For Godfather of Ethanol, a Bet on Nascar With High Stakes

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Modified Chevrolet SS
Rookie driver Austin Dillon modified Chevrolet SS at NASCAR’s Quicken Loans 400 on June 14, 2015. Photographer: Mario Parker/Bloomberg

Jeff Broin’s silhouette shines in the glossy hood of the modified grass-green Chevrolet SS. It’s moments before the start of Nascar’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan, and Broin is having a quick chat with young driver Austin Dillon.

A racing fan for a decade, Broin is now a Nascar sponsor. And what really has him revved up is what’s splashed in bold white letters across the hood of Dillon’s racer and the stuff in its fuel tank: “E-15,” spelled out more precisely as “15% Ethanol.”

The 49-year-old Broin, founder of Poet LLC, the biggest U.S. ethanol producer, is the architect of a promotion by which Nascar uses gasoline mixed with 15 percent concentrations of the corn-based fuel to power its $150,000 supercars. He and the trade group American Ethanol have been counting on that sales job to help sway public opinion -- a task getting harder every day.

“It’s just a great way to show how our product performs under some of the harshest conditions on the planet,” says Broin above the din of revving engines and amidst the singular smell of race day -- the aroma of barbecue pits, beer, gasoline and motor oil all mixing on the humid air.

Lingering Debate

The problem is that if the sponsorship has raised the profile of ethanol among race fans, it’s done little to quiet a decade-old debate about whether ethanol is a renewable-fuels godsend or a government-subsidized mistake.

Ethanol’s enemies cross political lines. Many conservative outfits see ethanol requirements as an insult to free-market energy thinking. Liberal-leaning green groups say ethanol production encourages farming on marginal lands, increases food prices for the poor by raising commodity prices and actually takes more energy to make than it produces.

They seem to be making headway. Only last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the ethanol program, proposed a sharp cutback in ethanol mandates that were expanded by Congress in 2007. This year, refiners will blend 13.4 billion gallons of ethanol, 1.6 billion less than the 2007 targets and two billion gallons short of the 15.4 billion the U.S.’s 212 plants have capacity to produce.

Playing Offense

In Broin’s view, such setbacks are precisely why he and ethanol’s advocates have to take the marketing offensive. “What I know about ethanol is that it’s not only the cleanest fuel on the planet earth,” says Broin. “It’s the only liquid transportation fuel that’s in sync with the environment.”

Which is certainly the message he has come to spread on this sultry June day at the Michigan speedway. A lanky, fit, sandy-haired man with piercing blue eyes and a bushy brown mustache, he weaves through the pre-race crowds, a group of ethanol-industry supporters in tow, talking up what he sees as the wonders of the fuel that he’s become synonymous with -- and which has made his family rich.

In his starched khakis and black polo shirt, “American Ethanol” stitched across the pocket, Broin stays relentlessly on point. Ethanol’s real enemy first appeared in 2008 when gasoline demand started to slow, he says. The feds at the time only allowed a 10 percent mixture of ethanol for most vehicles. One way to get around the slowdown was to get higher-blend ethanol approved.

That’s when Broin formed Growth Energy -- which he calls “a more aggressive voice for renewable fuels and agriculture” and one that “could change the argument” in favor of 15 percent ethanol.

Seeking a Waiver

Growth Energy filed a waiver with the EPA in 2009 to get the 15 percent mixture approved and the EPA obliged in 2011. However, E-15’s rollout has been limited so far because of refiners’ worries that the new blend might impede engine performance or even cause engine damage.

Broin sees that as bunk -- and says his promotional deal with Nascar, which will run through 2019, shows E-15 is safe.

As for Nascar, “We wanted to be a greener sport across all platforms,” says Steve O’Donnell, Nascar’s senior vice president. The race cars, meanwhile, run fine on E-15 -- actually gaining horsepower, he says.

Broin, the trade group and Nascar all declined to say what the sponsorship costs. On its racing circuits website, Nascar prices a primary sponsorship at as much as $35 million per season.

Ethanol Missionary

If Broin sounds utterly missionary about ethanol, it’s in his roots. His father, Lowell, got the idea to build a 250,000-gallon per year plant on his Minnesota farm in the early 80’s after reading a magazine story on the nascent biofuels movement. Only a few years before, President Jimmy Carter, citing lingering concerns over gasoline shortages caused by the Arab oil embargo, had signed legislation awarding generous tax incentives for the corn-based fuel.

Over the past two decades, Broin has grown Poet, the Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based company, to 27 plants with a capacity of 1.7 billion gallons and revenues of $7 billion last year. “From that one little plant on the farm we grew to five percent of the corn crop,” Broin says. “It’s a real American success story.”

Now, though, ethanol has a new and potent enemy. The shale revolution -- employing hydraulic fracturing or fracking -- helped the U.S. last year pump more oil than at any time since 1983, vastly reducing fears of the shortages that started the ethanol boom in the first place.

Ethanol’s discount to U.S. gasoline futures has averaged about 28 cents so far this year, less than half the average of about 66 cents last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The spread was at 47 cents at 12:48 p.m.

Industry Blow

That may also help to explain why the EPA is dialing back those ethanol targets. Mild-mannered most of the time, Broin, who stepped down as Poet’s CEO in 2012 to focus on ethanol advocacy and philanthropic efforts, gets riled up about the reductions. Farmers are sitting on a big corn crop, plant capacity is more than adequate, yet some plants have already been idled.

“It was a blow to the industry,” says Broin. “They really pulled the rug out from under us.”

Broin’s other problem is that while consumers may abide ethanol-blended gasoline nobody seems to love it. Entire boating websites are given over to a debate about whether ethanol damages outboard motors. (Ethanol defenders blame the oil industry for spreading a lot of ethanol-is-damaging stories.)

Still, a short walk around Michigan International shows the Nascar campaign isn’t changing all minds.

Mike Meyer, a 57-year-old Detroit grocery-store loading-dock worker, is a 30-year Nascar fan. In between drags of his Pall Mall Menthol 100’s, he says he won’t put ethanol-blended gas in his 1999 Honda motor cycle, seeking out unblended regular instead.

“That ethanol thing -- you get less miles per gallon,” he says.

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