Shell Rock ethanol plant from air

The coronavirus and cheap oil are hitting the fuel business so hard that ethanol plants are shutting down. Some may never come back.

The entire biofuel industry is facing a reckoning. Long before the pandemic emptied roads and exacerbated an oil price war, producers were battling chronic oversupply and trade upheaval. Now slumping demand and prices mean smaller producers and those with heavy debt loads will struggle to ride out the losses.

“When we come out of these two Black Swan events — the price war in oil and now the coronavirus — we will probably look differently as an industry,” said Todd Becker, CEO of U.S. ethanol producer Green Plains Inc. “There are definitely plants out there that are going to run out of capital.”

Corn ethanol plants are closing across the U.S., Brazilian producers of sugar cane-based fuel are sinking further into debt and efforts to use more biofuel are being jeopardized in Asia. In Europe, producers are either cutting back or making feedstock for hand sanitizer.

U.S. gasoline hit a 20-year low and prices at the pump are already below $1 a gallon in some states. That’s on the back of an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia that sent crude markets into meltdown and the virus outbreak that has upended demand.

While cheap fuel is good news for consumers, it’s hurting biofuel producers and American farmers, who sell about a third of their corn crops to the ethanol industry.

Valero Energy Corp., the No. 2 U.S. oil refiner, is temporarily closing two plants and won’t comply with some contracts. Andersons Inc. is suspending operations at its plants and POET has “temporarily ceased corn purchases at a number of locations.” Pacific Ethanol Inc. is cutting output by as much as 60%.

Producers are struggling to find storage as demand takes a dive. Three to 4 billion gallons of U.S. production could come offline in the next 30 days, according to Green Plains.

“At some point, your tanks are full and your railcars are full and you start filling up the coffee cups in the cafeteria,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “Then the plant shuts down.”

To be sure, fossil fuel makers are also getting hammered. But for the U.S. biofuel industry, the pandemic and dirt cheap oil are just the latest blows in a short but tumultuous history. Slower growth in gasoline demand in the last few years meant more U.S. supplies needed to be exported, but the top overseas growth market, China, all but stopped buying American supplies amid the trade dispute. That put plants on their heels, and they’ve never fully recovered.

While Beijing is returning to the U.S. agriculture market after the phase-one deal, picking up a few cargoes of corn, that won’t be enough to offset the pain caused by the drop in ethanol production.

The corn market gets “too excited about a few corn cargoes to China, but they are missing the fact that a structural demand destruction is going on right now,” Becker said. “That’s a fundamental risk to agriculture today.”

It will still be a while before economies recover from the virus. In the U.S., a resurgence probably will bring back ethanol demand in the fourth quarter, said Dan Kowalski, vice president of research at CoBank, a $145 billion lender to the agriculture industry.

“We expect ethanol plants to continue to shut down capacity,” Kowalski said. “Until we see gasoline prices come back and bringing the ethanol prices back, the ethanol situation is going to remain pretty severe.”