One economic topic that isn’t getting the attention it deserves is the policy. The drought of 2012 along with the expiration of subsidies paid to ethanol blenders will make it nearly impossible to reach the Renewable Fuels Standards (RFS) as early as next year. The standards that were put in place to increase this country’s energy independence were based on protectionist interests and were only viable as long as ethanol produced by the U.S. was subsidized while Brazilian ethanol was simultaneously taxed.
The difference between U.S. ethanol and Brazilian ethanol is the source of their primary inputs. We use corn, which is slower to grow, harder to use and more expensive than the cane sugar Brazil uses as the feedstock for their ethanol production. It will be very interesting to hear how the Presidential candidates debate their renewable energy policies, especially as 40% of our primary crop is diverted from food to energy production. This year’s drought has created a political collision course between food costs and the Renewable Fuels Mandate as well as the Energy Independence and Security Act.
The corn market is about as American as you can get. The U.S. produces as much corn as the next two largest producers, China and Brazil, combined. Unfortunately, production will fall nearly 15% short of 2011’s 314 million tons. The current Renewable Fuels Mandate allotted 40% of last year’s corn to produce 13.95 billion gallons of renewable fuel and 2012 will require an additional 8% increase over 2011. This brings total renewable fuel sources to 15.2 billion gallons on total consumption of 134 billion gallons in 2012.
The drought has pushed corn prices to an all time high of $8.43 per bushel. While the market is now 14% lower at $7.25, the rally has been more than enough to shatter the profit margins of ethanol blenders. The combination of expiring refining subsidies along with higher input costs is leading to the shut down of major ethanol blenders. This raises the capital market question of who’s going to be responsible for meeting the aforementioned production targets? Ethanol distillers are losing more than $.40 per gallon at the current prices.
The idea of diverting 4.7 billion bushels of an estimated 11 billion bushels in total U.S. production towards an inferior yet, more expensive product seems silly in the face of rising global food prices. This is exactly what would be required to happen to meet next year’s Mandate. Furthermore, reaching next year’s goals using the current 10% ethanol blend is nearly impossible given the current mix of gasoline and diesel motors. Diesel biofuels and biodiesels are given a 50% bonus in RFS for their lower greenhouse gas emissions as measured by the EPA. The friction this creates in meeting the Renewable Fuels Mandate is called the, “blend wall.” The blend wall is the physical limitation of production and blending facilities based on the most common 10% ethanol blend. The mandate calls for 13.8 billion gallons, 10% of expected 2013 US consumption. However, current facilities, assuming they were all open and operating at full capacity, can only produce 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol.
The candidates will have to address the subsidies that farmers and blenders are paid as well as their plan on handling imports. These are most likely, the easy issues to address. Developing a complete energy plan will also include a discussion on the much more economically friendly topic of our vast natural gas reserves which have the capacity to place us on a much more sustainable path.