Fort Belknap pursues development of ethanol plant

 


The Fort Belknap Indian Community wants to create a new complex to promote value-added agriculture in the area.

The tribal government is studying whether it's possible to build a plant to make ethanol, use byproducts from the plant to help feed cattle at a feedlot and process manure from the feedlot to help power the ethanol plant.

Caroline Brown, director of tribal planning at Fort Belknap, said the proposed plant could provide 60 jobs with a total annual payroll of $2.5 million, and create as many as 240 other new jobs by stimulating the economy.

"This will be a godsend for Fort Belknap," she said. "This will expand beyond our reservation boundaries. It will tend to benefit north-central Montana."

The council has scheduled a public meeting Wednesday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Red Whip Center at Fort Belknap to inform people about the project.

"We want to let people know what the council is working on and how they could benefit," Brown said.

Ron Zellar, public information officer for the Montana Department of Agriculture, said a combination project like the proposed plant could be a major benefit to the area.

"We would love to have outfits like that, that kind of element, happen in Montana," he said.

He said the concepts behind the plant are new enough that there isn't a lot of information about them. The technology exists, but no combination plant like Fort Belknap is proposing has been built on a large scale, he said.

Brown said the Fort Belknap council is working on commissioning a feasibility study on the project and hopes to begin it next summer.

"We want this feasibility study to be very complete and comprehensive so we aren't faced with any surprises," she said.

Michael Utter, executive director of the nonprofit rural economic development company Advantage One Marketing in Bozeman, is working on finding funding for the feasibility study. He said the cost of the study is estimated at $150,000.

Fort Belknap was awarded a $50,000 grant toward the study by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, and other grant applications are pending, he said.

Utter said he has been working for several years with a company in South Dakota, Prime Technologies, that holds a U.S. patent granted in 2002 for the integrated system Fort Belknap would use. Combination plants are in the works in South Dakota and Nebraska, he said.

He said he became involved with the Fort Belknap project about nine months ago when the reservation sent a delegation to the headquarters of Prime Technologies in Pierre, S.D., to find out more about the system. Prime Technologies asked him to act as adviser and the prime contact for Fort Belknap.

The patent eliminates a major energy expense of traditional ethanol plants - the drying of the byproduct grain mash. Instead of drying the mash, it is fed to cattle in a climate-controlled feedlot, which has an open area to the south but is otherwise enclosed, Utter said.

The manure from the feedlot is run through a digester - essentially the same process used to treat human sewage, Utter said. The digester eliminates most of the odor associated with feedlots, and provides methane to help power the ethanol plant. The treated manure is used for fertilizer.

Utter said the plant at Fort Belknap would probably be similar in design to plants in the works in South Dakota and Nebraska. It would include an ethanol plant producing 20 million gallons of ethanol a year, a 27,000-cattle feedlot, and a digester with a 6 million-gallon system.

Ethanol is a grain-derived alcohol that is commonly used as a gasoline additive to reduce pollution.

The plant would purchase 10 million bushels of local grain and 60,000 head of cattle, Utter said.

"You can see that this actually has a tremendous regional impact," he said.

Utter said he will be at Wednesday's meeting at Fort Belknap.

Brent Poppe, chief of the Agriculture Marketing and Business Development Bureau at the state Department of Agriculture, said the economic impact of the plant could be impressive.

As well as the extra dollars spent locally on ag products and the jobs the plant would generate, products that normally provide no benefit, like waste grain and manure, would be used in the plant, Poppe said.

"You've got what's formerly a waste product and now you've got a revenue stream," he said.

Utter said the cost of constructing the plant would be about $65 million.

Brown said the funding for construction would be tied into the water compact Fort Belknap is negotiating with the state and federal governments.

Part of the compact requires planning for economic development, she said. Since water from the Milk River would be used in irrigating crops that would be used in the project, the plant fits in as part of the compact, she said.

Fort Belknap would set aside money from the compact, with the possibility of additional money provided by the U.S. government, to build the ethanol complex, Brown said.

The plant would complement the Little Rockies Meat Packing Plant in Malta, which Fort Belknap recently purchased and is operating, she said. It also would create many other economic opportunities.

"If we had this kind of project here, people on the payroll, we could have more restaurants, more motels, more stores like we used to have," she said.

 
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