Lower Oil Prices Make Biodiesel Producers Struggle

John Davis

Rising oil prices were a boon to biodiesel producers this summer, as near-$150/barrel prices for crude oil made it more and more profitable to produce biodiesel from a variety of feedstocks. However, with that same barrel of oil now costing less than $50, margins have tightened up for makers of the green fuel.

This story in the Tampa (FL) Tribune highlights how biodiesel producers have had to get more innovative to keep bottom lines in the black:

[Last summer], producers said they were limited only by how much $3-a-gallon chicken fat they could truck into the plant.

[Pensacola-based] Agri-Source’s investment [to turn chicken fat into biodiesel] earned it an Industry of the Year award from the Pasco Economic Development Council. Two months later, though, Agri-Source has slashed its production by half as plummeting oil prices and its fixed cost for raw materials have turned the company’s bottom line from black to red.

“The profitability has really weakened,” said Agri-Source president Rick Higdon. “We have the ability to ride it out, but it’s no fun.”…

The key to the industry’s future will be developing new sources of raw materials, said Robert McCormick, principle engineer in the fuel performance group at the National Renewable Fuels Laboratory in Colorado.

“If you could sell B20 for a nickel or 3 cents less than petroleum diesel, you could probably sell all you could make,” McCormick said. “They haven’t been able to do that.”

Industry leaders say the $1-a-gallon federal credit they’re getting is helping for now, and the 500 million gallon mandate for biodiesel that kicks in next year will give the market a floor. But they also realize they need to make a profit to stay viable.

I’m sure some of you are reading this and saying, “See, it’s not working!” But keep in mind, it’s those 500 million gallons of petroleum diesel that biodiesel will replace next year… and more in subsequent years… that will help keep the price of petroleum down. As biodiesel refining technologies… helped by those subsidies and mandates… are made more efficient, it will cost less and less to produce biodiesel, making it less reliant on any tax dollars for support. Less expensive, more sustainable feedstocks will replace the more expensive, less sustainable ones. Survey after survey show Americans want to support domestically-produced alternative energies. Right now, the industry just needs a little leg up. Isn’t it better to help out these guys making the green fuel, than to subsidize million-dollar retreats for bankers who can’t balance their balance sheets or give money to carmakers who make cars people don’t want to buy? And if we save the planet in the process, all the better.