President Harry S. Truman once said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” Over the past few weeks, my colleagues at Fuel Freedom Foundation and I have spoken with and read about several optimistic owners of E85 fuel stations.
Our selection wasn’t random. We focused on chains or fuel stations that apparently overcame literature-defined problems in marketing E85 and, according to their owners or senior managers, were on their way to success in securing profitable market penetration. Frankly, we wanted to find sufficient cases that testify to the fact that E85 can compete successfully with gasoline. Succinctly, we wanted to respond to a question that’s frequently asked of us, which goes something like this: “Assuming no major policy and feedstock changes (at least in the near term), can E85, in light of the current price of gasoline, provide consumers and the nation with a real competitive choice of alternative fuels that are safer, environmentally better and cheaper than gasoline?”
Future articles will provide mini case studies of some of E85 retailers. But for the present, based on many phone calls and Google descriptions, we found at least four or five stations (relatively quickly) with prices ranging from 60 cents to just over a $1 below the price of gasoline, despite the current, relatively low gas prices. The lowest price described was below $1.50 a gallon. All stations seemed committed to the continued sale of E85, and each one expressed conviction that they have sufficient price flexibility to build a vehicular fuel market able to meet cash flow and profit expectations. Their optimism was based on their present sales and future forecasts of sales.
Clearly, we need to know more. But what we heard deflated (at least partially) conventional wisdom suggesting that while a large pool of newer FFVs s and older vehicles that can be converted to FFV status exists, increased sales of E85 is unlikely because of the decline in the price of gasoline.
The E85 retailers we talked to and reviewed online appear to be using some of the following strategies to take on gasoline successfully in the market place. They are paraphrased and summarized from direct quotes for brevity:
• Loosen Ties with Brand Names: Loosening ties with major brand-name franchisers provides the ability to sell E85 and permits more flexibility to set prices based on market perceptions.
• Share Value of RINs: RINs are tradable and are valuable, particularly when their value is high. The ability to secure RINs from members of the supply chain is an incentive. Producers and blenders have a stake in retailer success; retailers have a stake in feedstock. The RINs help make the price right at the pump.
• Amend Supply Chain: By incorporating blending as a function, retailers are able to manage costs and, indeed, lower costs. By avoiding the need to contract for transferring E85 from terminal to station and doing it themselves, retailers are able to also better manage costs.
• Intuitive Marketing: Choosing an easily accessible location within which there is a high density of FFVs, along with recognition that price matters, are threshold needs to penetrate the fuel market. Smaller fuel stations often make their locational decision, in part, based on intuition and not on expensive market studies. Some might do a study…but those who did appeared to keep the costs low. They saw the possibilities in diverse locations by talking to the market and marketing folks and checking available data concerning FFVs in the area, as well as watching traffic patterns. They also had a feel for the area.
Anecdotes and small samples should not generate formulaic or prescriptive “one size fits all” market or marketing strategies. Maybe we were lucky in our calls! Maybe we were fortunate to quickly find the right articles or presentations. One of my colleagues fortuitously drove by a fuel station on his way to the airport and saw a sign touting a very low E85 cost per gallon. Clearly, economic, social, environmental, political and cultural variables are different in different areas of the country, and could very well negatively affect predictability of retail success, particularly concerning location, price and consumer acceptance. Just as clearly, supply-chain differences between and among retailers in different parts of the nation could well impede or facilitate success. What is important at this stage is to recognize that there are individuals and groups out there who own or manage fuel stations, and whose early market achievements should generate a positive bet concerning their intermediate and long-term success. Borrowing from Harry Truman, they appear, at least at first glance, to be making opportunities out of what others perceive as difficulties. If they succeed and generate copycats or variations on a theme, it will be good for the nation, its communities and consumers.
Every time I get depressed about the world — and there is plenty to get depressed about — API (American Petroleum Institute) issues a silly press release that, in its confusing presentation and content, brings back a romantic song from my past. Because of API, over the last few years I have been reunited with Berlin, Gershwin and Bernstein, etc.
