While the price of biofuel blending credits has fallen toward insignificance, the uncertainty surrounding the direction of U.S. biofuel policy has some U.S. refining executives looking to limit their company's exposure to an opaque market that they see as primarily driven by politics.
The Renewable Fuels Standard, or RFS, program, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requires U.S. refiners to blend an increasing volume of biofuels such as ethanol into the transportation fuels they produce each year, escalating to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
The EPA sets annual renewable volume obligations each year based on overall volume requirements and projections of domestic gasoline and diesel production.
Those companies that cannot meet the blending requirements must purchase credits, known as renewable identification numbers, or RINs, to meet their blending obligations.
After a Philadelphia refiner blamed the regulations for its bankruptcy, actions taken by the Trump administration have led the RINs market to plummet 84% year-to-date through Oct. 10, according to S&P Global Platts.
In April, a federal judge approved a settlement between the EPA and PES Holdings LLC that allowed the bankrupt refiner to shed a substantial portion of its RFS compliance obligations.
The EPA's granting of "hardship" compliance waivers to small refiners has benefited the broader refining industry.
Despite the reduced compliance burden, some refining executives are still wary of the policy.
CVR Refining LP President, CEO and Director David Lamp said during an Oct. 25 earnings call that the company had started blending B5, a blend of petroleum-based diesel containing 5% biodiesel, across all of its racks to increase internally produced RINs by 5% of its renewable volume obligation and that the company also has "several deals in the works" to reduce its RINs exposure.
"I would tell you that if I had a crystal ball, I could predict what RIN prices are going to be," Lamp said. "Frankly, I don't trust them. I don't trust the politics. I don't trust the law itself. ... And if they don't issue waivers like they did last year, I would say the price is going to go straight up, maybe not immediately, but … over time as the RIN bank goes away. I think it's kind of foolish to stick your head in the sand and say this issue is gone just because the RINs are cheap right now."
Lamp's comments come as the ethanol industry is in the midst of challenging the Trump administration's RFS waivers in federal court.
Some refiners continue to lobby for RFS policy changes, but during earnings calls they did not outline investments to mitigate the policy's effects.
"We're not fully where we think the market needs to go and where the administration needs to go as far as fixing the RFS problem, but we're continuing to work on it diligently," Marathon Petroleum Corp. Chairman and CEO Gary Heminger said during a Nov. 1 earnings call.
During the third quarter of 2017, Marathon said biofuel blending reduced the indicative gross margin of its refining business by $743 million, but a year later, executives declined to outline a specific benefit from lower RIN costs.
"We are not believers that RIN costs drive differential profitability within the refining system. We have a ... view that as RIN prices rise, it gets reflected in the crack, and on a net basis, the system is no better or worse off than where things are at. So I'm not sure we'd highlight an incremental benefit to the lower RINs costs," Marathon Senior Vice President and CFO Timothy Griffith said. "It certainly introduces a lot less noise into the market relative to what the real economic cracks are, but we would not identify any natural economic benefit in total to the system related to the lower prices."
Whichever direction biofuel policy takes, other refiners are investing in renewable fuels because they see them as a long-term part of the global fuel mix.
"If you step back and look at ethanol, it's going to be in the gasoline pool for a long time, and it's a core part of our strategy," Valero Energy Corp. Vice President of Alternative Fuels Martin Parrish said during an Oct. 25 earnings call. "We see corn ethanol as the most competitive source of octane in the world."
On Oct. 11, Green Plains Inc. announced it would sell three of its ethanol plants to Valero.
Parrish expects that growing U.S. ethanol exports and slowing domestic production growth will lead to improved margins for Valero's renewable fuels business, which the company recently decided to expand.
Valero executives pushed back on the notion that their decision to invest in renewable fuel production was related to the Trump administration's proposal to allow year-round sales of E15 — gasoline blends containing 15% ethanol — which the oil industry has vowed to fight in court.
"[It's] going to take a couple of years for that to work its way through the courts before you get a final answer [on its legality]," Valero's senior vice president of public policy and investor relations, Jason Fraser, said Oct. 25. "Put yourself into the shoes of one of those retailers who's got to spend money to be able to offer E15. You're going to spend money with the risk of having stranded capital because in a couple of years, the court may void [the rule]."