Six months after its official deadline to propose the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014 (yes, 2014), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally released a draft proposal for the annual standards for 2014, 2015, 2016, and for the 2017 biomass-diesel volume.
The EPA played it safe for 2014, matching the standards with the actual consumption of biofuels such as transportation fuel, heating oil, or jet fuel in the contiguous United States and Hawaii. For the upcoming years, the EPA is proposing a slight increase in the total mandate: 9.2% in 2 years. Most of the growth is expected to come from advanced biofuels, which are set to increase by almost 31% by 2016, while conventional biofuels (grain-based ethanol) are expected to grow only grow 5.6% in the same period. The mandate will likely not make too many people happy, and that is probably good.
Fats Are In, Carbs Are Out
For conventional biofuels, the news is not good but perhaps not surprising. In the original mandate, conventional biofuels had a target for 2015 of 15 billion gallons (1.6 billion gallons more than in the new proposal), but the adoption of ethanol has been limited by what the industry calls a blending wall, or a technical/regulatory limit that impedes older gasoline vehicles to consume fuel blends containing more than 10% of ethanol by volume.
The supply-demand balance in the industry seems in favor of buyers. The Renewables Fuel Association reported June 1 that operating capacity of the industry was 14.57 billion gallons per year, which implies that the mandate will cover 92% of its capacity in 2015 and 96% in 2016. They might be able to sell more ethanol if enough gasoline in consumed in the United States (increasing the volumes allowed under the blending wall), but they will have to price it below gasoline to attract buyers. The lower mandate is expected to hit harder the producers with old and inefficient plants. Leading producers like POET, Green Plains Renewable Energy (GPRE), or Abengoa are anticipated to perform well.
The picture for the rest of the industry is rosier. The new standards for biomass-based diesel (produced from vegetable oils or animal fats) is high enough to absorb the current capacity. The National Biodiesel Board plant database aggregate capacity sums 808 million gallons, although it does not account for the whole biomass-based diesel industry. The new standard will benefit producers like the Renewable Energy Group (REGI) and Neste Oil – both large producers of biomass-based diesel.
The Underdog Story
Finally, the EPA kept a large enough carve-out for cellulosic fuels. The United States used 26 million gallons of ethanol-equivalent cellulosic fuels in the first four months of 2015. If the country continues producing them at the same rate, the annual production would reach 78 million gallons, or 28 million gallons below the 2015 mandate. Although a lot of investment has gone into technologies that promise to produce liquid fuels from cellulosic material, it is the biogas producers that are benefiting the most from this mandate, as they are supplying virtually all the cellulosic-based biofuels. This is surprising given that biogas was only approved as a cellulosic fuel halfway through last year.