Corn, ethanol, drought, and demand

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Corn plays an important role in current United States transportation fuel policy - but environmental and economic factors are putting the pinch on corn ethanol producers.

The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard program requires transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain at least a minimum volume of renewable fuel.  This renewable fuel is generally ethanol, produced by fermenting sugars contained in plant feedstocks like sugar cane and sugar beets, or sugars produced by converting plant-based starches like corn starch.  The program's goals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, reducing petroleum imports, and encouraging the development and expansion of the domestic renewable fuels sector.

In the U.S., more than 95 percent of operating ethanol plants reportedly use corn starch as their feedstock.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. farmers planted 96.4 million acres of corn this year, the highest corn acreage since 1937.  Favorable field conditions this spring led to the quickest planting pace on record, with nearly all of the corn planted by May 20 and plants emerged by June 3.

This summer's high temperatures and widespread drought conditions - with nearly 56% of the area of the 48 contiguous states experiencing drought - have hurt the U.S. corn crop, resulting in reduced estimates for this year's crop.  This anticipated reduction is driving corn prices up, with the commodity trading at over $7 per bushel (contrast a 2007 U.S. Energy Information Administration analysis of transportation biofuels assuming corn prices of about $2 per bushel).  This price increase is cutting into ethanol producers' bottom line.

At the same time, transportation fuel consumers are driving less.  Between increased fleet efficiency prompted by both governmental mandates and a natural desire to cut costs, and the overall slowdown in the national economy, overall demand for ethanol fuel has not grown at the pace previously projected.

According to Reuters, the average ethanol plant operating in Illinois is currently losing 32 cents on every gallon it produces.  As a result, many ethanol plants are running below their production capacity, and several have announced planned closures.  EIA data shows that ethanol production dropped 4% last week to 821,000 barrels per day, the lowest production rate since July 23, 2010.

Proponents of blending ethanol into transportation fuels point to its nature as a renewable biofuel, lower cost than gasoline, and ability to be produced domestically.  Critics question the wisdom of converting a potential food crop into an energy commodity, as well as the economic and environmental consequences of current pro-ethanol policies.  Whatever the ultimate outcome, the climatic and economic conditions affecting the corn ethanol industry may be calling into question the sustainability of the current system.

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