API has done it again. Its press release accusing the EPA and the administration of playing politics with RFS guidelines concerning ethanol, a release published even before the EPA has released its amended proposals, is nothing short of clairvoyant. I knew API had strange powers and was funded by the oil industry that, itself, has often been accused of confusing magic with facts.
API’s most recent press release brought joy to my heart. Without recognizing that I was doing so, while trying to sleep, I started to remember, paraphrase and sing a memorable tune from a top-ten best song list, published in the early sixties, “What kind of fool am I” (Leslie Bricusse et al.) to hope for wisdom from API. It has often run counter to facts and analysis concerning the benefits and costs of alcohol fuels and instead reflected the organization’s support from its patron oil company, Medicis.
API now contends that EPA is about to increase the renewable fuel targets for ethanol. Wow, a revolution! Call out the National Guard! To API, EPA’s action, if it occurs, would defy market place experience. E15 and E85 is not selling well. Oh, E15 and assumedly E85 is harmful to car engines. EPA’s assumed new rules would result in wasted resources and skew the market away from their favorite American-made product, gasoline (over 30 percent of which is not made in the U.S., but is imported). Not only would America be ruined but Adam Smith would turn over in his grave. Previous API releases indicate, in rather shrill tones, that ethanol is harmful to marriages, causes cigarette smoking and sexual dysfunction (just kidding).
It’s hard to respond to API’s release (or releases). Yes, the market for E15 and E85 has been relatively slow to develop, but API’s funders — oil companies — have been a, if not the, key factor causing the gap between demand and expectations. Not only has the industry tried to kill the chicken, it has also tried to kill the egg. Let me count the ways (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning):
1. Oil company franchise agreements rarely allow the franchise to locate an E85 pump in their stations. If they do, many times, it must be situated apart from the other pumps in the side of the station. At the present time, there are only 3,354 E85 stations in the nation. So much for the supply side.
2. Oil companies have not been fans of open fuel legislation. They have used their lobbyists and their own political power to help kill it every time it comes up in the Congress. So much for their collective belief in consumer choice.
3. Until recently, the carmakers in Detroit — historically, the allies of the oil industry — have been slow to respond to consumer and policymaker interest in flex-fuel cars — cars that can use more than gasoline and the conversion of existing cars to FFV status. While Detroit is now producing more flex-fuel vehicles every year, the oil industry still remains a backbencher and a naysayer with respect to producing or supporting alternative fuels and conversion options, new or old. So much for competition.
4. API’s research concerning the impact of ethanol on vehicle engines, funded, again, mostly by the oil industry, has not qualified it for applause and extended readership regarding methodology or content. Its relatively recent analysis of E15 was panned, justifiably, by the EPA and other researchers because of insufficient sample numbers and lack of relevant sample characteristics. But it apparently did what it was supposed to do: put fear in the minds of drivers concerning ethanol use. So much for independent and thorough research.
5. API seems to suggest that the RINS subsidy built in to the RFS is anti-market and anti-God and country. Maybe we should look at all subsidies granted fuels by the U.S. government and complete something like zero-based budgeting process to see which ones fit the public interest and which ones primarily line the pockets of the receivers. Government help, whether direct or indirect, whether visible or imputed, should be premised on articulated and transparent public objectives and should not substitute for private sector resources which would be available without subsidy. In this context, the range of oil subsidies, now on the books, clearly needs review and justification. They far outweigh the dollars that assist newer ethanol companies. Given resource constraints, perhaps we should put oil and ethanol support on a transparent evaluation table, and, after a fair debate, allow the public to decide. Et tu, oil companies and API!
API is an easy target. They shouldn’t be. With uncertainty concerning demand and price of oil and its derivative gasoline, I would think its bosses from the oil industry would put them to work reviewing the nation’s future menu of fuels and possible partnerships with alternative fuel companies and advocates. Apart from possible pro-forma benefits, many Americans who view the oil industry and its representatives through negative filters might begin to change their mind and see the industry as increasingly pro-choice, better on the environment, pro-consumer and pro-security. Hope springs eternal. The oil industry, up to now, has been living in a fool’s paradise for a long time — cheap oil, high demand and income growth. It’s the American way. But, given a changing economy, tight oil and relatively slow and uneven U.S. and global growth, continued reliance on an old oil industry monopolistic model will cause nightmares for wise men and women. API, what’s my next song? How about “I Can Dream Can’t I” or “High Hopes!”?
