Brazil is struggling to make enough ethanol to satisfy domestic demand just as the U.S. scraps restrictions on imports for the first time since 1980.
The U.S., the world’s largest market for the biofuel, on Jan. 1 cut a 45 cent-a-gallon tax credit and a 54 cent-a-gallon tariff that protected local companies from foreign competition. Brazil, the world’s No. 2 producer, is unlikely to be able to take advantage after output dropped 19 percent this season.
Investment in new sugar-cane assets and plantations in Brazil plummeted to $700 million last year, from $7.84 billion in 2008, according to Salim Morsy, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in New York. Biofuel investors in Brazil are suffering from bad weather, poor infrastructure and government bureaucracy, said Gerson Carneiro Leao, head of the National Sugar Cane Commission at the CNA agricultural confederation.
“The government is to blame for the shortage of ethanol,” Leao said by telephone from Recife. ”Producers are indebted, taxes are exorbitant, and the red tape is stifling.”
Brazil may become a net importer of ethanol this year, with purchases of 1.66 billion liters during the 2011-2012 season exceeding exports for the first time in at least 10 years, according to Sao Paulo-based consultancy Datagro. Last year, Brazil exported 1.97 billion liters of ethanol, compared with the 5.1 billion liters shipped overseas in 2008.
Blessed with a climate suited for sugar cane, the feedstock for ethanol, Brazil is among the world’s most competitive producers of the fuel. Its ethanol generates 3.4 times more energy than it consumes to be produced, compared with a 1.29 multiple for U.S. ethanol from corn, according to Datagro.
The world’s fifth-largest country by size and population, Brazil could more than double cane output to 1.2 billion metric tons a year by 2020 without destroying virgin forest, according to Sao Paulo-based sugar and ethanol association Unica.
Promoting its ethanol and developing a global biofuels market became one of Brazil’s foreign policy objectives since 2007, after environmental groups such as Greenpeace alleged that making the fuel led to rising food prices and deforestation.
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva countered that biofuels would help reduce conflicts over energy resources. The crusade became emblematic of Brazil’s fight against farm subsidies and trade protection, which were at the center of the stalled Doha round of global trade talks.
Even a projected increase of ethanol production by 2 billion liters for the next harvest in the Center-South, the main growing region, won’t be enough to meet domestic demand, according to Consultoria Idea, a Sao-Paulo-based consultancy.
Brazil’s fast-growing fleet of flex-fuel cars, which burn any mix of gasoline and ethanol, will cause domestic demand for the distilled sugar cane juice to rise to 50 billion liters per year by 2018, a government study shows.
“It offends me to see fingers pointed against clean energy from biofuels, fingers soiled with oil and coal,” Lula told a World Food Organization conference in 2008.
Brazil’s frustrated global foray also reflects how little progress it made in diversifying supply by promoting production in Africa and Central America, Julio Borges, partner at Job Economia, a Sao Palo-based sugar cane consultancy, said.
“So far the strategy hasn’t produced any results and maybe it won’t,” said Borges by telephone from Sao Paulo. “Ethanol is great environmentally and socially -- it generates a lot of jobs -- but you can’t trust its supply.”
Brazil would require an average of 15 new distilleries per year to reach the government’s target of producing 60 billion liters by 2021, Last year three new plants came on line.
“The opportunities that exist in Brazil today require solutions to challenges, such as the renewal of cane plantations and infrastructure bottlenecks, which increase the cost of transportation and the final product,” according to BP Plc (BP).
The government on Feb. 24 outlined a 15.1 billion reais ($8.4 billion) annual investment plan through 2015 to boost cane and ethanol output. The plan must still be approved by President Dilma Rousseff and would require private sector participation.
For investors to tap new funds the government needs to tackle other obstacles such as domestic fuel price distortions, said Amaryllis Romano, an agriculture analyst at Tendencias Consultoria Integrada, a Sao Paulo-based consultant.
“The ideal would be for the government to stop controlling gasoline prices,” Romano said in a telephone interview.
Gasoline prices kept about 12 percent below international market levels by state-controlled oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA (PETR4) have prevented producers from raising ethanol prices for competitive reasons, capping profits and slowing investment, Guilherme Nastari, director at consultancy Datagro Consultoria, said in an e-mailed statement.
Cane processors have instead produced more profitable sugar, which averaged 27 cents a pound in 2011, compared with 22.3 cents in 2010 and 18 cents in 2009. Taking into account the higher energy value of gasoline, ethanol is now the more expensive of the two fuels for Brazilian motorists.
Even if Brazil produces an ethanol surplus in future years it faces uncertainty over regulations in consumer countries, said Cole Gustafson, a biofuels economist at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
A federal judge in December blocked California’s new fuel standard, reducing potential demand for Brazil’s low-carbon ethanol. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also lowered its renewable fuel standard, Gustafson said.
“Lower federal and state requirements erode demand for Brazilian ethanol,” Gustafson said by telephone. “That gives an advantage to U.S. producers, who can deliver cheaper.”
Traders have been unwilling to commit to long-term supply contracts given these uncertainties, which has kept Brazilian producers from investing to expand their export capacity, said Antonio de Padua Rodrigues, Unica’s technical director.
“Those who are obliged to use ethanol in the North American market are still uncomfortable. If they wait for Brazil to increase its supply, nothing will change,” Padua said by telephone from Sao Paulo, referring to mills’ reluctance to invest in new capacity. “Maybe it’s because there are only two main producer countries.”
Efforts by the U.S. and Brazil to promote cane production in Africa and elsewhere over the last five years have yielded little other than identifying countries with production potential.
“So far no country has made it to the second stage,” of actually producing ethanol, Mariangela Rebua, director-general of the department of energy at Brazil’s foreign ministry, said.
“We’re just beginning,” she said in an interview in Brasilia.
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