Hearings - Testimony
Full Committee Hearing
Oversight on Federal Renewable Fuels Programs
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Dr. Keith Collins
Chief Economist, U. S. Department of Agriculture

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the invitation to discuss the implications of the growing biofuels industry on American agriculture. Since the energy crisis of the 1970s, developing new energy sources from agricultural materials has been viewed as a way to expand the domestic energy supply and help lessen our dependence on imported oil. My comments today address recent growth in biofuels, the prospects for future growth, and the current and future implications of that growth for the U.S. agricultural economy.


Ethanol Market Production and Corn Use

In 2000, 1.6 billion gallons of ethanol were produced in the United States. By 2005, 4 billion gallons of ethanol were produced, a 150-percent increase in 5 years. In 2006, nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol are expected to be produced, a one-year increase of 20 percent. Today, over 100 ethanol plants operate in 20 states. The Renewable Fuels Association reports 42 ethanol plants are under construction and another 7 are expanding. When that construction and expansion is completed, ethanol capacity in the United States will be 7.7 billion gallons per year.

Despite the rapid growth in U.S. ethanol production, the 4 billion gallons produced in 2005 was equal only to about 3 percent of the 140 billion gallons of motor gasoline used. However, ethanol’s economic importance to agriculture is quite significant. In 2000, about 6 percent of U.S. corn production was used to produce ethanol. About 14 percent of the 2005 U.S. corn crop is estimated to have been used for ethanol, and USDA projects nearly 20 percent of the 2006 U.S. corn crop will be converted into ethanol. For the first time, in the 2006/07 corn marketing year, corn used in ethanol is expected to equal to the amount of corn exported. This rapid increase in the share of corn production used in ethanol highlights two key issues: (1) as more corn supplies ethanol plants, rising corn prices and increased corn acreage will have implications for other agricultural commodity markets and (2) because the supply of corn is relatively small compared with U.S. gasoline demand, other domestic sources of renewable and alternative energy must be developed to replace petroleum-based fuels if the United States is to reduce its dependence on imported oil.

A number of factors have contributed to the rapid increase in ethanol production, including the 51 cent per gallon tax credit provided to blenders, high crude oil and gasoline prices, low corn prices, the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the sharp reduction in use of ethanol’s main oxygenate competitor, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

Ethanol Production Cost

Another factor supporting ethanol expansion has been generally improving production economics. Ethanol production costs declined between 1980 and 1998. Technology improved over this period leading to: (1) a higher yield of ethanol per bushel of corn, (2) a lower cost of enzymes required for conversion, and (3) production automation which lowered labor costs. Energy input costs also fell over this period. Department of Agriculture (USDA) surveys indicate that between 1998 and 2002 the average cost of producing ethanol (excluding capital costs and a rate of return on investment) remained unchanged at about 95 cents per gallon. Since 2002, the cost of producing ethanol has increased by 10 to 15 cents per gallon due to the increased cost of energy (electricity and natural gas). Hence, USDA estimates that the current average cost of corn-based ethanol production is about $1.10 per gallon.

Ethanol Coproduct Animal Feeds

An issue that has gained attention as ethanol production has expanded is the implication for animal feed supplies, which is the primary use of corn. When corn is used for ethanol, it is diverted from animal feed and other uses such as exports. However, different forms of animal feeds are produced as ethanol coproducts. The primary feed from dry-mill ethanol plants, which account for most of the new plants, is distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS). About 17 pounds of DDGS are produced per bushel of corn used for ethanol. Distillers grains are sold one of three ways: DDGS with 13 percent moisture, wet distillers grains (WDG) with 67 percent moisture, or modified distillers grains with 50 percent moisture. Generally, animal nutritionists recommend a maximum of 25 percent DDGS for dairy feed rations on a dry matter basis and 40 percent DDGS for fed cattle. Monogastric poultry and hog rations can include up to 5-15 percent DDGS and are limited because of the high fiber content of DDGS.

