol annually – on 252 acres between Rogersville and Fordland.
Gary Rogers, a member of the group Citizens for Groundwater Protection, which sued GBE in 2006 to stop the plant from being built and lost three years later in circuit and appellate courts, said the construction delay caused by its efforts may have paid off.
“We lost the battle, but we may have won the war,” Rogers said, speculating that market conditions may have changed too much for the company to proceed with its plans.
Corn futures rose Jan. 26 to a 30-month high of $6.57 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects the nation’s corn stocks to fall to 745 million bushels before this year’s harvest, the smallest since 1996.
Two GBE organizers refused to speak on the record about the status of its plans.
Greg Wilmoth, who helped form the company with Charles Luna and Jeff Negre, said he no longer held any stake in the company.
Luna declined to comment.
The Missouri Supreme Court passed on its chance to hear the case against GBE first filed by the citizens’ group in October 2006. The group’s lawyer, Springfield attorney Bill McDonald, argued from the beginning that the company’s proposed plant would deplete groundwater supplies in the area. The courts, however, consistently sided with GBE.
GBE’s attorney, Craig Lowther of Springfield-based Lowther Johnson Attorneys at Law LLC, did not return a request for comment.
Rogers, a Fordland resident and real estate broker with the Kingsley Group Business Brokers in Springfield, said he drives by the land proposed for the ethanol plant daily, and hasn’t seen any activity at the site. He said Citizens for Groundwater Protection filed its last tax return in 2009 and has dissolved.
In Missouri, gasoline with an octane level less than 91 is required to have at least a 10 percent mix of ethanol whenever regular gasoline costs more than the blended product.
Jim Gardner, director of Ozarks New Energy Inc. and a national renewable energy consultant, said plenty of organic materials are better suited for ethanol production than corn. He said cellulosic ethanol offers benefits not found with corn-based ethanol. For one, creating ethanol from sources such as switchgrass doesn’t draw from the food supply.
“We have people in this world who are starving, so why are we using food to produce energy?” Gardner said.
Corn-based ethanol is derived from starches. Cellulosic ethanol is derived from plant fiber. Gardner said the process for producing ethanol from cellulose is still more expensive than it is for corn, based on equipment needs.
Still, Gardner said the 10 percent fuel-grade ethanol blends required by Missouri law still help the environment while creating jobs.
In December, federal ethanol tax credits of 45 cents a gallon were extended through 2011. That decision came two months after the Environmental Protection Agency stated that 15-percent ethanol mixes were not harmful to most vehicles made after 2003.
Gardner said ethanol blends provide comparable gas mileage to regular gasoline but noted that as the ethanol percentage increases, the number of miles per gallon decreases.
In Missouri, ethanol producers are eligible for incentives through the Missouri Ethanol Producer Incentive Fund, which provides 20 cents per gallon for the first 12.5 million gallons and 5 cents for the second 12.5 million gallons of ethanol produced annually from Missouri agricultural products or qualified biomass. This incentive expires Dec. 31, 2015.
There are 275 million gallons of corn-based ethanol produced in Missouri annually, according to the state Agriculture Department.
Clark, representing the state’s corn growers, said the incentives paid for themselves.
“It’s really a pretty good deal for the state because of the jobs created,” Clark said. “Most of these plants are spending $120 million to $200 million to build their facilities. If you look at all six of these plants combined, they have created more than 5,000 new jobs for the state. The total revenue they’re bringing in is a positive thing … because a 50 million gallon plant will create $100 million to $150 million in revenue.”
He said the state tax incentives are only available for the first five years of a plant’s operation and four of the six plants in the state already have received their eligible incentives.
Clark acknowledged that producing ethanol from cellulose likely would be more common in the future, and he reiterated he was puzzled by GBE’s lack of development.
“They would not keep a viable, long-term plan from moving forward,” he said.[[In-content Ad]]