Jack King believes ethanol should be an environmental problem solver

Jack King is the Division Manager of National Affairs & Research at the California Farm Bureau Federation. He is a 25-year veteran of Farm Bureau services. King served on the information staff of the American Farm Bureau Federation from 1985 to 1994 as director of news services in Park Ridge, Illinois.
By | March 01, 2002
EPM: Some believe California will never truly be accepting of the ethanol industry until it has a significant stake in ethanol production. What do you think of this premise? Will California ever produce a good portion of the ethanol it will consume? Does it really matter?

King: It would certainly help if California had its own buy-in the ethanol process. A growing number of state officials and opinion leaders are recognizing the role that renewable fuels can play as sources of domestic energy, jobs and tax revenue. Support is definitely growing but we're not there yet. California's concerns regarding ethanol have been driven primarily by fears of shortages and logistical supply problems. There has been little focus on the opportunities that ethanol use and production can present. California's refining capacity is extremely tight. This, combined with the state's boutique fuel standards, leaves the state vulnerable to price spikes, whenever a refinery goes down. A readily available supply of ethanol from both in-state and out of state sources would go a long way toward bolstering supply reliability.

EPM: Who's making ethanol in California right now, and where?

King: Two California processing plants are operating on a small scale. A cheese processing plant is converting whey to ethanol and a beverage company is converting waste sugars into ethanol. Both operations are in Southern California.

EPM: What's on the ethanol production forefront in California? What are the likely feedstocks (rice, sugarcane, corn, etc.)? Where is ethanol most likely to be produced in the state, if at all?

King: A number of proposals are being discussed throughout the state--a rice straw to ethanol facility in the northern part of the state, corn to ethanol in the Central Valley, sugar cane to ethanol in the Southern Imperial Valley and ethanol from timber waste in the mountain region as a way to remove undergrowth and fire hazards in the Sierra Mountains. Each proposal has its own sense of purpose and set of economics. The biggest hurdle still is getting the right signal from the State of California so that producers and investors are willing to proceed beyond the discussion stage. We're also following the progress of state legislation that is designed to provide incentives to producers for both grain and bio-mass-based ethanol production

EPM: Is there much corn grown in the state now?

King: California's production of corn for grain varies between 170,000 to 240,000 acres annually. Nearly double that acreage is devoted to silage production to support the state's dairy industry.

EPM: At the National Ethanol Conference in San Diego you said the ethanol industry should not look at California from strictly a sales point of view. Rather, you said, we should tout ethanol as a solution to the state's environmental problems. "That is a very clear, salable message," you said. Please expound on this line of thought for our readers.

King: For the most part, California officials have viewed the ethanol industry as an out of state interest trying to gain an economic advantage. This has been buttressed by a very well organized oil industry with a daily, in-state presence in California. Though the views are beginning to change, state officials have not given enough consideration to the potential benefits of a renewable, domestic energy source, the potential environmental benefits, jobs and local tax revenue that could be generated from a viable ethanol industry.

California has significant air quality problems and octane needs that could be served by ethanol. But, there has been a bias against ethanol that needs to be overcome with an honest discussion on the merits and untapped benefits from ethanol use. The ethanol industry should position itself as an environmental problem solver. Certainly, the water quality problems caused by MTBE make that a very plausible argument. If you're going to persuade the public that they need your product, then you must convince them why its good for them and why they need it

EPM: What is your personal opinion on Gov. Gray Davis considering a postponement of the MTBE ban deadline until 2005? Is there a need to wait? Will California be ready for ethanol by 2003? Note: this question was answered prior to March 15, when Gov. Gray Davis extended the MTBE ban an additional year.

King: I believe the Governor is keeping his options open. Some of the refiners are ready to proceed with the conversion. But, everyone needs some kind of clear signal. If we don't establish a deadline for the MTBE ban and stick with it, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the industry is not prepared for the changeover.

Because of the tight refinery capacity situation, some of the refineries, who are preparing for the transition, still have supply/logistic concerns.

EPM: Where do you see California's ethanol industry in 5 or 10 years from now?

King: I'd like to be optimistic and say 3-5 new ethanol facilities in five or more years producing up to 150 million gallons annually. We are seeing a great deal more interest on the part of the farm community, which is encouraging. Much will depend on where the oxygenate issue ends up in the state, the technology side of the biomass, crop options and the availability of in-state incentives and financing. So you have a lot of variables. Once we break the logjam and establish the first plant, others will follow.