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EPA Resets the Biofuel Industry

Mackinnon Lawrence — November 27, 2013

Earlier this month, the EPA proposed revisions to biofuel blending quotas for 2014 under its controversial revised Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2).  With a proposed reduction of an estimated 3 billion gallons – a volume roughly equal to 20% of current nationwide biofuels production – it’s the first time the agency is seeking to reduce the total biofuel requirements below the legislated targets.

Covering conventional ethanol produced primarily from corn starch and conventional biodiesel produced from food-based vegetable oils like soy, along with advanced biofuels derived from non-food feedstocks, RFS2 is the backbone policy driving biofuels production in the United States today.  The EPA has adjusted annual volumes for advanced biofuels in prior years, but the recent announcement is unprecedented both in the political dimensions and market ramifications.  It’s also the first time the agency has attempted to put the brakes on conventional ethanol production.  As described by Jason Bordoff, former special assistant to President Obama and senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council, the announcement marks a “drastic change in the Administration’s biofuel policy.”

Why the shift?  Below is a brief look at the key forces at play.

Big Oil’s New Swagger

Moving further offshore, mining heavy oils, and channeling investments into next-generation biofuels, oil majors have been scrambling for new growth opportunities in recent years.  In an unexpected reversal of fortune, these companies are positioned to ride a wave of new production from shale oil that has many analysts predicting the United States could become the world’s leading producer of oil within the decade.  Petroleum companies have recently slashed their biofuel investment portfolios while waging an all-out attack on the RFS2 in the courts and on Capitol Hill.  While not quite a “capitulation” by President Obama,  as some described it, the recent announcement by EPA represents a significant victory for the incumbent oil industry, which maintains that it should not be penalized under RFS2 when there is insufficient volume of biofuels to blend in the first place.

The EPA seems increasingly comfortable with facilitating a smooth commercialization glide path for biofuels rather than forcing a top-down overhaul of the liquid fuels market.  Biofuels Digest summarizes the EPA’s intent under the ruling this way: “The practical goal for the EPA is not to use the RFS2 renewable fuels schedules as a driver to produce investment in capacity-building or infrastructure for distribution.  Rather, the EPA opts for a more passive role of providing a market for those capacities that are, in fact, built – based on incremental, if any, changes in infrastructure.”  The onus for attracting investment has been placed squarely on the back of the emerging biofuels industry.

Crashing Ethanol’s Party

Higher pump prices in recent years, meanwhile, have resulted in consumers driving less.  At the same time, improved efficiency under CAFE standards means it takes less fuel to travel the same distance.  The rise of the Prius and Tesla’s recent success are harbingers of an emerging fleet of next-generation vehicles that will further trim consumption.  As a result, as biofuels production increases and oil demand flatlines, the headroom for absorbing supply has shrunk much faster than policymakers predicted when drafting the original RFS2 mandate.

Corn starch ethanol is proving to be a victim of its own success.  The United States currently produces roughly 50% of the total gallons of biofuel produced globally – mostly ethanol – which nearly exceeds the capacity of the U.S. gasoline market to absorb excess production (see blend wall issue).

(Source: EIA)

Policymakers, meanwhile, have shown a reluctance to incentivize demand in new consumer markets.  E15 (15% ethanol) has proven to be complex to implement and E85 (85% ethanol) has been a nonstarter.  This leaves the U.S. ethanol industry in an awkward position.  Either it must now initiate a grassroots campaign to attract billions in new investment for distribution infrastructure or look to export markets to offload excess supply.

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