Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ethanol's Future Without Subsidies

Given the remarkable longevity of the tax credit for ethanol blended into gasoline, it seems fitting that it would take a problem on the scale of the massive US deficit and $14 trillion federal debt to trigger its demise. Yet despite a widely-publicized Senate vote in June and the announcement of a key compromise among three Senators last week--two from the corn belt and one from the West Coast--it remains unclear just when and how the cancellation of this subsidy will become law. And because the fate of the subsidy is linked to that of the parallel tariff and duty on imported ethanol, the US ethanol industry faces not just the prospect of a more challenging market by year-end, but one that could include competition from foreign suppliers with special advantages under US renewable fuels regulations. Some producers may end up wishing they hadn't expanded output quite so fast.

I've followed the ethanol subsidy for much longer than I've been blogging about it. As I was reading a two-part assessment of the changing ethanol situation in Biofuels Digest it occurred to me to take the dusty report from my long-ago M.B.A. project off the shelf. Its topic was the market for "gasohol", gasoline blended with up to 10% ethanol, on the West Coast in the early 1980s. At the time, blenders received roughly the same tax credit as today's $0.45 per gallon of ethanol blended, thanks to the 1978 Federal Energy Tax Act and the Highway Tax Act of 1983. That benefit was a lot more generous in then-current dollars than now, but much smaller in aggregate. In the intervening decades, gasoline with ethanol has expanded from around 2% of the market to nearly 100%. In much of the country it is now harder to find gasoline without ethanol than it was to find gasohol back then.

That's only one indication of the tremendous success this industry has enjoyed, due almost entirely to government policies like the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit and the national Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) established in 2005. In fact the eventual demise of the ethanol tax credit was virtually guaranteed by the passage of an even more ambitious RFS as part of the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Under the RFS, blending ethanol into gasoline in steadily increasing proportions became mandatory, rendering the tax credit paid to refiners and other gasoline blenders redundant. Just as importantly, it expanded the scale of ethanol blending to such an extent that the total annual cost of the so-called blenders credit grew from roughly $1.8 billion in 2005 to a projected $6 billion this year--too big to ignore.

The deal agreed by Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Klobuchar (D-MN) and Thune (R-SD) last week would reportedly result in the early termination of both the ethanol tax credit, which was due to expire at the end of 2011 but could have been renewed, and the corresponding ethanol import tariff. It would devote $1.33 billion of the unspent funds to deficit reduction, while diverting another $668 million to extend tax credits for alternative fuel refueling (or recharging) infrastructure and cellulosic biofuel tax credits. This outcome appears to have pleased at least part of the ethanol industry. However, in order for it to become law, it must still be voted on by both houses of Congress, either by itself or as a provision within another bill, perhaps even the debt ceiling extension package that could emerge from the ongoing deliberations between the House, Senate and White House.

The ultimate effect of these changes on the ethanol industry remains somewhat uncertain, though it is hard to see them as a net positive, other than the longer-term benefit of supporting infrastructure investments that could be crucial in resolving a key bottleneck in ethanol distribution. Without much higher sales of gasoline blends containing more than 10% ethanol, the market is already nearly saturated with ethanol, and that's before factoring in the additional imports that the elimination of the tariff is likely to promote. And at least in the case of ethanol derived from sugar cane, those imports will enjoy an important advantage over ethanol derived from corn: most of them are likely to qualify for the stricter designation of "Advanced Biofuel" under the RFS, a category for which the annual quota is just starting to take off, and that cannot be satisfied by corn ethanol but also seems unlikely to be filled by domestic cellulosic ethanol any time soon.

Biofuels Digest suggested that long-dated ethanol futures have already nose-dived in anticipation of the end of the tax credit. It's true that ethanol for delivery in January 2012 is trading for around $0.35/gal. less than the August 2011 ethanol futures contract, reflecting a widening of ethanol's discount to the gasoline futures contract over that interval of around $0.11/gal. However, it also seems highly relevant that corn futures have recently retreated from their early-June peak of nearly $8/bushel to $6.80, with December corn--from which January ethanol might be produced--down at $6.20/bu. That leaves ethanol producers a small but still positive margin on that January futures price. So it is hardly certain that the end of the tax credit will, by itself, stress US corn ethanol producers. If anything, refiners and consumers--who have arguably received most of the benefit of the credit in recent years--stand to lose the most from its disappearance.

Import competition could have much more serious consequences, as the fuel ethanol industry truly begins to globalize. Brazil is the big player internationally, even if the recent rise in sugar prices and a smaller-than-expected cane crop have created the bizarre situation of Brazil actually importing corn ethanol from the US. The historically fragmented Brazilian sugar cane industry is currently both expanding and consolidating, led by companies like Raizen, the new joint venture between Shell and Cosan, which has indicated plans to double its ethanol capacity to 5 billion liters per year (1.3 billion gallons per year.) Nor is Brazil the only tropical country that can grow cane and produce sugar, ethanol and electricity from modern facilities. The Brazilian model could be replicated elsewhere in Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. Not all of that extra ethanol will come here, but enough of it could, helped by the RFS, to put an effective cap on US ethanol prices. I'm not aware of a similar constraint on corn prices.

The US ethanol industry has matured in the last three decades. Today's ethanol plants are much more efficient than the ones supplying the small quantities used for gasohol in the early 1980s, and they now consume around 40% of the US corn crop. The industry has expanded on a scale that would have seemed nearly impossible thirty years ago, though in my view it has in the process fallen into the classic overcapacity trap of commodity manufacturers. Whether that situation is temporary or permanent depends on the success of blends containing more than 10% ethanol--blends that the market has so far treated with indifference. But either way, when the training wheels finally come off with the end of the blenders credit and import tariff, we shouldn't be surprised to see more of the small and higher-cost producers fall by the wayside. That will have local consequences, but the ethanol industry will survive, just as it survived the bankruptcies of some ethanol producers during the financial crisis. Ethanol is here to stay, and it is about to embark on a new career as a more normal commodity.

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