National Ag Week: Ricketts blasts ‘big government’ in ethanol push

Source: By Russell Hubbard, Omaha World-Herald staff writer • Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts kicks off National Ag Week on Monday with a visit to ethanol producer Green Plains Inc. in Omaha. At left is Greg Ibach, Nebraska director of agriculture.

Gov. Pete Ricketts Monday lambasted the Environmental Protection Agency for delaying regulations that would benefit Nebraska’s ethanol industry, which he called a key to the state’s agribusiness economy.

“It is a typical example of big government that doesn’t get it,” Ricketts said during a meeting at Omaha’s Green Plains Inc., the nation’s fourth-largest ethanol producer and one of the first stops as he toured the state to kick off National Ag Week.

At issue is the EPA renewable fuel standard, which requires how much ethanol must be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply to comply with federal laws. The EPA is almost two years late in promulgating the requirements for 2014 and almost six months tardy with the 2015 requirement.

About 13 billion gallons of ethanol were blended into the U.S. gasoline supply last year, and ethanol producers have been arguing against any cut in the requirement.

“The EPA has to understand how important that standard is,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts said the ethanol industry is an example of agriculture’s dominance in Nebraska. The state is the second-largest ethanol producer, the third-largest corn producer, the largest cattle feeder and the fourth-biggest overall ag state, Ricketts told an audience of Green Plains employees, ag officials from the Nebraska Farm Bureau and dozens of guests at the company’s Regency headquarters.

About 25 percent of the state’s workforce is tied to agriculture, the largest segment of the state’s economy, Ricketts said.

“Our job is to grow Nebraska and, to grow Nebraska, we have to grow agriculture,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts highlighted the need for urban-rural partnerships, praising the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s vision of creating a metro area that is a global leader in food processing, biofuels and biochemicals.

“We are talking about an epicenter of the ag business focused on food, water and agrichemicals,” Ricketts said.

The chamber and the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership, affiliated with the chamber, have narrowed workforce development efforts to focus on a handful of industries that are already well-established in Omaha and where job growth would have the biggest economic ripple effect.

The effort has identified high-wage job opportunities in biofuels production, food processing, water management and food safety.

“We can only succeed if we all come together and grow the entire state,” Ricketts said. “Ethanol is a big part of it, supporting 3,000 direct jobs.”

Greg Ibach, the state ag commissioner, said working in fields, grain bins and ag co-ops aren’t the only jobs available. Computer and IT workers, robotics experts and business analysts are all in demand, Ibach said.

People are badly needed, he said, to program the computers that precisely run tractors and program the drones that increasingly monitor crops and conditions.

“We have more jobs being created in ag than college graduates to fill them,” Ibach said.

State Sen. Jerry Johnson, chairman of the Legislature’s ag committee, said ethanol production illustrates a virtuous circle of Nebraska agriculture. One byproduct of ethanol production, he said, is a corn leftover called distillers grains which are used as a high protein cattle feed.

“It has proven to be a very valuable product for livestock,” said Johnson of Wahoo.

There’s plenty at stake for the whole world, said Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau. He said the world’s population is estimated to grow to 9 billion by 2050.

“To feed all these people, we will need to double food production,” Nelson said, adding that Nebraska farmers, ranchers and food processors will be at the forefront.

Ethanol, he said, is part of the equation, as the additional market for corn provides additional profit margin for farmers.

As far as fuel goes, Nebraska motorists use 800 millions of gasoline a year, while the state’s 24 ethanol plants produce 2 billion gallons, said Green Plains Chief Executive Todd Becker.

The company operates 12 ethanol plants nationwide, along with fuel terminals, a commodities trading unit, a cattle feedlot and an experimental algae farm that might one day produce feed or biofuel stock.

“If we really wanted to be, we could be one of the few places that is energy independent,” said Becker, whose company had $3.2 billion in revenue last year and employs 100 people at the Omaha headquarters.

Ricketts agreed, saying the industry in Nebraska supports 3,000 direct jobs and has attracted $5 billion of investment. “Ethanol is a big part of all of it.”

Ricketts on Monday was scheduled to also visit Broken Bow, North Platte and Seward.