Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) have grabbed the attention of refiners this spring and summer, and for good reason. The price of RINs –– ethanol credits used by refineries to prove compliance with the federal Renewable Fuel Standard –– have soared, and the credits are having an outsized negative effect on some refiners’ costs and profitability. Part of the RIN price spike can be attributed to concerns that there may not be enough to go around this year, and that the situation in 2017 may be far worse. But the rocketing cost of the credits is also raising questions about whether the largely unregulated and opaque RINs market is being manipulated or even cornered by those hoping for a quick, Powerball-size profit. Today, we continue our review of the RINs market with a look at which types of refiners are hit hardest by high RIN prices, and at whether we might be heading off a RIN-availability cliff.
The rising cost of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) –– ethanol credits used by refineries to prove compliance with the federal Renewable Fuel Standard –– is putting added financial pressure on the refining sector, which already is squeezed by too-high inventories and thin crack spreads. In fact, for some refiners RIN expenditures may soon be their biggest single operating cost category. (Yes, you read that right.) The cost of ethanol credits is being driven up to record levels by several factors, chief among them the concern there may not be enough to go around this year and next. And things may only get worse from there. In today’s blog, we begin a two-part examination of the 2016-17 market for RINs, a regulatory must-do that rankles and vexes most refiners and gasoline importers.
The U.S. refining industry appears to be transitioning from an era of high margins and record throughputs. Falling crude prices at first increased refining margins – especially as demand for cheap refined products like gasoline expanded. Now product inventories are brimming and margins are squeezed. As we explain today the industry can look forward to an extended period of low crude prices while regulatory requirements and the pace of economic growth largely drive refined product trends.
A couple of months back in March 2013, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released proposed Tier 3 gasoline regulations that, if approved, will go into effect on January 1, 2017. The new rules include lower sulfur specifications for gasoline and tighter emissions controls for motor vehicles. Tier 3 also encourages acceptance of higher percentages of ethanol in gasoline. These regulations come at a time when US refinery gasoline blenders are jumping through hoops to handle a flood of new light shale crudes and increased demand for natural gasoline exports to Canada. Today we examines the proposals and their impact on gasoline and natural gas liquids markets.
When we described the quirky workings of the US renewable fuels mandates back in July and August of 2012 the topic was merely brain food for commodity market theorists and sleep deprived gasoline analysts. This month the market for big brother sounding “Renewable Identification Numbers” (RINS) - credited to refiners when they add ethanol to gasoline blends - is suddenly the hottest thing since sliced bread. The price of 2013 RINS shot from a few cnts/gal in January 2013 to an astronomical $1/gal on March 8, 2013. Earlier this week they were trading in the stratosphere, at about $0.70/gal. Today we look at what lies behind the current RIN furor.
A couple of weeks back in “A Market of Contradictions: Ethanol Mandates, Motor Gasoline and the Blend Wall” we looked at how US refiners are on the hook to blend more and more ethanol into a diminishing pool of gasoline (the blend wall) under Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) legislation. Ethanol producers are losing 35 cnts/gal after the hottest July ever fried the corn harvest. Sinking ethanol production may not cover refiner’s needs. In response, refiners are turning to an arcane workaround called Renewable Identification Numbers (RINS). Today we'll peel back the red tape to see what is really going on.
Ethanol from corn as a motor gasoline blend stock seems like a good idea. As an oxygenate it is supposed to clean up the air, and as a U.S grown renewable it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. The catch is that ethanol is being mandated under a morass of mind-numbingly complex government regulations, some of which conflict with each other, or worse yet are out of step with the realities of the market. For example, the mandatory volumes of ethanol required may soon exceed the quantity that the market can use. At the same time, high corn prices have driven margins on ethanol manufacture into the red forcing many ethanol producers to shutter their operation, reducing ethanol supplies. And if that were not enough, a government program created something called the renewable identification number – RIN – a 38-digit serial number that ‘tags’ batches of renewable fuels and has resulted in all sorts of complications. Today we’ll begin an examination of the ethanol market to understand how we got in this predicament and where we go from here. In Part I we tackle one of the most intractable problems – the Blend Wall.