DDGS can be used in livestock feed rations as a supply of both energy and protein. About one-third of the corn used in the production of ethanol is available as a feed in the form of coproducts feeds from dry mill ethanol plants. While these coproduct feeds can offset some of the feed supply going into ethanol production, there are some limitations on the ability to effectively use the available coproduct feeds. For example, some producers have indicated feeding at the upper end or more of the ranges indicated above can reduce product quality. In addition, some producers have been concerned with the variable quality of the coproduct feeds, and not all of the coproduct feeds make it into the U.S. animal feed supply due to drying, handling, and shipping costs.

Ethanol’s Longer Term Prospects and Implications for U.S. Agriculture

Industry analysts suggest that there may be another 60 or more ethanol plants under different stages of planning, and these plants are in addition to those currently under, or approved for, construction. The expectation is that production capacity could rise well above the current 7.7 billion gallon level of plants that are now operating or are under expansion or construction. New facilities under construction or in development tend to be large, with production capacity in the range of 50 to 100 million gallons per year. Ethanol production capacity could increase to 8.5 billion gallons by 2008-9 and more than 10 billion gallons by 2010 if many of the planned plants are built. Some suggest ethanol production could be well above 10 billion gallons. This prospect raises two issues: is such a production capacity likely, and if so, what would it mean for U.S. agriculture?

While many investments in biofuel production are planned, there are risks in the outlook that could slow or prevent continued rapid expansion. The major uncertainty is how the ethanol market will evolve over time if production of ethanol stays above the levels mandated by the RFS. There is no requirement for ethanol use to rise above 7.5 billion gallons per year at this time, and for use to exceed 7.5 billion gallons, ethanol must be competitive with gasoline in the marketplace. A combination of declining gasoline prices, sharply rising corn prices, or a decline in the price premium ethanol has had relative to gasoline could curtail the expansion in ethanol production. Let’s evaluate these factors.

Gasoline and ethanol prices. The surge in oil prices has made biofuels much more cost competitive with gasoline, helping to spur new investment. Ethanol and biodiesel production will continue to expand as long as world petroleum prices and ethanol prices remain high. World oil prices have increased sharply since 1999, from an annual average nominal price for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil of $19.25 per barrel to over $41 per barrel in 2004 and an expected $70.29 per barrel in 2006 (Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) short-term projection). EIA expects the price of crude oil to remain at about that level in 2007.

Higher crude oil prices have translated into higher wholesale and retail prices for gasoline and diesel fuel. EIA estimates that the average retail price for gasoline rose from $1.85 per gallon in 2004 to a forecast $2.72 per gallon in 2006. The wholesale, or rack, price of ethanol has generally traded at a premium to wholesale gasoline prices, in the range of 35 to 50 cents a gallon prior to the past year. With the recent increase in gasoline prices and the price premium on ethanol over gasoline rising to about $1.00 a gallon this year, the ethanol rack, or wholesale, price reached the mid-$3.00 per gallon range earlier this year, making corn-based ethanol very profitable.

Looking to the future, Chicago Board of Trade futures prices for ethanol in late August have been about $2.20 per gallon for December 2006 delivery and December 2007 delivery. While these prices indicate a drop from this summer’s prices and a reduction of the premium on ethanol over gasoline, they suggest continued strong and profitable prices at the ethanol plant level.

Further, if the world price of crude oil remains higher than $50 (in 2005 dollars) per barrel in the future, as projected by EIA, and corn prices do not rise considerably, then ethanol would be used as a gasoline extender, because ethanol would be competitive with gasoline and demand for ethanol would readily exceed the minimum levels in the RFS. Below about $30 per barrel for crude oil, there would no incentive to produce corn ethanol beyond the RFS, because ethanol would be unprofitable to produce and market as a fuel extender.

