MACON — President Barack Obama’s visit to POET Biorefining almost coincides with the ethanol plant’s 10-year anniversary in Macon. The plant, the first of its kind in Missouri, started operating on May 8, 2000. It is one of 26 POET Biorefining production facilities in seven states, according to the company.
The Macon plant purchases 16 million bushels of corn each year from 650 local farmers, and 300 farmers are investors. It produces 46 million gallons of ethanol per year.
“Ethanol helped our corn market a lot, and in turn that’s helped the town people,” said Robert Mense, a local farmer who sells to POET.
A little more than half of the 45 employees at the Macon plant have worked at the plant since it opened.
MACON — In a warehouse that smelled of dirt and grain, a Secret Service member stood stoically by a front-end loader full of corn. A lectern with the seal of the President of the United States was set up in front of an 18-wheeler.
Surrounding the podium was an audience of about 100 people. As they quieted, the only audible noise came from birds chirping in the rafters. Then a voice over the intercom introduced President Barack Obama as the guest of honor at the POET Biorefining ethanol plant east of Macon.
Obama talked about the future of biofuels and the state of the nation's economy, which he said is growing again.
“The recovery hasn’t reached everybody yet. Times are tough out there,” Obama said. “Success stories like POET, what you’ve accomplished here, prove that doesn’t have to be the case.”
Obama said it is time for the U.S. to move forward with biofuels.
“For decades we’ve talked about dependence on foreign oil,” he said. “We always say we’ll get to it tomorrow.”
Other countries such as China and Spain have surpassed the United States in the production of biofuels and independence from foreign oil, he added.
“I don’t accept second place for the United States of America,” the president said. “That’s why my energy security plan has been one of the top priorities of my administration since the day I took office.”
Obama said that as part of the stimulus bill, the U.S. made the largest investment in clean energy in the nation’s history, which he said will save or create up to 700,000 jobs by the end of 2012. He also said he hopes to more than triple the production of American biofuels in the next 12 years.
“That is a goal that we need to face and work on here at POET,” he said to applause from the audience. “I believe in the potential of what you’re doing right here ... Not only for our clean energy future, but also for the rural economy.”
He pledged to continue working with POET and state government to further this goal.
Before his speech, the president took a private tour of the plant. POET CEO Jeff Broin said he had the opportunity to talk to the president about ethanol production and the potential future of cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from a variety of materials including corn cobs and paper. The company recently announced plans to produce 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2022.
"We talked about the policy side, and he certainly seemed supportive," Broin said. "He has been a true champion of biofuels."
Steve Burnett, general manager of the Macon plant, said the president wanted to take pictures with the employees after the tour.
"He's very personable for a president," Burnett said. "He's very easy to talk to, very congenial."
Workers from the plant, some in hard hats and others in suits, shook hands with the president after his speech.
"I think it was great to get the news out about ethanol," said Tommy Teter, who lives on a farm west of Macon. "I think a lot of people need to get educated about it. I got a ticket to the event today because I brought in the corn in the bulldozer over there and they let me stay."
Rockport resident Linda Bennington Nolan also attended, representing the first city in Missouri to be powered by wind turbines. She said the work Obama has done on health care is amazing, and she also appreciates the work he's starting to do on energy.
"I was so excited last night that I was wearing my Obama delegate badge when I went to sleep," Nolan said.
Obama's visit attracted several dignitaries, including Macon Mayor Dale Bagley, Gov. Jay Nixon, Missouri Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Robin Carnahan, Attorney General Chris Koster, Missouri Department of Agriculture Director John Hagler and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Missourian reporter Kathleen Pointer contributed to this report.