Article from NY Times
http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/american-biodiesel-makers-reeling/The American biodiesel industry is hurting, and it shows.
Last week Imperium Renewables, one of the countryâ€™s biggest biodiesel refiners, cut 24 employees â€” which according to the Seattle Times amounts to a majority of the staff at its plant in Washington state.
The move came in the same week that the European Union introduced a tariff on biodiesel imported from the United States, effectively slashing a major market for American producers.
â€œThe European market was a significant market for American producers because the prices were higher, and they were further along on their requirement for biodiesel,â€ said Martin Tobias, a former chief executive of Imperium who left the company 15 months ago and has since started a new venture called Kashless.org.
Though it remains a tiny fraction of total diesel consumption, the American biodiesel industry â€” which mainly relies on soybeans as its feedstock â€” has grown almost tenfold in the last three years, from 75 million gallons in the 2005 fiscal year to 700 million gallons in 2008, according to the National Biodiesel Boardâ€™s estimates.
In the United States, many of the customers are bus systems and other fleets. A few cities and states, like Portland, Ore., and Minnesota, mandate that regular diesel be blended with a small amount of biodiesel.
Biodiesel producers did well when diesel prices soared in recent years. Lately, however, prices of diesel have plunged below the price of biodiesel, hurting the industry, according to Ethan Zindler of New Energy Finance, an industry research firm.
Low diesel prices and high soy prices are â€œthe exact opposite of what they need to really be profitable,â€ Mr. Zindler said â€” adding that biodiesel, much like ethanol, may now need to rely on government quotas for biofuels to survive, because at the moment â€œthere is no market-based reason for consumers to buy biodiesel.â€
The federal government requires that 500 million gallons of biodiesel be blended into the fuel supply this year; the Biodiesel Board figures for 2008 are clearly higher, but the requirement is also going to grow over time.
Mr. Tobias predicted that President Obamaâ€™s efforts to increase domestic fuels will be a boon for the biodiesel industry. He looked at the bright side of Europeâ€™s tariff move. â€œIt seems kind of silly for us to be sending our fuel to Europe and then importing crude from Saudi Arabia,â€ he said.
Mr. Tobias declined to discuss Imperium, but the company is clearly struggling. Last year it abruptly canceled a planned initial public offering, and a major customer, Royal Caribbean cruise lines, pulled out of a big contract.
Other large American biodiesel producers include Cargill and the Renewable Energy Group.