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Vol. 11, No. 25 Week of June 18, 2006
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Willie’s way on the highway

Ethanol sparks interest across North America, boosted by environmental concerns and Bush’s drive to lower Middle East oil imports

Gary Park

Petroleum News

If you want to stay on the road you might consider hitching your wagon to Willie Nelson’s promotion of biofuels.

The country crooner is putting his money where his mouth is by manufacturing and selling “BioWillie,” his own brand of alternative fuel.

For Nelson it’s a chance to convert U.S.-grown vegetable oil seeds into a clean-burning replacement for diesel fuel, both giving a future to family farmers and lending a helping hand to the environment.

A U.S. Department of Energy study concluded that the production and use of biodiesel slashed carbon dioxide emissions from the use of petroleum diesel by 78.5 percent.

Natural Resources Canada has calculated that a liter of 10 percent ethanol blend can lower greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5 percent compared to a liter of gasoline.

It’s a trend that has already made solid gains in the U.S. and that Canada is starting to embrace.

Ottawa in May launched a summer of negotiations with provincial governments that it hopes will see renewable fuel levels in Canadian gasoline rise from 0.5 percent to 5 percent by 2010.

Environment Minister Rona Ambrose said there is a “successful will to move forward,” while agreeing that the target is ambitious.

For her and the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper it is a key element in their determination to develop a made-in-Canada climate change strategy, further undermining their commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

More ethanol needed

The obvious challenge is to hike production of ethanol — currently about 300 million liters a year from five major plants and targeted at 650 million liters by 2010 based on projects now in the works.

Even that increase will fall far short of the 1.4 billion liters the industry estimates will be needed to achieve the 5 percent goal.

In comparison, the U.S. production capacity last year was 15 billion liters from 101 plants (with another 32 under construction) prompted by Energy Policy Act requirements for U.S. ethanol production to reach 28 billion liters by 2012.

It’s all a pick-me-up for U.S. corn farmers, who have relied for years on annual federal subsidies of $3.6 billion to offset their weak commodity prices.

That has changed dramatically now that President George W. Bush has ordered a huge hike in ethanol use in his drive to reduce Middle East oil imports by 75 percent over the next 20 years, lifting corn futures to $2.55 per bushel from barely $2 over the winter.

If all of the targets are achieved, the U.S. is expected to burn 15 billion gallons a year of ethanol by 2015.

Leading the way in Canadian production are Husky Energy, which expects to have two new facilities (one each in Saskatchewan and Manitoba) turning out a combined 260 million liters by late 2007, and Commercial Alcohols, which is working on two plants totaling 530 million liters in Ontario and Quebec over an indefinite number of years, adding to its current output of 145 million liters.

But Commercial Alcohols Vice President Bliss Baker said setting a target is not enough.

He said the ethanol sector wants the Canadian government to offer incentives along the lines of those provided to oil sands operators to reduce the capital costs of expanding the processing capacity for biofuels.

The oil sands incentives allow companies to write off all of their upfront costs in a year, allowing them to defer corporate taxes.

The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association said that in addition to incentives the challenge will be to introduce common standards across Canada.

Currently, Saskatchewan requires a blend of ethanol in all fuel sold in the province; Manitoba has a law requiring that 85 percent of gasoline sold in its jurisdiction be blended with 10 percent ethanol; and Ontario offers tax breaks to producers of blended fuels and has pledged to have all gasoline contain 5 percent ethanol by 2007.

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Ethanol producers hit the stock market

Ethanol is fast becoming one of the hottest prospects among investors in the United States.

The leading producer, Archer Daniels Midland, is already a publicly traded company, VeraSun Energy hit the market earlier in June and two more — Hawkeye Renewables and Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings, which churn out 200 million and 150 million gallons per year, respectively — are poised to launch initial public offerings. The funds are tagged to build ethanol production at a time when domestic producers are unable to meet the needs and imports from Brazil, the world’s largest exporter, will be unable to fill supply gaps.

Brian Kuzma, an analyst with RBC Dominion Securities in Houston, said the ethanol cycle is now at its frenzy point, encouraging his firm to initiate coverage of the market. Since several major U.S. refiners have started phasing out the gasoline additive MTBE, methyl tertiary-butyl ether, the thirst for ethanol is rising faster than U.S. corn-ethanol producers can respond.

In parts of the United States ethanol is fetching as much or more wholesale as the retail price, which pushed fuel alcohol for blend-stock to $2.65 per gallon earlier this spring.

Brazil is forecast to produce 16 billion liters of sugarcane-based ethanol in 2006, up 600 million liters from last year, but its own domestic consumption will cut into exports.

Some traders have estimated that Brazilian demand, where ethanol makes up 40 percent of vehicle fuel, could slash exports to 1 billion liters this year from 2.4 billion in 2005 — a prospect that boosted ethanol pump prices by 14 percent in March alone.

Against that backdrop, the spot price of New York Harbor ethanol climbed to $4 a gallon in early June from $1.30 a year earlier.

Hawkeye, in its IPO filing, said it believes the U.S. ethanol industry has insufficient capacity to meet current and anticipated demand, projecting the market for oxygenates, including ethanol, will surpass 6 billion gallons within a few years.

Commercial Alcohols, Canada’s largest ethanol maker, is not preparing an IPO yet, despite growing interest from investment banks over the past two years, but Vice President Bliss Baker said all options are on the table.

He rejected any thought that the company might be missing out on a hot market, contending that the interest in alternative fuels is not about to fade.

Similarly, other Canadian ethanol companies, Pound-Maker Agventures of Saskatchewan and Permolex of Alberta, are neither ruling out, nor openly pursuing an IPO.

—Gary Park