By Cezary Podkul and Fabiola Gomes
NEW YORK/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - U.S. imports of Brazilian sugar cane ethanol could be cut by more than half if a draft proposal to reduce next year's U.S. biofuel blending mandate is enacted.
While the U.S. corn-based ethanol industry has issued the most fierce complaints over news this week that the Environmental Protection Agency may ease volumes, it may be Brazilian ethanol producers like Raizen and traders like Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Vitol S.A. who suffer a deeper blow. There import business has been booming thanks to the sugar-based fuel's treatment as an "advanced" biofuel under EPA regulations.
The EPA document - which is not yet finalized - calls for 2.21 billion gallons of the "advanced" biofuels, such as Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and biodiesel made from soybean and recycled cooking oils. That is down from 2.75 billion gallons this year and compares to 3.75 billion set by the 2007 law mandating higher ethanol blending volumes.
Some 1.28 billion of the 2.21 billion gallons is due to be derived from biodiesel, the same as this year, according to the proposal.
But because biodiesel has a higher energy content, suppliers get 1.5 blending credits for each gallon, rather than just 1 credit for each gallon of ethanol. The credits are required as proof that the gallons have been blended, and can be used to fulfill the overall "advanced" requirement.
As a result, some 1.92 billion of the credits could be generated from the biodiesel side of the "advanced" pool, leaving precious little room - just under 300 million gallons - for imports of Brazilian sugar cane ethanol.
"The document indicates a red light for Brazilian ethanol exports in 2014," Intl FCStone analyst Renato Dias told Reuters.
By contrast, the EPA has previously said that some 666 million gallons of Brazilian sugar cane ethanol would be needed to fulfill the advanced biofuel requirement in 2013.
The United States typically takes up to 80 percent of Brazil's ethanol exports.
Other Latin American countries, which are seeking greater production of ethanol for domestic use and for export, could see the EPA's action as a "red light", said Plinio Nastari, president of sugar and ethanol consulting firm Datagro.
"It will be a shame for all the countries that are developing ethanol markets, not just for Brazil," Nastari said.
HOPE FOR RELIEF
For now, at least, the ethanol volume requirement remains fluid.
In a statement issued Friday, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency had not finalized its biofuel blending targets for 2014. However, she also did not dispute the authenticity of the draft proposal obtained by Reuters.
The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association breathed a sigh of relief at McCarthy's statement.
"Brazilian sugarcane ethanol producers are pleased to see Administrator McCarthy confirm there have been no final decisions on the renewable fuel standards for 2014," the association's North America Representative, Leticia Phillips, said in a statement.
"We trust that EPA's final targets for advanced biofuels will both recognize and help foster the tremendous growth occurring in this industry," she said.
Thanks in large part to the U.S. ethanol blending mandates, and a California law that incentivizes the use of the fuel, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol exports have been growing in recent years.
Brazil's ethanol exports for 2013 through September totaled 605 million gallons, up 27 percent from 476 million gallons exported over the same period last year, Brazilian Trade Ministry data show.
But exports have begun to slow in recent months, with September exports totaling 78 million gallons, down significantly from the 128 million exported in August and the 127 million shipped in September last year, the data show.
The trading arm of European oil major Royal Dutch Shell Shell, investment bank Morgan Stanley Inc. and Swiss oil trader Vitol S.A. are the top three importers of ethanol into the U.S. so far this year, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show.
(Editing by Jonathan Leff and Bob Burgdorfer)