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Ethanol at boom/bust crossroads

It’s not what President Barack Obama has been saying in recent speeches that worried several market analysts speaking at Brock Decision 2010 Seminar in Memphis. It’s what he hasn’t been saying.

In speeches outlining his vision for clean energy, Obama has mentioned batteries, climate change, greenhouse gas reduction and lessening U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But there has been little if any mention of ethanol, causing some to wonder if corn-based ethanol might be slipping as a priority for the administration.

“Not everyone in this room is behind corn for ethanol,” said grain analyst Richard Brock, Brock Associates. “We have an infrastructure problem in that we have more ethanol than we can blend right now. But apparently, there is little if any discussion about allocating tax dollars toward building more infrastructure.”

Indeed, the U.S. ethanol industry seems to be at a crossroads, with its future direction vacillating between a potential for either boom or bust. Rabo AgriFinance agricultural economist Sterling Liddell said, “The nation is currently overproduced in ethanol production. We have more ethanol plants than we need to meet the federal mandate. But in the future, we will have to expand to meet the mandate, which means additional demand for corn.”

Liddell is concerned about what could happen to corn demand, and prices, should demand for corn-based ethanol drop off. He urged corn producers to “pay close attention to the energy titles. We’ve invested a lot of political risk into the corn market.”

Dale Aupperle, with Heartland Ag Group, Ltd., agreed. “Corn-based ethanol is critical to the price of corn, net farm income and land values. But do we have the political support to keep it going?”

Aupperle said 2010 “will be a year of stable earnings for agricultural producers, and the United States is going to resume its role of feeding and fueling the world with renewable resources. Land values are poised to move higher.

“I think we will see wind, ethanol and other energy sources accelerate. But we’ll also have higher taxes. We will see some deflation, but we will also see some nasty inflation over time. We are on a wild ride with volatile grain prices, technology explosion, tripled ethanol production over the last five years, outside capital coming in, relatively low interest rates and fear of the future.”

Biodiesel has certainly fallen on bad times, noted Liddell. “Biodiesel is an important player in Europe where they use rapeseed as a feedstock. In the United States, a substantial number of biodiesel plants have not been able to make it despite a mandate. A lot of plants in the Midwest are sitting in the dark and will probably not start up unless the price of petroleum goes up.”

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TAGS: Management
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