Ethanol at the crossroads

During an 18-month stretch, from June 2013 to December 2014, American-made ethanol was riding high. The industry produced 13.9 billion gallons and was making 63 cents per gallon, for an annual profit of $8.8 billion.

Then oil prices collapsed. The results have not been good for ethanol. Sales have been squeezed and profit margins have almost disappeared entirely. Ethanol producers must keep their price below the rate of gasoline, and that has become difficult. After gasoline fell below $2 per gallon in some places, ethanol was squeezed right out of the market. Instead of buying ethanol, refiners purchase Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which give them credit for putting ethanol into their blends. RINs have gained 36 percent in the past year, to 71.9 cents a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which shows how they have become a popular method of avoiding ethanol purchases.

As a result, major refiners are either throttling back or closing some of their higher-cost operations completely. The Valero Energy Corporation and Green Plains Renewable Energy, which together make up about 15 percent of U.S. ethanol capacity, have reduced their operations, according to Bloomberg. At a typical mill in Illinois, profit margins have virtually vanished after netting $1.33 per gallon only a year ago, according to AgTrader Talk, an Iowa consulting company. As a result, U.S. ethanol output fell 4.6 percent to an annualized rate of 14.5 billion gallons, from a record of 15.2 billion gallons, for the week ending Feb. 20, according to the Energy Information Administration.

All this illustrates how vulnerable ethanol will be if the Environmental Protection Agency ever gets around to publishing its “renewable fuel mandate” for last year or this. The EPA is supposed to issue a number each year for the amount of ethanol that will be incorporated into gasoline sales, in accordance with a 2007 law. But last year, with gasoline consumption actually declining because of economic weakness and improved fleet mileage, it became obvious that ethanol consumption could not reach the mandated level of 14.2 billion gallons without going over the mythical “blend wall” of 10 percent, at which point ethanol might damage some older engines. Most cars sold since 2004 can tolerate higher blends, and there are pumps where 85 percent ethanol is available. Still, the EPA has remained reluctant to abandon its conservative position and has tried to reconcile the 10 percent figure with declining gasoline consumption. Even the current 14.5- billion-gallon annual target would exceed the blend wall, and the EPA is in danger of sticking the country with too much ethanol. Inventories already stand at 21.6 million barrels, the highest level since 2012.

Added into all this is the price of corn, which remains the most widely used feedstock for U.S.-made ethanol. Last year the price of corn reached $8 per bushel and averaged $4.43 for the year. Ethanol refiners were still able to absorb the price because gas prices remained so high. But now gasoline prices have fallen by 50 percent, while the price of corn has only declined 19 percent, to $3.75 per bushel. Ethanol refiners say corn must reach $3.25 per bushel before they can make any money.

Chuck Woodside, CEO of KAAPA Ethanol and former president of the Renewable Fuels Association, says 2015 is looming as a critical year for ethanol. “We’re coming off a phenomenal 2014, and the industry as a whole did well,” he told the Kearney (Neb.) Hub newspaper. But “there are a lot of things yet to be determined about 2015.” Among them are how much drivers will increase their gasoline consumption (taking advantage of lower prices); whether more E15 and E85 pumps can be installed around the country; and whether the EPA will ever make up its mind on the Renewable Fuel Standard. There is even some question now of whether the EPA or Congress has the authority to set the RFS.

“The price of diesel has not fallen commensurate with the price of oil,” Woodside added. That only drives up the costs for ethanol plants, which use diesel-burning trucks and railroads to transport the product.

One bright spot has been the export market, in which American ethanol has been gaining ground. Demand has come particularly from Brazil, where 25 percent of all vehicles must run on 25 percent ethanol. Brazil has been under pressure to slow deforestation in the Amazon Basin, where most of its sugarcane ethanol is produced. China has also been a growing market for American ethanol products.

But refiners now agree that the best solution to the ethanol surplus would be to increase the number of pumps around the country that can dispense the E85 blend. That would produce a demand that would easily absorb all the ethanol American refiners could produce.

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