The Obama administration proposed a cut in the amount of renewable fuels that refiners must blend with gasoline next year, bowing to oil industry complaints that the targets contained in 2007 legislation were too high.
In a draft rule released today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would require between 15 billion to 15.52 billion gallons of renewable fuels such as corn ethanol and biodiesel in 2014. That compares with 18.15 billion gallons set in the legislation, making it the first time the legal mandate would be cut.
This “acknowledges a drastic change in the U.S. energy outlook since the renewable fuels mandate was put in place,” Jason Bordoff, the head of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and former White House official under President Barack Obama, said in a statement. It “marks a notable shift in the administration’s biofuel policy.”
The proposal, which was applauded by refiners and panned by corn growers and ethanol makers, would lower costs for refiners such as Valero Energy Corp. (VLO:US) that must blend the fuel into gasoline.
Valero rose 16 cents to $43 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange trading, while Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM:US), which processes corn and other agricultural products, dropped $1.44 to $40.56, its biggest decline since Aug. 26. Prices of soybeans, used to make biodiesel, fell the most in six weeks, and corn futures dropped 1.4 percent to $4.305 a bushel in Chicago.
Refiners, fast-food restaurants, motorboat makers and chicken farmers have all pushed the EPA to scale back the ethanol mandate, saying it risks ruining engines by forcing more ethanol to be blended into gasoline and is acting to push up demand for corn. Gasoline demand is falling, and so rising requirements for renewable fuels are ramping up the percentage of those fuels in the total mix, putting the amount of ethanol required near the 10 percent refiners label the “blend wall” that can damage engines.
“While the agency took a step in the right direction, more must be done to ensure Americans have the choice of ethanol-free gasoline,” said Jack Gerard, the chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, the Washington-based group that represents companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:US) “They are getting close to making sure they don’t breach us through the blend wall.”
Within the range of values it provided, the EPA listed specific volume requirements it was proposing: 15.21 billion gallons for renewable fuel generally and 2.2 billion for advanced biofuels. A final rule is due in the first quarter of 2014, after refiners and ethanol makers weigh in.
The agency also proposed a range for the mandate for biodiesel and cellulosic products, such as those made from corn stalks or woody waste, of 2 billion gallons to 2.5 billion gallons. That’s below the 3.75 billion gallon target spelled out in the legislation, and is in line with the 2.21 billion gallons from an August draft that was leaked.
“The proposed reduction from EPA is troubling, as it not only cuts grain ethanol use below the levels set by Congress, it cuts them to a level below the 13.8 billion that was met in 2013,” said Jeff Lautt, the chief executive of ethanol maker Poet LLC. “Under this rule, American drivers and American farmers lose and Big Oil wins.”
EPA officials say they are listening to those concerns and have pledged to preserve a market for what are dubbed “next generation fuels.” In presenting a range, the agency would allow outside groups to comment over the next two months prior to a final EPA decision.
Advanced biofuel, such as biodiesel and Brazilian ethanol, is part of a larger program for renewable fuels that is anchored by corn-based ethanol. Corn growers and the ethanol industry are pushing for an increase in the 13 billion-gallon quota called for in the leaked August plan, which is below the 14.4 billion gallons in the law. The EPA has the ability to adjust the quotas in response to market pressures.
In its rule today, the agency stuck to that estimate, saying it forecasts that 12.95 billion to 13.09 billion gallons of ethanol could be consumed in the U.S. in 2014, assuming as much as 300 million gallons in sales of fuel that is 85 percent ethanol to flex-fuel vehicles.
Denatured ethanol for December delivery fell 0.1 cent to $1.777 a gallon on the Chicago Board of Trade. Futures traded as high as $1.815 before the EPA’s announcement. Prices have dropped 21 percent this year.
Corn-based ethanol Renewable Identification Numbers, which are certificates used to track compliance with the mandate, plunged 18 percent to 18 cents, the lowest since Jan. 24, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Advanced RINs, which cover biodiesel and Brazilian sugarcane-based ethanol slumped 15 percent to 22 cents.
Refiners, which have waged a battle against the corn ethanol mandate, haven’t fought so hard against biodiesel, as it doesn’t present the same constraints as ethanol.
Fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol can cause engine materials to break down and damage emission-control systems, according to research from the oil-industry group. Supporters of ethanol say newer cars can run on fuels with 15 percent ethanol, and many flex-fuel vehicles can use the E85 blend.
“Part of our challenge is, the oil industry has done a pretty good job of making it harder to access higher blends and making it harder to take advantage of all the flexible fuel vehicles that are on the road today,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week.
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