The Biden administration has recently faced some resistance from ethanol lobbyists and biofuel trade associations in response to press reports that the White House and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be considering commonsense fixes to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
After years of volatile and high Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) prices, our nation’s independent refiners need financial relief – and fast. Several refineries have even reported spending more on RINs, the compliance credits used to meet compliance under the RFS, than on any other annual operational expense combined.
Reforming the RFS and its broken RIN system is critical to ensure the viability of our nation’s independent refining sector. But what few realize is that fixing the broken RIN system would benefit the ethanol industry and independent refining industry, too. In fact, if you take a closer look, the ethanol industry does not benefit from volatile RINs whatsoever, and high RIN prices do not lead to higher levels of ethanol blending.
Even as RIN prices spiked nearly 2000 percent over the last two years the percentage of ethanol blended into our nation’s fuel supply remained the same. During the first half of 2020, when RINs reached $2.00, the amount of ethanol blended into our nation’s fuel supply was the same as the first half of 2019, when RINs averaged just 18 cents per credit.
So, if the ethanol industry and America’s corn growers do not reap the benefits from commoditizing RINs, who does? When it comes to high RINs, who really wins? The multi-national oil conglomerates and large convenience store supply chains that sell them.
In September, Casey's General Stores – one of the top three convenience store chains in the U.S., and a non-obligated party under the RFS – reported a strong first quarter to its investors. According to Casey’s own earnings highlights, profits were up as the company “sold $18.7 million in renewable fuel credits (RINs) in the first quarter, an increase of $15.3 million from the same quarter in the prior year.”
In fact, “thanks to the highest RIN values ever, the company realized an additional $7 million to $8 million for the sales,” the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) reported.
In October, Murphy USA – another retail gas station chain that is not obligated to comply with the RIN system under the Renewable Fuel Standard – reported using RINs as an “offset.” According to another OPIS report:
“While the total margin was higher year on year, the company said that its PS&W margin was down by $3.6 million versus the third quarter of 2020. However, the high cost of RINs did help offset some of the weaker spot-to-rack margin that pressured that segment. Murphy USA said its earnings from RINs and others came in at $71.5 million, nearly three times that of the third quarter last year. On a year-to-date basis, Murphy USA's RINs contribution to earning stood at $224.5 million, about 3.5 times the same nine-month period last year.”
While non-obligated retail chains like Casey’s and Murphy USA are raking in RIN sales, large integrated oil companies are turning a profit, too. On a company earnings call last month, Marathon Senior Vice President Brian Partee reported that the company’s RIN selling business had a higher profit margin than fuel sales, according to OPIS.
The RFS was never meant to line the pockets of the largest refining conglomerates and convenience store chains, but, sadly, that’s exactly who wins under the broken RIN system today—and they continue to do so at the expense of independent refineries, the ethanol industry, and American consumers alike.
As the unpredictable costs of RINs brings independent refineries closer and closer to the brink of closure, America’s corn growers are seeing no discernable increase in ethanol blended into our nation’s fuel supply, and U.S. consumers facing historic inflation continue to feel the pain at the pump. It’s clear who loses under the current structure of the RFS, too.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Biden administration already has the tools needed to provide relief to independent refiners and their workforce, the ethanol industry, and American consumers. For one, the administration could change the point of obligation and make ethanol blenders responsible to comply with the RFS. This move would still uphold the objectives of the RFS – expanding and supporting the nation’s renewable fuel sector – while putting a stop to the costly, unregulated, secondary trading system that’s enriching large oil companies and retailers while putting thousands of independent refining jobs at risk.
The challenge in fixing the Renewable Fuel Standard is also an opportunity to achieve a win-win for the ethanol and independent refining industries, and a win for American families. It’s time for President Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan to go for gold and fix the RFS for good.