Vet­er­ans join ethanol in­dus­try, stir up de­bate

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Mil­i­tary vet­er­ans play an out­sized role in the corn ethanol in­dus­try, but ex­actly what drives them to the field has be­come a bone of con­tention be­tween ethanol pro­po­nents and oil and gas in­dus­try lead­ers.

Vet­er­ans make up about 19 per­cent of the corn ethanol work­force, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral En­ergy Depart­ment fig­ures — the largest per­cent­age of vet­er­ans in any en­ergy sub­sec­tor of the U.S. econ­omy.

Vet­er­ans also com­prise 18 per­cent of the woody biomass fuel/ cel­lu­losic bio­fu­els sec­tor, and many of those em­ploy­ees live and work in the Mid­west, where the ethanol and bio­fu­els in­dus­tries have thrived.

No other part of the broader en­ergy econ­omy comes close to match­ing the vet­er­ans’ em­ploy­ment per­cent­ages in corn ethanol

and cel­lu­losic bio­fu­els.

By com­par­i­son, vet­er­ans ac­count for about 9.8 per­cent of the wind in­dus­try’s work­force and about 11 per­cent of the so­lar elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tion em­ploy­ment rolls.

In ad­di­tion, vet­er­ans make up about 9.8 per­cent of the nat­u­ral gas pro­duc­tion sec­tor and 9.6 per­cent of the petroleum pro­duc­tion in­dus­try, fed­eral fig­ures show. They also ac­count for about 8.8 per­cent of the coal min­ing work­force and sim­i­lar lev­els of em­ploy­ment in hy­dropower, nu­clear and other cor­ners of the broader en­ergy world.

While per­cent­ages don’t tell the full story — es­pe­cially be­cause of huge dis­par­i­ties in the to­tal num­ber of em­ploy­ees in corn ethanol ver­sus oil and gas, for ex­am­ple — ethanol back­ers say the high per­cent­age of vet­er­ans can be at­trib­uted to mil­i­tary men and women’s recog­ni­tion of the geopo­lit­i­cal dan­gers of for­eign oil.

“This is an in­dus­try that is re­ally about Amer­i­can na­tional se­cu­rity,” said re­tired Army Gen. Wes­ley Clark, a for­mer Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who now sits on the board of Growth En­ergy, a trade group that rep­re­sents sup­port­ers and pro­duc­ers of ethanol.

“Any of the vet­er­ans who fought in the Gulf War or the fight against ter­ror­ism un­der­stand that, at the bot­tom, this has been about the West’s thirst for oil,” Mr. Clark said when asked specif­i­cally why he be­lieves vet­er­ans are at­tracted to the ethanol in­dus­try.

Other ethanol champions make sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments and say vet­er­ans con­sider their in­dus­try to be the best hope of fully free­ing the U.S. from for­eign oil and achiev­ing true do­mes­tic en­ergy in­de­pen­dence.

But oil and gas pro­po­nents see the sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ently, and some take is­sue with Mr. Clark’s ar­gu­ment.

Ethanol crit­ics point out that while the per­cent­age of vet­er­ans in the in­dus­try is im­pres­sive, it’s also mislead­ing. Corn ethanol em­ploys about 28,613 peo­ple na­tion­wide, the En­ergy Depart­ment said, mean­ing just over 5,500 vet­er­ans have found work in the sec­tor.

The petroleum fuel in­dus­try, by con­trast, em­ploys more than a half-mil­lion peo­ple. Of those, about 9.6 per­cent — or more than 50,000 work­ers — are vet­er­ans, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral fig­ures.

As of the end of 2014, at least 185,000 vet­er­ans were em­ployed across the en­tire oil, gas and petro­chem­i­cal in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to Vet­s4En­ergy, a vet­er­ans group spon­sored and funded by the Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute.

“When you break that down … the gas, oil, and petro­chem­i­cal in­dus­try does a pretty good job em­ploy­ing vet­er­ans, too,” said re­tired Army Capt. James Mc­Cormick, now the na­tional pro­gram di­rec­tor at Vet­s4En­ergy.

Mr. Mc­Cormick dis­puted the idea that ethanol is some­how more at­trac­tive to vet­er­ans from a na­tional se­cu­rity per­spec­tive. He ar­gues that huge upticks in do­mes­tic nat­u­ral gas and oil pro­duc­tion have put those in­dus­tries on equal foot­ing when it comes to pro­mot­ing en­ergy in­de­pen­dence.

“Gen­eral Clark does not rep­re­sent me, and he does not rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity of vet­er­ans,” said Mr. Mc­Cormick, adding that many ethanol pro­po­nents, such as Mr. Clark, are eager to shut down the en­tire oil and gas sec­tor.

Mr. Clark ac­knowl­edged the mostly ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two sides, even be­yond the is­sue of vet­eran em­ploy­ment.

“You’re deal­ing with ethanol as a po­ten­tial ad­ver­sary, or com­peti­tor, to the most pow­er­ful eco­nomic force on the planet, which is the petroleum in­dus­try. There’s never been any­thing like it,” the re­tired gen­eral said.

What­ever drives vet­er­ans to a par­tic­u­lar en­ergy sub­sec­tor, they have be­come a ma­jor as­set to their em­ploy­ers, said Mark Borer, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager at POET, a South Dakota-based ethanol pro­ducer.

“When we think about the skill sets the vet­er­ans gain — lead­er­ship skills, sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity, val­ues, a drive to make a dif­fer­ence in the world — those align very well with POET,” said Mr. Borer, who served in the Navy for six years.

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