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Northeast Brazil looks at biofuels market's challenges, opportunities

Sao Paulo — As regional authorities, ethanol producers and associations gathered to consider challenges and opportunities at the Northeast Forum in Recife on Monday, they took aim at a new Brazilian import regulation that lets some ethanol enter Brazil free of the 20% import tariff, discussed the Brazilian fuel pricing model and weighed how to deal with fuel tax evasion.

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Industry leaders said they will be heading to Brasilia Tuesday to debate the import regulation that the Brazilian government announced August 31. The government said 750,000 cu m of ethanol could enter into the country without being subject to the tariff. The northeast region has been receiving more than 90% of the total ethanol imported, and regional producers have argued that this free-of-tax quota has been holding back the expansion of domestic production and employment in the region.

"We're hoping that the free-of-tax import quota would be ended, or at least an open market for the Brazilian sugar exports into US would be achieved," said Andre Rocha, president of the ethanol producers association from Goias, SIFAEG.

Renato Cunha, president of the Pernambuco industry association Sindacucar, said the industry has 300,000 employees and that the federal government needs to change the national agenda and support the sugar cane industry in the region.

On the Brazilian fuel pricing model, Decio Oddone, general director of the National Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuel Agency, or ANP, said fossil fuel pricing is the driver for renewable fuels prices.

"The geopolitical risk in the Saudi region will increase the premium risk and could attract more investment in the Brazilian refineries," Oddone said, referring to Petrobras' disinvestment plan.

The fuel pricing model in Brazil hasn't been clear to all, and transparency on prices has recently made gains.

Since November 2018, the ANP started using Platts Import Price Parity for gasoline and diesel from USGC delivered in five Brazilian ports as a reference for the fuel market.

Market leaders, the regulatory agency ANP and producing associations agreed that tax evasion is a problem and that tools to avoid fiscal fraud in the Brazilian fuel market need to be developed.

The Brazilian states can apply different ICMS goods and services taxes and for ethanol fuel it ranges from 12% in Sao Paulo state to 32% in Rio de Janeiro state, while for gasoline it ranges from 25% to 34%.

"Instead of a percentage over the fuel price, a fixed tax cost for ICMS would facilitate the market trade," Oddone said.

Also, Pernambuco and Alagoas producers are pushing for the right to to sell ethanol directly to fuel retailers without doing so through distribution companies. Their main arguments were that the short distances between producing areas and the main regional fuel hubs could facilitate a new trading model for North-Northeast mills and bring lower prices at the pump for consumers and higher returns for producers.

-- Nicolle Monteiro de Castro, nicolle.castro@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Bill Montgomery, newsdesk@spglobal.com