By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - The Chippewa-Cree tribal council is two months into a three-month feasibility study about building an ethanol plant and so far is hearing good news.
The proposed plant would be capable of producing 40 million gallons of the biofuel annually.
Two bills in the Montana Legislature this year have focused more attention on the product. Advocates say the legislation could create a $25 million industry in Montana, while opponents say that if the industry needs state incentives, there is no natural market for the product in Montana. One of the ethanol bills passed the House this week.
The Rocky Boy project does not rely on any new support from the Legislature, said Neal Rosette, chief operating officer of the National Tribal Development Association and consultant on the project.
Rosette and the council won't give specifics about their reasoning, but said they think a plant could succeed at Rocky Boy. Similar plants have failed elsewhere in the state.
The council has enlisted BBI International of Cotopaxi, Colo., to conduct the feasibility study. The company is looking at several scenarios, Rosette said, only one of which takes into account actions by the Legislature.
"Investors won't look at that anyway. It's too big a variable," he said.
Factors the study is considering include the viability of the ethanol industry in Montana, the profitability of a plant at Rocky Boy, state and federal permits, and overall costs.
If the study finds potential for a Rocky Boy ethanol plant, BBI International will suggest options for the most suitable plant size, as well as the type of grain it could process, and the best production method.
Most ethanol plants process corn into ethanol, an alcohol that can be added to gasoline for a cleaner burning fuel. Barley and wheat can also be processed, though Rosette said there is only one wheat plant in the country.
A plant could also process a combination of grains, and the Rocky Boy study will explore all possibilities, said Brian Duff, manager of technical studies for BBI.
Two milling processes are available. The dry process produces ethanol and DDGS - an animal feed called distillers dried grain with solubles. The other- called the wet process - produces 20 byproducts, including sugars and wheat gluten. Wheat gluten is a product that can be sold for animal feed.
"What we're trying to do for Rocky Boy is more of a hybrid," Duff said. "We're examining the possibility of isolating the wheat gluten ... (to) improve the economics for wheat against corn."
The wet process produces feed that has a shelf life of about a week, requiring an on-site feed lot, while the dry process byproduct can sit on the shelf for several months.
It's not clear if a feedlot would be needed at the Rocky Boy plant, Duff said.
Tribal chairman John "Chance" Houle is optimistic about the potential benefits to both Rocky Boy and the Hi-Line.
A plant would create more than 30 jobs, Duff said. For a 40 million-gallon plant, 200 to 300 construction workers would need to be employed, he added.
Houle said he hopes revenues could bolster the tribe's ailing health care system.
"It's going to reach out to farmers," Houle added. If the plant processed wheat, it would create a local market and even raise wheat prices, he said.
"Really ... an ethanol project encompasses many of the key components of what you'd like to see in a solid economic development project and it's fundamentally rural," Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said today. "I'm wholly supportive of a robust ethanol industry in Montana."
Tuss said he has spoken with representatives from the tribal council about the Rocky Boy plan and is familiar with it. On the Hi-Line, the only other ethanol project Tuss said he is aware of is one proposed by the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
Fort Belknap has contracted out its own feasibility study to several consulting companies that are working together on it. The study will last until May, and the report should be available in June, Caroline Brown, director of the Fort Belknap planning department, said today.
Brown said she learned last week of Rocky Boy's efforts.
"I was surprised," she said. When she told Rocky Boy tribal council members of Fort Belknap's feasibility study: "We were both surprised."
Brown said she does not think two plants would be in competition. Fort Belknap has been looking into the possibility for two years, she said.
The idea of an ethanol plant for Rocky Boy was first raised last August, Houle said. The project picked up speed quickly.
In December the tribal council voted unanimously to proceed with a feasibility study, and in February representatives from the council attended an ethanol conference in Phoenix, Ariz., to meet with potential investors.
Now everything hinges on the results of the study.
"As long as the feasibility is good, I'm for it," council member Russell Gopher said Wednesday.
Houle said that so far correspondence with BBI International has been encouraging. The council did its own assessment before bringing in consultants, he said.
Rosette hopes that if the study comes back with positive results, "we won't have to search for investors. They'll coming looking for us."