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Idle ethanol plants wait for new fuel standards

Grant Gerlock
Harvest Public Media

Ethanol is an up and down industry, and right now it’s down. Ethanol plants in at least 13 states have stopped running over recent months because of higher corn prices and lower demand for the biofuel. The industry is trying to change the equation by putting more of the ethanol in gasoline. But as Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media reports, ethanol critics are pushing back.

On Highway 20 outside of Atkinson in north-central Nebraska, semis roll past NEDAK ethanol with trailers full of corn.

The NEDAK plant was built by local investors in 2008, but has been offline since June 2012 when the drought pushed corn prices to new highs. When operating, the plant made 44 million gallons of ethanol per year from 17 million bushels of corn.

“We had corn coming in as far as 130 miles out,” said NEDAK president and general manager, Jerome Fagerland.

Now, no trucks cross the scales. Towering steel grain bins sit empty. Instead of filling the equivalent of 38 full-time jobs, 9 staff members keep the plant on what’s called a “warm idle.”

Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Jerome Fagerland stands inside the empty scale house at NEDAK ethanol in Atkinson, Neb. When it was running, the plant used up to 17 million bushels of corn from a 130 mile radius.

Over the past year, around 30 of the nation’s 211 ethanol plants have been idled. Together they account for about 2 billion gallons of ethanol production. Corn prices are part of the problem, Fagerland said, but not the whole story.

“We definitely, as an industry, have an ability to produce more than what our domestic demand is at this time,” Fagerland said. “There’s no questions about that. That’s obvious with the plant idle.”

Ethanol has run into the so-called “blend wall.” Each year the federal government’s Renewable Fuel Standard mandates an increasing amount of ethanol be used in the fuel supply. Ethanol plants respond by producing more to meet those goals.  

But fuel consumption in the U.S. declined in the recession and has remained flat.

A 10 percent blend of ethanol to gasoline, called E10, is nearly ubiquitous at the pump, but not enough E10 is sold to meet the government’s standard of 16 billion gallons of ethanol in the fuel supply in 2013.

However, moving up to 15 percent, or E15, would push the industry beyond the blend wall, according to Bob Dineen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association.

“You’d have another 6 or 7 billion gallons of ethanol demand," Dineen said. “Clearly you would be able to restart the 2 billion gallons of capacity that is currently not being utilized and there’d be room for growth as new cellulosic or other biofuels come into marketplace.”

The Environmental Protection Agency gave E15 the green light last year, but Dineen admits most drivers probably have not noticed.

“The growth has been pretty slow,” Dineen said. “We’ve got about a dozen stations, maybe 15 stations today in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois. Clearly ethanol-friendly parts of the country.”

With no room for more ethanol in the market, prices fall and plants shut down. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., E15 is running into roadblocks.

Testifying before a House subcommittee, AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet said “allowing the sale of E15 at this time is premature and irresponsible.”

AAA supports a proposal from Republican Congressman Jim Sensennbrenner of Wisconsin to require more research on whether E15 could damage car engines. It’s one of several bills aimed at blocking E15 or cutting back the Renewable Fuel Standard.

EPA approved E15 only for cars and trucks made in 2001 or later, based on government research.

AAA’s Darbelnet told lawmakers that, according to industry-funded research, some approved cars are still open to engine damage. Ford and GM recently said only their newest models would have warranty coverage for E15.

“Virtually every OEM, or auto manufacturer in this country, virtually all of the OEMs have said 'do not put this fuel in your tank unless you are accepting of the fact that it will void your warranty',” Darbelnet said.

Bob Dineen at the Renewable Fuels Association called the debate over E15 a case of marketplace politics as the government forces oil companies to hand a larger share of the fuel market over to ethanol. Ultimately, Dineen said, ethanol still has political support where it counts.

“In the Senate and with the administration there’s still strong support for ethanol,” Dineen said. “And they’re not going to roll back this important program, period.”

In Atkinson, Neb., NEDAK ethanol is not just on standby, it's for sale. The plant went into foreclosure in January and the creditors are looking for a new owner. Jerome Fagerland believes there will be a place in the industry for ethanol from Atkinson in the future. But like other idle ethanol producers, it may have to wait for a break in the drought and a breakthrough at the pump.