LINCOLN — The head of the nation’s largest ethanol producer says his firm is being unfairly portrayed as the beneficiary of a controversial shift in a state lottery grant recommended by the Nebraska Environmental Trust Board.

Todd Becker of Omaha-based Green Plains Inc. said the $1.8 million shifted away from wetland and conservation easement projects would be parceled out in grants to retail gas stations, not his firm, to help pay for the installation of “blender” pumps that can deliver fuel with 15% to 85% ethanol.

Becker, as well as a state ethanol advocate, said the only reason his company was part of the grant application was to help increase the chances of obtaining the grant, which will be parceled out by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy to the gas stations.

“They needed a company to help them apply for the grant,” Becker said. “We don’t get one dollar out of it.”

He added that the company, which sells ethanol to wholesalers, may, in the end, sell more ethanol if more blender pumps are installed in Nebraska. But, Becker said, there’s no guarantee such pumps will use Green Plains fuel.

The recommendation by the trust board last week stirred controversy among some conservationists, who questioned why five higher-scoring grant applications from Ducks Unlimited, the City of Lincoln and the Nebraska Land Trust were defunded, and, instead, an extra $1.8 million in lottery money was recommended for the ethanol project.

The Environmental Trust is slated to hand out $20 million in grants this year from state lottery funds. Grant applications are scored on a 215-point scale by a grants committee on factors such as “direct measurable environmental benefits,” “sound planning,” “duration of benefits” and a project’s potential to prevent contamination or degradation of resources. The full 14-member Environmental Trust board takes the recommendations and scores, and makes a final decision.

The application by Green Plains and the Department of Environment and Energy ranked 78th on the scoring scale, and was the lowest ranked application to be recommended for funding. The six-member grants committee had recommended that it receive about $1.2 million over two years. But the full board voted to recommend giving $3 million over three years to the ethanol pump project, which is what had been requested by the company and the state agency.

The five conservation projects that were defunded all ranked 36th or higher on the scoring scale, which led conservationists to question the flip in recommendations by the trust board, which will finalize its grants after an April 2 public hearing.

Conservationists complained that the grant for ethanol pumps seemed to be more about economic development and boosting sales of corn-based ethanol than helping the environment, which they maintained should be the top mission of the Environmental Trust.

A spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, who appoints nine of the 14 members of the Environmental Trust Board and is an ardent backer of ethanol, said he supports the recommended shift in grant funding because the money will finance a program launched last year to expand ethanol infrastructure across Nebraska.

The Nebraska Legislature passed Legislative Bill 585, the Renewable Fuel Infrastructure Act, in 2019, but didn’t provide funding amid a tight budget year. Ethanol groups turned to the Environmental Trust for funds after failing to obtain taxpayer money, said Troy Bredenkamp of Renewable Fuels Nebraska, an ethanol industry trade group.

Bredenkamp said Iowa has used state general funds to help install 1,000 blender pumps across the state; Nebraska, the No. 2 ethanol producer in the country, lags with only 178.

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Green Plains gave a $25,000 campaign contribution to Ricketts’ reelection campaign in 2018, according to state records. Becker said the contribution had nothing to do with the NET grant, but was made because Ricketts is a huge backer of the corn-based fuel.

Ricketts is the past chair of the national Governors’ Biofuels Coalition and gets contributions like that from Green Plains due to his “outspoken support” for ethanol, said his spokesman, Taylor Gage.

Bredenkamp said the overall goal of the grant was to increase the number of ethanol blender pumps in the state by giving small retailers a subsidy to install the pumps, which cost about $37,000 each.

Green Plains, he said, was asked to be a co-sponsor on the grant application because it would boost its score by an extra 10 points as a “public/private partnership.”

It was also hoped that Green Plains’ involvement would give the application another 20 points because it has two ethanol plants in north-central Nebraska, a geographical area of the state that gets bonus points because it hasn’t gotten its share of past Environmental Trust grants. The grant application, however, didn’t get the geographical bonus because the blender pumps are intended for the entire state, not just that area.

He said he was disappointed in the low score — 133.8 out of 215 — that the Green Plains/NDEE application received, given ethanol’s impact on the Nebraska economy. There are 25 plants in the state.

The corn-based fuel also has clean air benefits, Bredenkamp said, citing a recent USDA report that said ethanol produces 39% less greenhouse gas emissions than regular gasoline.

“It could be considered economic development,” he said of the grant. “But at the end of the day we use ethanol because it’s a renewable product and it’s better for the environment than the alternative.”

Green Plains will have a role in deciding who gets the grants, which are intended to pay half of the cost of 60 blender pumps and storage tanks. Department of Environment and Energy spokesman Brian McManus said the company will get one representative on the committee that chooses which retail gas stations get grants.

Green Plains, which has five ethanol plants in Nebraska that sell about 7 million gallons a year in the state, committed to providing about $25,000 of in-kind “administrative expenses” to the process of reviewing and awarding the grants, which would have to be matched 50-50 by the retailers.

Becker, of Green Plains, said the grant involving his company got such low scores because “some people don’t like ethanol,” despite its benefits.

The public can still comment on the grant recommendations by the Environmental Trust Board by April 1 via mail, to the Nebraska Environmental Trust, P.O. Box 94913, Lincoln, NE 68509-4913, or via email at marilyn.tabor@nebraska.gov.