Biofuel industry reacts to Obama's address

By Holly Jessen and Anna Austin
Posted January 29, 2010, at 8:24 a.m. CST

Alternative fuel supporters listening eagerly to President Barack Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address heard the word they were listening for: biofuels.

Obama laid out four things the U.S. needs to do to move ahead, including serious financial reform, technology innovation, exporting more domestic goods and investing in the skills and education of our people. "I do not accept second place for the United States of America," he said. "As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may be, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth."

Weaving biofuels into American innovation, Obama reiterated the importance of clean energy jobs in the country. "But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives," he said. "That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies."

But he didn't stop there. He went on to talk about passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with the needed incentives to "finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America," he said.

The House passed such a bill last year and Obama said he hopes a bipartisan effort in the Senate will succeed this year. "I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change," he told the crowd. "But, here's the thing, even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy and America must be that nation."

Reactions to Obama's address from the biomass and biofuel industries have been seemingly positive.

"The President's speech was very encouraging," said Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of government affairs for Coskata Inc., a renewable energy company. The best news, from Bolsen's perspective, was the focus on job creation. "Coskata believes that biofuels, by far, is the biggest creator of jobs in all of renewable energy," he said. The company, which is based in Warrenville, Ill., has a semi-commercial cellulosic ethanol facility in Madison, Penn., and is working on designs for a commercial scale plant.

That's something other clean energy sectors lack, according to Bolsen. "It takes people to build solar cells or install wind turbines, for example, but once they are completed it doesn't take people to operate them. Of all renewable energies, biofuels provides the most benefit for economic growth, energy security and environmental sustainability. It's the most near term way to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint," he said.

Chris Thorne, director of public affairs for Growth Energy, was also encouraged by Obama's address. The very next day, Thorne added, came the positive remarks of U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who spoke Jan. 28 at the 2010 Washington Auto Show. Chu talked about, among other things, the importance of decreasing American dependence on foreign oil and supporting next-generation biofuels, such as through $600 million in grants for 19 pilot, demonstration and commercial-scale biorefineries. "Between what Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said today and what President Obama said during the State of the Union address, we are confident that the Administration sees the great job-creation potential of domestic ethanol," Thorne said.

Some other high-tech industries started here in the United States but were quickly outsourced. Thorne gave the example of flat-screen TVs, which were developed here but are now made in China. "But the development of the domestic ethanol industry would create jobs here in the United States, and those are jobs that can't be sent overseas," he said.

The Renewable Fuels Association lauded the President's focus on public and private investments in clean energy and green jobs during his speech. Still, there are several things the President and Congress need to do to ensure the economic potential of biofuels such as ethanol are realized, according to the RFA. The list included using the "best available science" to finalize the renewable fuels standard, approving E15, extending tax incentives for the use of all feedstocks, partner with the industry to expand blending and dispensing infrastructure and mandate for more flex fuel vehicles.

"The President mentioning biofuels in his State of the Union is really just gravy," Matt Hartwig, RFA communications director, told EPM. "The real meat and potatoes will be when this administration and this Congress act on a number of issues important to the long term success of this industry."

Advanced biofuel producer Rentech Inc.'s CEO Hunt Ramsbottom said it's very positive that Obama realizes a path forward toward advanced biofuels is a complete necessity for the U.S. "We were pleased that he mentioned it (advanced biofuels), and not just a specific type. Other countries around the world-Germany, China, Canada-these countries aren't waiting, as Obama mentioned, and if we continue to debate this, we're going to lose in this race; green jobs and green technology."

He seemed to put it as a high priority, Ramsbottom said, but historically most administrations lose enthusiasm about biofuels after they've been in a year or two and move on to something else. "However, I really do believe that this is a way to create sustainable jobs for our country," he added. "He also mentioned clean coal and we do that, too. Overall, it seems to be a very realistic approach, and time will tell whether they stick to it."