Despite finding itself the midst of a massive glut, the United States ethanol industry is set to see three new plants come online over the next year, adding a combined annual production of 270 million gallons to the nation’s already ballooning ethanol oversupply. The industry has been plagued by overproduction and low demand since 2015.
Over the past 5 years, ethanol production has increased by 10.5 percent, rising from 14.3 billion gallons in 2014 to 15.8 billion gallons in 2017. This is despite the fact that only one new ethanol plant began production in the years between 2015 and 2018. The increase is in large part due to more efficient means of production, allowing producers to get more fuel out of each kernel of corn, and the expansion of existing plants in lieu of building new plants from the ground up.
Now there will be three new plants coming online all within a span of mere months. Atlantic, Iowa will be home to 120-million-gallon-a-year dry mill ethanol plant Elite Octane, LLC before the end of 2018. Ring-Neck Energy & Feed, LLC will go online in Onida, South Dakota in early 2019, and ELEMENT, Inc., a 70-million-gallon-a-year ethanol plant, is currently under construction in Colwich, Kansas.
In an effort to reduce the U.S. ethanol glut, which is undeniably about to skyrocket even higher, the industry has been strategizing aggressive campaigns to boost demand. It has become abundantly clear that in order to return to its strong profit margins of 2013-2014, the U.S. ethanol industry will need to look overseas. Part of the ethanol industry’s auto-resuscitation plan involves increasing its market share of liquid fuel in the U.S. by promoting higher ethanol blends like E15 (15 percent ethanol to a gallon of gas), E30 (30 percent), and E85 (85 percent), but this angle alone will not produce nearly enough demand to contend with supply. Related: Middle East Crude Oil Prices Tumble After Global Sell-Off
Advancements in U.S. production of ethanol have simply outpaced growth of demand domestically, but this growing gap has been catalyzed to an extreme degree by politics. Despite outcry from the agricultural industry and representatives of Big Corn states like Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the Trump administration has largely acted in the interest of Big Oil. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been rolling back Obama-era biofuel blending guidelines and granting an unprecedented number of hardship waivers, allowing refiners to ignore biofuel requirements contained in the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Now, in order to save itself, the U.S. ethanol industry will have to turn their focus to exports. The industry has already seen major growth in international markets, breaking records with nearly 1.4 billion gallons of exports last year. These numbers are particularly impressive when you consider that Brazil instated a quota and duties on U.S. imports and China slapped major tariffs on U.S. sales. Related: The IEA’s Warning To Oil Producers
While 1.4 billion gallons still pales in comparison to the 14 billion gallons of fuel ethanol the U.S. burned last year, the international market show way more potential for growth, while letting the pressure off of U.S. production glut and contributing to a much-needed overall demand growth. The most likely candidates for increased consumption of U.S. ethanol are Brazil, Canada, India (who are already the biggest buyers of U.S. ethanol), as well as China, Mexico, and Japan. The last three nations listed, while they are not already major buyers, all have publicized goals to blend 10 percent ethanol (E10) into their fuel over the next few years. While China has largely cut off imports of U.S. ethanol thanks to tariffs introduced in the escalating trade war, if they were to re-enter the market they could boost U.S. exports by as must as 200 million to 300 million gallons.
While the ethanol industry has already been expanding its exports, it will need to seriously speed up growth. Even with the progress the industry has already made, demand continues to lag behind production, and that’s without the new plants ready to come online over the next year. In order to close the gap, the international markets will need to start buying aggressively, or something in U.S. politics will need to see a major shift.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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