Gen. Clark applies tough tactics for ethanol industry

“You realize that at a certain scale, you have to deal with new forces that you didn’t see before,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

“The ethanol industry really is sort of stepping up to the bar and saying we are no different than any other industry group,” added Clark, who ran for president in 2004.

“We have got to help people understand what the industry needs because it has to be dealt with in certain ways that are conducive to its growth and development, otherwise it won’t develop. It s no different than the oil industry the aviation industry, every one of these industries is the same,” he said.

EPA’s rule concludes that corn-based ethanol generally meets greenhouse gas standards in a 2007 law, stepping back from a draft last year that found otherwise.

Growth Energy waged an aggressive battle alleging that EPA was giving far too much weight to emissions from land-use changes in other countries linked to expanded U.S. ethanol production.

The issue has been at the center of battles over ethanol policy. Over the past two years the unwieldy phrase “international indirect land-use change” has become improbably common in energy and climate change debates.

The group, which formed in late 2008, has also pushed hard for EPA to allow higher amounts of ethanol in gasoline than the current 10 percent level; it wants EPA to allow blends of 15 percent, or E-15. EPA, in response to a Growth Energy petition, strongly suggested it would allow levels above 10 percent late last year but has not made a final decision. Growth Energy has also battled livestock and grocery industry groups that allege ethanol production has driven up food prices.

Ethanol producers already had a well-established voice in Washington when Growth Energy came along: a trade group called the Renewable Fuels Association. But several ethanol companies – including POET, the nation’s largest producer – felt more needed to be done.

“There is no question that some of our opponents caused some damage, and that is the real reason that Growth Energy was founded -- to answer some of these critiques in a more forceful and continuous way,” said Nathan Schock, a spokesman for POET.

Clark, in the interview, repeatedly steers his comments back to what he calls the national security and economic case for ethanol.

He calls it a jobs-heavy way to help erode reliance on imported oil, which costs the U.S. hundreds of billions annually. Clark says U.S. military entanglement in the Middle East is fueled by the nation’s dependency on oil imports. He notes U.S. imports from Venezuela for good measure.

“If we go to E-15, which I think we will, we have taken the equivalent of Hugo Chavez out of U.S. imported oil dependence,” he said. “But you could go a lot further than that.”

The ethanol business has bounced back in recent months after a couple of tough years that saw multiple bankruptcies, including large producer VeraSun’s collapse in 2008.

But a lot is riding on the EPA decision – allowing E-15 would push back the “blend wall,” or point at which the 10 percent limit prevents further mixing of ethanol into gasoline. “There is just so much entrepreneurial energy waiting on this decision,” Clark said.

He illustrates the issue this way: “I talked to a guy at Goldman Sachs who says I’ve got $6 billion – I’m looking for something to invest in, he says I can’t find anything to invest in America, nothing gets any decent returns,” he said.

“Ethanol,” Clark promises, “will produce wonderful returns.”