Corn prices. While the prospective gasoline and ethanol prices suggest a strong continued incentive to expand ethanol production, rising corn prices could reduce the profitability of corn ethanol and slow the expansion in ethanol production. Corn costs are the primary input cost in corn ethanol production. This summer the net feedstock cost of corn to ethanol plants, which is the cost of corn minus the value of the coproducts, has been about 50 to 60 cents per gallon of ethanol while the ethanol rack price has been in the range of $3.50 per gallon. During the past decade, the net cost of corn peaked during the summer of 1996 when it reached about $1.50 per bushel, about the same as the rack price of ethanol. The high corn price caused many ethanol plants to shut down that summer. With ethanol rack prices above $3.00 per gallon, ethanol plants can pay high prices for corn and remain profitable and in operation. We used a financial model for a 45-million-gallon-per-year dry mill ethanol plant to estimate how high corn prices could go and plants still cover operating costs (excluding any return on invested capital). With ethanol prices at the plant of $2.25 per gallon, a dry mill plant could pay up to about $5.00 per bushel of corn and cover operating costs. The all-time record-high season-average corn price is $3.24 per bushel in 1995/96, and corn prices have exceeded $3 per bushel in only 3 other years. This analysis suggests with continued strong gasoline and ethanol prices over the next several years, corn prices will not discourage ethanol expansion unless corn prices increase to well beyond previous record-high levels. Another implication is that ethanol plants will likely be able to bid corn away from other users over a wide range of corn prices.

Agricultural Market and Program Impacts of Expanded Ethanol Production. USDA released long-term projections of agricultural markets last February that indicated the general effects of increased ethanol production on agriculture. At that time, USDA projected corn ethanol production at about 7.5 billion gallons during the 2012/13 crop year. At that level, 2.75 billion bushels of corn would be used for ethanol, compared with 2.15 billion expected in 2006/07. As a result of the increase in ethanol demand for corn, the analysis indicated that corn acreage planted would rise to 85 million acres in 2012, up from 81.8 million in 2005 and 79.4 million in 2006. Corn prices would increase to $2.60 per bushel compared with $1.99 in 2005/06 and an expected $2.35 in 2006/07. U.S. corn feed use is projected to decline slightly and corn exports to rise slightly to 2.2 billion bushels in 2012/13, which would be well below corn use for ethanol. The increases in corn acreage and yield, which rises from 148 bushels per harvested acre in 2005 to 158.5 bushels per acre in 2012/13, are sufficient to meet the rising ethanol and export demand. Soybean acreage declines from current levels, as some land shifts to corn production; soybean meal faces greater competition from corn ethanol coproduct feeds; and soybean exports decline from current estimates for 2006/07 as competition from Brazil and Argentina increases. These opposing forces result in soybean prices rising slightly through 2012/13 driven by acreage declines and the increase in soybean oil demand. Livestock profitability declines under higher corn feeding costs, but beef prices still decline due to the secular expansion of the cattle cycle that is just now beginning. Hog and broiler prices generally remain at the levels of the past couple of years.

The USDA analysis depicts a farm sector that adjusts fairly readily to higher corn demand as crop prices are generally bid up with acreage shifts to corn. The livestock sector faces higher feed costs and incurs modest and manageable adjustment.

While this analysis is comforting, it is out of date, as ethanol production appears to be on a path to exceed USDA’s long-term projections released last winter. USDA will release a new analysis this winter. In the meantime, based on the discussion to this point, we can draw a series of conclusions about the ability of agricultural markets to adjust to rapid increases in biofuel production:

1) Ethanol production is exceeding most analysts’ expectations, including USDA projections. The 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol production previously forecast by 2012/2013 was mainly driven by the RFS. With expected market incentives, ethanol production may reach 7.5 billion gallons over the next couple of years and could reach in excess of 10 billion gallons by 2010/2011.

2) Gasoline and ethanol prices are likely to stay high enough over the next several years to maintain ethanol expansion. While there is much uncertainty about future crude oil prices, continued world economic growth and limited expansion in crude oil production are expected to maintain crude oil prices at relatively high levels over the next several years. Continued historically high crude oil prices, and in turn gasoline prices, will help maintain ethanol prices and foster continued growth in ethanol production. There is also uncertainty in the longer term as to the relationship of ethanol to gasoline prices. As ethanol production expands, the unusually high premium relative to gasoline prices seen this year will decline and in the longer term may reflect the energy content of the two fuels.

