The ethanol industry could be close to another marketing breakthrough that would allow blended fuel at the pump to be sold as 15 percent ethanol

If the Environmental Protection Agency comes through on its December timetable, the new owners of ethanol plants at Ord and Central City will be around to see it. Their counterparts at Carleton will not.

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Omaha-based Green Plains, which spent $125 million earlier this year to add the two idled Nebraska plants to its holdings, has just completed what appears to be a solid quarter, netting $5.5 million in income.

Meanwhile, bankrupt Altra Nebraska apparently will have little more than that to show from an Oct. 28 dispersal auction of what had been billed as a $220 million investment in Thayer County.

“The final result is roughly $6.8 million,” said Bob Bothe, an Omaha attorney who represents those involved on the debtor side of the failed Carleton project.

In responding this week to questions about the sale outcome, Bothe said he doesn’t see the $220 million figure as a good comparison of what is, versus what might have been, because construction work was never finished. Also, assets were sold off piece by piece.

“It was only 50 percent complete,” he said. “That ($220 million) is if the plant was up and rolling along.”

On the other side of the ledger, recent events seem to put Green Plains among the winners, at this point, in an industry that went through the wringer in late 2008 and early 2009.

Green Plains’ Nebraska acquisitions also fit predictions of an industry consolidation phase, in which new owners would replace those done in by rising corn prices, falling petroleum prices, management mistakes and other factors.

Green Plains’ third quarter financials come out at a time of much lower corn prices and rising petroleum prices.

“The environment in the ethanol industry has significantly improved over the last 90 days,” said Todd Becker, the company’s president and chief executive officer. “The industry is again on solid footing.”

Todd Sneller of the Nebraska Ethanol Board agrees.

“During the last six months,” he said, “ethanol margins have improved significantly over the previous six months. And, as a result, profitability has been restored to the ethanol industry.”

Farm Credit Services, the region’s largest agricultural lender, suffered through some of the hard times earlier.

Although the Omaha-based operation did not lend to Altra Nebraska, President Doug Stark cited renewable fuels as a factor in a drop of almost $40 million in net income for the first nine months of 2009, compared with 2008.

“Early in the year, certainly, we saw ethanol producers under severe stress,” said Stark. “And, as a result of that, we added to our allowances for loan losses.”

More recently, he sees evidence of a rebound.

“Yes, we definitely see that among the ethanol plants we do finance.”

The rebound didn’t happen in time to influence events at Carleton.

The court file remains open on the bankruptcy there and the outcome for construction companies with millions of dollars in unpaid claims appears uncertain.

Bothe declined to discuss the gap between $6.8 million and claims for much more than that.

“That’s what it brought,” he said. “That’s what the auction proceeds brought.”

Included in the sale proceeds was the $850,000 that Cargill paid for land, buildings and bins that are within a half mile of its Carleton grain terminal.

Cargill officials could not be reached for comment, but another auction participant said, “Probably Cargill got the buy of the day.”

Jim Moore of Processes Unlimited in Fort Collins, Colo., also said a trip he made to the construction site prior to the auction left him thinking it would have taken a lot more work to make Altra Nebraska operational.

“At the time, my evaluation was that it was going to take maybe $80 million to complete the facility,” he said.

The ethanol board’s Sneller thinks Green Plains made a much wiser decision by acquiring plants that had already demonstrated their ability to operate smoothly from a mechanical and engineering vantage point.

He didn’t see a bargain in the making at Carleton. To the contrary, “there was no way it could be completed at a cost that would be competitive … with any other operating plant.”

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