Ethanol regs push us into "the blend wall"

Filed under the “we hate when we turn out to be right” category, domestic energy producers are facing some tough choices in the coming months thanks for a one – two punch of ethanol and government regulations. A combination of the drought this summer wiping out a fair portion of the corn crop and an unfunded mandate scheme by the federal government have resulted in there not being enough affordable ethanol for producers to blend into E-10 fuel. When producers can’t meet the minimum amount of “renewables” required by Uncle Sam, they have the choice of using RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers issued by the government) instead. Since the RINs are able to be traded, this makes them into a new sort of commodity exchange system, and like any other, when supply goes down, prices go up.

Prices of renewable fuel credits, needed by refiners to comply with the nation’s Renewable Fuel Standard, have skyrocketed over the past few months, an indication to some that the dreaded “blend wall” is close.

The price for the traded Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) for corn-based ethanol have jumped from a trading range of about 2-3 cents/RIN to as much as 79 cents/RIN.

Trading for 2013 ethanol RINs Tuesday started the day at 75 cents/RIN and got as high as 79 cents/RIN before dropping back down to 75 cents/RIN by assessment time. Platts assessed RINS Tuesday at 75 cents/RIN.

The “blend wall,” as it’s known in industry circles, is the point where there is more gas to be blended than ethanol to use. They’ve known this day was coming for some time, but most analysts thought it would take a few years longer. The drought, as mentioned above, has accelerated the timetable. This leaves refiners with only a few choices, and none of them are good for you.

If RIN prices move too high, refiners will be left with three options that won’t be “popular,” said Jason Bordoff, Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs Director, Center on Global Energy Policy, at Columbia University, at the IHS CERAWeek conference. The options include passing the cost of RINs to consumers through higher retail prices, exporting products, or lowering refinery utilization rates.

Bloomberg has more on this, charitably translated into normal English for the layman. The key figure to watch here is the fact that we are currently projected to only have an available supply of 12.3 billion gallons of ethanol available for blending in 2013. To keep up with government mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard, 13.8 billion gallons would be needed.

The long and the short of it is that they can either sell their fuel elsewhere, charge more for it to cover the cost of the RINs or produce less. (Which also drives up prices.) Either way, you lose and the EPA wins.