Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says the passage of a national energy policy bill could help bring a new value-added product to Mississippi agriculture by creating demand for more ethanol manufacturing plants in the state.

Speaking to reporters before his keynote address to the Delta Council annual meeting in Cleveland, Miss., Barbour said the energy bill now stalled in Congress could open another door for Mississippi's farmers.

“The energy bill they have been considering would require a greater amount of ethanol to be used in our motor fuels, and, if that happens, there will be a significant increase in demand and a stronger market for ethanol,” he said. “But I don't think that's going to happen until we know the outcome for the energy bill.”

A comprehensive energy bill passed both Houses of Congress last fall, but the legislation faltered when senators questioned a product liability waiver for the MTBE fuel additive in the House-Senate conference report on the bill.

Sen. Pete Dominici, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and other farm-state senators have attempted to pass compromise versions of the bill, which would double ethanol production in the United States by 2012, without success.

Currently, at least two plants that would produce ethanol or other biofuels are either under construction or on the drawing board in Mississippi. Most ethanol plants use corn as a feedstock, but USDA research has shown that cotton stalks could also provide a raw material for ethanol.

The governor told reporters he is optimistic about the outlook for agriculture, in general, in the Delta and in the remainder of Mississippi.

“We were talking about steel prices a moment ago and how Chinese demand has driven steel prices to very high levels,” he said. “As the world economy gets stronger, there's also going to be more demand for agricultural products, and that will be good for our farmers because we export so much of what we grow.

“But I'm optimistic about agriculture not only in the Delta but in the state of Mississippi. Last year was a great year and, while cotton prices are down some, I think this year is going to be a great year.”

In his speech to the 69th annual meeting of the organization that started out as the Delta Chamber of Commerce in 1935, Barbour said he has made job creation one of the top priorities of his administration.

“In the four months since I became governor, a lot of good things have happened in the Delta,” said Barbour. “My first Monday in office, I came to Greenville to announce that Textron was consolidating three Midwestern plants and moving them to Greenville, creating 550 Textron jobs and 200 jobs for ancillary suppliers.”

A month later, Barbour, a native of Yazoo City in the south Delta, said he came to Cleveland for an announcement that Foscia, a $12-billion French company planned to open a manufacturing facility.

“DeSoto County has always been considered a part of the Delta and the next month I traveled to Olive Branch to participate in an announcement that Federal Express was opening a new sorting facility there,” he said.

When he campaigned for governor last year, Barbour said he learned that creating new jobs was one of the most important issues facing the state. “When you talked to people who had lost their jobs, you could hear the pain in their voices and see it in their eyes,” he noted.

“It made me recognize that if I got to be governor that job creation would be our most urgent and immediate need and that I needed to do everything I could to make it easier for us to create more jobs and more likely for us to retain the jobs we have.”

Barbour said he was grateful to both houses of the Mississippi Legislature that they had passed his comprehensive workforce development job training bill which he expected to sign the week of May 10.

“I recently attended in an event at Mississippi State University at which one of professors said our businesses in Mississippi have three choices: they can innovate; they can emigrate or they can evaporate,” said Barbour.

“I can tell you there's a lot of truth to that,” he said. “If we, as a state, don't offer our working people the opportunity to upgrade their skills, and offer their employers help in getting those skills upgraded, our businesses will emigrate to other countries or they will evaporate.”


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com