When the government introduced the mandates for ethanol and related biofuels, they needed a way in which companies could verify that they were complying with the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007. For whatever reason, the decided mechanism would require that companies purchase credits to demonstrate that they had complied with the mandate: a renewable identification number (RIN). Each RIN is theoretically tied to a gallon of ethanol, biodiesel, or similar renewable fuel. However, because the RINs can be sold and traded similar to stock, in practice the pairing of a RIN with a particular gallon of fuel is somewhat superficial.
Unfortunately, this government created market in RINs has created an opportunity for criminally-minded entrepreneurs to scam the companies who are attempting to comply with the law by creating fake RINs and selling them in the marketplace. Note that these oil companies are required by law to purchase these credits, and its often difficult to verify that they are genuine, leading oil companies to often completely bypass small producers and only purchase biofuels and credits from larger, recognizable producers, a somewhat unique barrier to entry for small firms (suspicion of fraud). The latest case in fraudulent RINs surfaced late last month involved the sale of 60 million credits worth roughly $84 million, the third big bust in recent years ($ub required):
According to the violation notice, EPA determined that the fake credits were generated between July 16, 2010, and July 15, 2011. The Clean Air Act allows the agency to assess a civil penalty of up to $37,500 a day for each violation.
“When fuel credits are generated or used that do not represent qualifying renewable fuel, it undermines Congress’ goals in creating the program, creates market uncertainty and is a violation of the standard,” EPA said in a statement emailed to Greenwire. “EPA enforcement of the standard deters fraud and abuse in the system, helps to restore certainty in the market and ensures that the goals of Congress are met.”
This is the third notice EPA has issued since November to companies allegedly producing fake credits, and it is likely not the last.
Last November, EPA accused a Maryland man of generating $9 million worth of fraudulent renewable identification numbers (RINs) on his computer. The 38-digit numbers represented 22 million gallons of biodiesel that was never produced at the man’s company, Clean Green Fuel LLC.
EPA issued another violation notice in February to Texas-based Absolute Fuels LLC for allegedly creating 48 million fake credits worth approximately $62 million. The agency said CEO Jeffrey Gunselman used the money to purchase an aircraft and a number of vehicles, including a 2010 Mercedes Benz and a 2011 Bentley.
Yes, creating markets that are easy to fraudulently manipulate would indeed seem to undercut the goal of the ethanol mandate. Thankfully, unlike in previous cases, the EPA is working constructively with the companies who have been subjected to these scams rather than fining them for getting caught up in a problem the government has created.
This is yet another reason why moving forward with increasing blends of ethanol is not a good idea. Freeze the mandate at 2012 levels if it can’t be scrapped completely. Yes, the short term capital losses from ethanol investments will be realized, and this will hurt a lot, but the alternative is to continue investments into a fuel that is still more expensive than gasoline once you adjust for its lower energy content. Or we can continue pretending that whatever minute environmental benefits accrue from corn ethanol are worth the absurd push to encourage ethanol use beyond E10. We can also continue to pretend that cellulosic ethanol is around the corner, and won’t suffer from the same problems that have haunted corn ethanol: high prices and heavy land use.