Is the son or daughter of Rin Tin Tin alive and well? For a while I thought he or she was, while catching up on my reading over the weekend. I kept reading articles about RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers), their possible impact on the ethanol market and relatively high ethanol prices, despite the apparent weakening of the ethanol market. There seemed to be RINs and more RINs on every page I turned! Because I hadn’t slept for two nights, I couldn’t really focus on the contents of the articles, but only on the dog Rin Tin Tin and his offspring. How many of you have done that? Come on, be honest. Don’t make me feel bad!
I felt guilty after it became obvious that my focus on Rin Tin Tin resulted from a tired brain and eyes. I am back to the complex world of RINs today. (I had a bit of sleep).
Okay, you ask, “What the hell are RINs?” They are sort of a pass at reflecting company fulfillment of government mandates concerning biofuels. For this article, think ethanol! They are issued at the point of ethanol production or the purchase of the fuel by companies. They are approved by the EPA. They reflect a credit that verifies that the required amount of ethanol has actually been blended into gasoline. Succinctly, the Renewable Fuel Legislation, now the law of the land, mandates that a Renewable Identification Number (RIN) must be attached to every produced or imported gallon of renewable fuel in the U.S. One more thing, RINs are separated from the batch of renewable fuel when it is blended with gasoline. This fact indicates compliance with the law and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs). Credits, at this juncture, can be used for trading purposes.
In 2012, before the EPA’s Nov. 2013 proposal to change RIN quotas and lower requirements for ethanol, the price of RINs was very volatile. Initially, they ranged around 1 to 10 cents a gallon. By spring of 2013, however, they were around $1.
Why the price increase and what does it bode for the price of ethanol in the future? Initially, the RINs were thought of as a way to encourage refiners to produce renewable fuels, like ethanol, and to “pay” for credits if they don’t “play” by meeting fuel targets.
Part of the volatility and increase in costs of RINs, probably, has to do with speculation by banks and other financial institutions. Thomas D. O’Malley, chairman of PBF Energy, indicated in a recent New York Times article that financial institutions “helped transform an environmental program into a profit machine…These things were designed to monitor the inclusion of ethanol in the gasoline pool…They weren’t designed to become a speculative item. For the life of me, I can’t see the justification for it.” Interviews with members of the financial community, conducted by the New York Times, seem to suggest agreement with O’Malley.
According to the Times, speculation in RINs “could have consequences for consumers. In the end, energy analysts say, the outcome will be felt at the gas pumps — as the higher cost of the ethanol credits get tacked onto the price of a gallon of gasoline.” The Times reports that the “credits, which cost 7 cents each in January , peaked at $1.43 in July, and [were] trading for 60 cents” in September. Jordan Godwin in the Barrel Blog indicated that like RINs in 2013, ethanol prices in 2014 are downright wacky. “In a matter of less than two months, ethanol prices went from six-month lows to eight-year highs.” Godwin and others blame delayed returning train cars during the winter and constraints on supply and production. I would add speculation by Wall Street and uncertainty as to the impact and longevity of EPA’s new regulations concerning the reduced mandates for ethanol and other biofuels. It’s a dilemma for proponents of alternative fuels. Less speculation regarding trading, sustained predictable production and refinement of the distribution system, (along with avoidance by some retailers and blenders to price ethanol well over costs) would facilitate more competition with gasoline at the pump. More predictable competition and larger sales at the pump of E15 and E85 would generate more private-sector fixes to the ethanol supply chain as well as likely stabilize prices and, over time, lower them. In light of ethanol’s benefits to the nation, wise folks might be asked to find policies and stimulate market behavior that permit the American people to have it both ways.