3) Corn ethanol returns are such that plants can remain profitable over a wide range of corn prices. With continued relatively high crude oil, gasoline and ethanol prices, ethanol plants can pay much higher prices for corn and remain profitable. Various state incentives, particularly in Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota, add to ethanol returns and boost the price ethanol plants can pay for corn and remain profitable.

4) Corn prices could set new record highs over the next 5 to 6 years. Increased demand for corn for conversion into ethanol will likely lead to higher corn prices as corn must be bid away from other uses, and land must be bid into corn production and away from other crops. As ethanol production expands over the next several years, corn prices appear likely to set new records, especially if production is adversely affected by weather.

5) Ethanol plants will likely continue to operate even if corn prices rise well above past record highs. Ethanol plants will be able to bid corn away from a variety of other uses over a wide range of corn prices. In the short term, export demand is more price sensitive than domestic feed use, so competition for corn supplies would result in larger percentage declines in corn exports compared with other uses.

6) The United States will need substantial increases in corn acreage to prevent exports from declining and livestock profitability from falling. We can illustrate the need for more corn acreage with the following example. Assume ethanol production increases to 10 billion gallons in the 2010 crop year, corn yield per harvested acre rises to 155 bushels per acre as projected by USDA’s last long-term projections, ethanol yield is 2.8 gallons per bushel of corn, and 15 percent of corn used for ethanol returns to corn feed use in the form of DDGS. Then, if exports and feed use are to be maintained, corn acreage would have to rise to about 90 million acres in 2010, or 5.5 million more than in USDA’s February baseline projections and nearly 10 million more than the average planted during 2005 and 2006. Econometric relationships suggest that corn prices would have to rise to around $3.10-3.20 per bushel, or near the current record high, to attract the 5.5 million more acres to corn. To the extent that corn exports and domestic feed use would decline from current levels under the higher corn prices, corn prices would be lower and less corn acreage would be needed to meet ethanol demand than indicated in this illustration. Stronger growth in corn yields per acre would also reduce the corn acreage and price effects of larger ethanol production.

7) The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has 36 million acres set aside from crop production for environmental reasons, may provide a source of additional crop acreage. As CRP contracts mature, increasing numbers of producers may not seek to reenroll in the CRP, and instead, bring previously idled land back into crop production. The CRP will likely be examined as part of the 2007 Farm Bill process. The extent to which producers voluntarily exit the CRP or changes in CRP policy could reduce the effects of rapid ethanol expansion on corn prices noted above. To provide a rough indication of CRP land that could potentially be used to produce corn, we examined all CRP land in counties where 25 percent or more of harvested cropland was producing non-irrigated corn and soybeans. Only CRP land enrolled during general signups that could be farmed sustainably was considered. The higher environmentally-valued land enrolled in continuous signups and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program was excluded. This preliminary assessment concluded that 4.3 to 7.2 million acres currently enrolled in the CRP could be used to grow corn or soybeans in a sustainable way.

8) It is likely other exporters (such as Brazil and Argentina) will have to supply more corn to the world market as world meat demand rises and U.S. corn ethanol production increases. As U.S. ethanol production expands, higher U.S. and world corn prices would provide an incentive for Brazil and Argentina to expand corn production and compete with U.S. corn in world markets.

9) Corn stocks are likely to be increasingly tight and corn prices high, so the corn sector will be highly vulnerable to market disruptions—ethanol plants and other users will be operating in a much riskier environment than we have today. The expansion in corn ethanol production is likely to keep corn stocks at low levels. Market disruptions are likely not only from supply disruptions due to natural causes but also from market participants such as China, who as witnessed in energy markets, can be a big demand-side factor. A systemic natural disaster, such as drought, could cause dramatic corn price increases under this tight market environment.

