Backed by government subsidies and mandates, hundreds of ethanol plants rose among the golden fields of the Corn Belt, bringing jobs and business to small towns, providing farmers with a new market for their crops and generating billions of dollars in revenue for the producers of this corn-based fuel blend. Those days of promise and prosperity are vanishing.
Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s ethanol plants have stopped production over the past year, in part because the drought that has ravaged much of the nation’s crops pushed commodity prices so high that ethanol has become too expensive to produce.
A dip in gasoline consumption has compounded the industry’s problem by reducing the demand for ethanol.
The situation has left the fate of dozens of ethanol plants hanging in the balance and has unsettled communities that once prospered from this biofuel. . . .
Thousands of barrels of ethanol now sit in storage because there is not enough gasoline in the market to blend it with — and blends calling for a higher percentage of ethanol have yet to catch on widely in the marketplace. Advanced biofuels from waste like corn stalks and wood chips have also yet to reach commercial-level production as some had predicted they would by now. . .
Congress set out to create an ethanol industry that would produce enough to make up 10 percent of every gallon of gas pumped into a car, but the lawmakers assumed that demand for fuel would grow. Instead, it has shrunk to 8.7 million barrels a day from 9.7 million in 2007, said Larry Goldstein, an economist and a director of the Energy Policy Research Foundation. And with corporate average fuel economy rules now in place to double the number of miles that the average car gets per gallon by 2025, “you know we’re on a trend,” he added.
As the gasoline market got smaller, so did the amount of ethanol it could absorb, because most service stations are set up to sell fuel with an ethanol content of only up to 10 percent. Owners’ manuals of most cars call for fuel blends of no more than 10 percent ethanol. The industry calls this the “blend wall,” and it has won Environmental Protection Agency approval for some cars to run on blends of up to 15 percent, but thus far that fuel has not caught on with consumers. Millions of cars are “flex-fuel vehicles” and can run on blends of up to 85 percent, known as e85, but that fuel is not popular and is not even widely offered outside a few corn-producing states.
But the ethanol producers were encouraged to build because the federal government had mandated that refiners use their product, and it established a tax credit of 45 cents per gallon of ethanol. The tax credit was allowed to expire on Dec. 31, 2011, but not before it had stimulated construction of ethanol plants.
The value of ethanol has also sagged. Its price is created in part by the price of the gasoline it displaces, and gasoline prices have been relatively modest for the past few months. . . .
The drought was particularly brutal here last year, leaving farmers with little to no corn. Don Mutter, who farms in nearby Cairo, said he produced about 25,000 bushels of corn last year, just 5.5 percent of his usual yield. Without corn nearby to purchase, the plant had to spend extra to haul it in from elsewhere. For several months it was operating at a loss. It ceased operations at the end of January. “We are going to start back up, this year most likely,” said Steve Burnett, who has been the manager since the plant opened in 2000. . . .
John Eligon and Matthew L. Wald, "Days of Promise Fade for Ethanol," New York Times, March 16, 2013