SAN ANTONIO — A renewed war over the federal ethanol mandate has cast a cloud over the biofuels industry as it gathers this week for its annual convention, with critics charging that the sector and its champions in Washington are slowly crushing oil refiners, which say they are struggling to comply with the law.
The debate, which has raged since Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007 requiring the blending of ethanol with gasoline, reached new heights over the past two weeks after a Philadelphia-based oil refiner claimed the program led to its bankruptcy. Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the largest oil refinery on the East Coast, pinned its financial woes on the ethanol mandate and said that over the past two years it had spent exorbitant amounts of money buying “renewable identification numbers,” or RINs, which act as a verification mechanism to ensure that gallons of gas are blended with the amount of ethanol required by federal law.
Oil industry leaders say the system is deeply flawed and that the problems that led to Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ bankruptcy could spread throughout the refining sector and, if not corrected, could cause significant spikes in prices at the pump for consumers.
“Anybody who cares about affordable energy supplies, American energy security and blue-collar jobs should be worried about the impact of the poor structure of the RINs market,” said Brendan Williams, vice president of government relations at PBF Energy Co., a New Jersey-based refining company. “Here’s a regulation that’s crafted in a way where it’s threatening those very manufacturing jobs that [President Trump] promised to defend and support.”
Indeed, Mr. Trump has been a vocal supporter of the ethanol mandate, and his administration last year rejected calls to weaken the program.
But officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, have in recent weeks conceded that there seem to be deep problems with the RIN market and its impact on refiners.
“We need RIN reform. It’s something I’ve talked to Congress about. We have to take steps to address this, and I think there are many that understand that,” he said this month in an interview with Fox News. “This isn’t getting rid of the ethanol requirement; this is the accounting mechanism to ensure that a certain percentage of our fuel actually has ethanol. So it truly is an enforcement mechanism that is being used in ways that it really wasn’t intended. We need to get reform around that.”
RINs work to ensure that refiners — who hold the “point of obligation” under law, meaning they are responsible for blending ethanol with gas — meet the yearly biofuels quotas set by the EPA.
But many refiners, such as Philadelphia Energy Solutions, don’t have the infrastructure to blend the fuels. In such circumstances, companies use a system that somewhat resembles a cap-and-trade approach: buying unused RINs from larger refineries that have blending capacity and have extra credits to spare.
The price of those RINs fluctuates wildly. Just a few years ago, RINs were sold for just a few cents, but they have skyrocketed to well over $1 recently.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions reportedly told its employees that buying enough RINs to comply with the program had become its second-largest expense, behind crude oil purchases.
The ethanol industry, which is meeting this week in Texas amid the controversy and with RINs at the top of its agenda, argues that the federal government should simply increase the yearly biofuels quotas. Requiring more blending, they say, will drive down the price.
“If refiners truly want lower RIN prices, the answer is really quite simple: blend more ethanol,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry’s largest trade group and a powerful force in Washington. “The very purpose of the RFS is to drive expanded consumption of renewable fuels, and the RIN provides a powerful incentive to do just that.”
The sector’s allies in Congress have rushed to defend ethanol against the growing tide of criticism. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and perhaps the industry’s biggest supporter in Congress, said his staff recently conducted its own analysis that showed the federal ethanol mandate and RIN prices aren’t the culprits for refineries’ woes.
“After reviewing the facts, I’m confident that the Renewable Fuel Standard isn’t harming refineries, that other factors are at work and that the RFS law is working as Congress intended. Once these facts are known, there ought to be an end to the misleading rhetoric blaming the RFS,” Mr. Grassley said. “The president should be applauded for his ongoing commitment to the RFS, which makes our air cleaner, energy cheaper and country stronger with more domestic energy production.”
But detractors say the system, as constructed, provides a windfall for major oil refiners that have their own blending capabilities. As is the case with other cap-and-trade-style systems — such as auto emissions rules, in which cleaner car companies can sell unused emissions credits to companies with less-efficient vehicles — some in the sector can make a great deal of money selling RINs.
“It’s picking and choosing winners within the oil industry in a way that’s causing some to go bankrupt,” Mr. Williams said.