10) Corn ethanol alone cannot greatly reduce U.S. dependence on crude oil imports. About 58 percent of all crude oil used in the United States is imported. In 2006, ethanol production will reach 5 billion gallons, which is equivalent on an energy content basis to only 1.5 percent of U.S. crude oil imports.

11) Cellulosic ethanol production appears to be the best renewable alternative for reducing crude oil imports. Given the current barriers to commercialization of cellulosic ethanol, such as high production costs relative to corn ethanol, corn ethanol will have the competitive advantage for some time. This suggests that the tightening corn supply and demand balance as more and more corn is converted to ethanol will not be relieved by cellulosic ethanol for some years into the future.

12) Even so, ethanol growth is manageable in the near future. Markets will work over the longer term, but the allocation function of market prices can mean substantial costs for some sectors, so the evolution of ethanol bears close monitoring. Key factors that could ease the market adjustment are corn yield increases and acreage withdrawals from the CRP. Corn yields since 2004 have exceeded the long-term trend based on 1980-2003 data. If these yield increases reflect better a faster pace of improved seed varieties and adoption, trend corn yields could well exceed 155 bushels by 2010. Each 5 bushel increase in yield above current trend would be the equivalent of adding around 2.5 million acres to corn plantings, enough to produce an additional one billion gallons of ethanol.

Biodiesel Production and Soybean Oil Use

Biodiesel, a biofuel substitute for petroleum diesel, is mostly made from soybean oil (estimated at over 90 percent), but some producers use other oilseed crops, palm oil, animal fats and recycled oils to make biodiesel. Biodiesel blends can be used in most diesel engines, with little modification. Because it has similar properties to petroleum diesel fuel, biodiesel can be blended in any ratio with petroleum diesel fuel and is most often blended at the 20 percent level (B20). Today, most B20 is used by government motor fleets, urban bus fleets, and school buses. In addition biodiesel has been used in farm equipment, marine engines and furnaces as a replacement for heating oil. The trucking industry has recently shown interest in using biodiesel and B20 is being offered at some truck stops.

U.S. biodiesel production remained very small and flat until USDA created the Commodity Credit Corporation Bioenergy Program in fiscal year (FY) 2000 that encouraged biodiesel production through cash payments to producers. Mostly as a result of this program, biodiesel production jumped from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to 28 million gallons in 2004. In 2005, 91 million gallons of biodiesel were produced with 65 million supported by the program. The Bioenergy Program authorization from the 2002 Farm Bill ends in FY 2006. Even so, with high diesel prices and new tax incentives, USDA forecasts biodiesel production will reach 245 million gallons in 2006, a 170-percent increase year over year and a 490-fold increase since 1999.

As of April 2006, the National Biodiesel Board indicated there were 65 commercial U.S. biodiesel plants. The annual production capacity of these plants ranges from 200,000 gallons to 30 million gallons, and they have a total capacity of about 400 million gallons. Most plants have an annual production capacity below 6 million gallons. Only 7 plants have an annual capacity above 15 million gallons, however, newer plants currently under construction tend to be larger. The National Biodiesel Board reports that there were 50 new plants under construction as of April 2006 that are expected to add another 700 million gallons to annual capacity. The annual capacity of these new plants ranges between 15,000 and 85 million gallons. Fourteen plants will have an annual capacity over 15 million gallons. Soybean oil is the most common feedstock used for biodiesel production, however, the largest plant under construction that will have an annual capacity of 85 million gallons plans to use canola oil. Plants that use recycled cooking oil are generally smaller with capacities ranging between 15,000 and 1 million gallons per year.

Biodiesel Production Costs

The cost of building a biodiesel plant depends on many factors, including plant capacity, location, plant design, and equipment cost, which varies by the type of feedstock used. A general rule of thumb for estimating the cost of installing a small biodiesel plant is about $1.00 per gallon of annual capacity, thus a 5-million-gallon capacity plant has an estimated installation cost of $5 million. However, due to economies of scale, the installation costs begin to decrease as plant size exceeds about 5 million gallons per year.

