Would politicians let Big Oil wed Little Biofuels?

Bob Tippee

Because of how they're measured, biofuel operations can seem bigger than they are.

Values for renewable fuel mandates and plant capacities typically appear in gallons per year. This year's US requirement for renewable fuel—ethanol—thus is 4.7 billion gal. Sounds impressive. But it will be just slightly more than 3% of all gasoline sold in the US in 2007.

In an industry that measures its operations in barrels per day or tonnes per year, biofuel quantities require translation. To convert from gallons per year to barrels per day, divide by 15,330, but watch those zeros.

The arithmetic brings biofuel plant sizes into perspective. The average capacity of the 113 ethanol plants in operation in the US on Feb. 12 was 49.411 million gal/year. That's 3,220 b/d.

Biodiesel plants are even smaller. On a list published by the National Biodiesel Board, the largest biodiesel plant, operated by Memphis Biofuels LLC, has capacity equal to the average ethanol plant size. Most biodiesel plants are much smaller than that.

The organization puts total US biodiesel production capacity at 864.4 million gal/year (56,390 b/d). So the total capacity of the entire biodiesel industry is less than half the capacity of the average refinery in the US (131,850 b/d).

Politicians need to be reminded of these proportions when they whine, as many of them do, that oil refiners don't invest enough money in renewable and alternative energy sources, of which ethanol and biodiesel are the political favorites.

Individually, biofuel plants at current and probable sizes lack meaningful scale to businesses the size of most refiners. To make biofuels production significant to its business, a refiner must find a way to build and make money operating plants orders of magnitude larger than those in operation now. Or it must build or buy plants by the dozens.

Politicians would never stand for such a foray by "Big Oil" into ethanol and biodiesel. They'd howl about market concentration, price manipulation, tax subsidies, and other such villainies of popular oil mythology.

And they'd be the same politicians now fussing that oil companies don't spend enough money on renewable energy.

(Online Feb. 16, 2007; author's e-mail:

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