When assessing the cost of producing biodiesel, soybean oil has a higher cost than some other feedstocks, such as yellow grease and beef tallow, but these alternatives cost more to process. The processing cost per gallon of biodiesel, including the cost of materials, labor, energy, plant depreciation, and interest averages about $0.50 per gallon for a 5 million gallon per year plant. The cost of the feedstock is by far the largest expense for a biodiesel producer. For example, soybean oil at current prices would cost about $1.95 to produce one gallon of biodiesel, resulting in a total production cost (excluding capital costs) of about $2.45 per gallon. Adding the expected return to investment and the costs for transportation, blending, and marketing would push the expected retail price of 100 percent biodiesel (B100) well over $3.00 per gallon. Until recently, the high cost of biodiesel has made it very difficult for biodiesel to compete in the diesel fuel market. However, with the recent surge in crude oil prices, diesel fuel prices have risen to historical highs, and biodiesel has become more cost competitive. Moreover, recent legislation has granted biodiesel a $1.00 per gallon excise tax credit and a $0.10 gallon small producer tax credit. Government incentives along with higher diesel fuel prices have made biodiesel production profitable and the industry is now expanding rapidly, much like ethanol. Biodiesel production is expected to continue growing rapidly over the next few years, with over 100 plants expected to be on-line by the end of 2007. The pace of this expansion will depend on crude oil and diesel prices remaining relatively high.

Biodiesel’s Longer Term Prospects and Implications for U.S. Agriculture

The biodiesel industry is still young and relatively small, so as it grows to a larger scale and when an infrastructure is developed, the costs of producing and marketing biodiesel may decline. New cost-saving technologies will likely be developed to help producers use energy more efficiently, increase conversion yields and convert cheaper feedstocks into high-quality biodiesel. However, in the longer term, the biggest challenge may be the ability of the feedstock supply to keep up with growing demand. The supply of soybeans and other feedstocks available for biodiesel production will be limited by competition from other uses and land constraints. For the 2005/06 crop year, biodiesel production accounted for 5 percent of soybean oil use, and for 2006/07, biodiesel is expected to account for 2.6 billion pounds of soybean oil or 13 percent of total soybean oil use. The 2.6 billion pounds equals the oil extracted from 229 million bushels of soybeans or 8 percent of estimated U.S. soybean production in 2006. Therefore, the rapidly increasing demand for biodiesel will tend to push feedstock prices up, causing production costs to rise.


In 2006, ethanol and biodiesel production is expected to total about 5.3 billion gallons, an important new source of demand for U.S. agriculture. Biofuel production is increasing farm income and rural economic activity. However, the supply of corn is relatively small compared with U.S. gasoline demand, so other domestic sources of renewable and alternative energy must be developed to replace oil and thus reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil. Biodiesel, which has grown more rapidly than ethanol in recent years on a percentage basis, can extend the U.S. supply of diesel fuel, but the supply of oil crops, animal fats and other biodiesel feedstocks are also relatively small compared to the size of the overall diesel fuel market.

There is optimism that research may provide technological breakthroughs that lead to a significant expansion in ethanol produced from alternative biomass feedstocks. Ethanol’s feedstock base could expand significantly with the advancement of technologies that economically convert switchgrass and other low-valued biomass into cellulosic ethanol.

Corn ethanol will have an advantage over biomass ethanol in the near future under existing biomass technologies. It will take continued research and development and time to increase the ethanol yield per dry ton of biomass. In addition, research and development is needed to increase energy crop yield per acre and reduce the conversion cost of biomass to ethanol. The Department of Energy is investing in this research and development in its Genomics: GTL program in the Office of Science and in its Office of Biomass programs. Research activities are also being conducted by USDA. In addition, the Department of Energy and the USDA recently announced joint funding for new research projects aimed at improving energy crops. Ensuring biofuels meet consistent quality standards will also be important for meeting consumer needs and market expansion.

Mr. Chairman, that completes my statement.


Majority Office
410 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.Washington, DC 20510-6175
phone: 202-224-6176
Minority Office
456 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.Washington, DC 20510-6175
phone: 202-224-8832