by Stephanie Kelly
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. ethanol industry is showing some signs of recovery as government officials ease stay-at-home orders that depressed fuel demand, while a vote Friday in Congress could bring the industry one step closer to federal aid, industry officials said.
Fuel demand collapsed by about a third with the spread of the novel coronavirus this spring, and U.S. ethanol production capacity halved as around 150 facilities either idled or reduced rates. Now as restrictions ease and gasoline demand inches higher, about 140 facilities are idled or running at reduced rates, Renewable Fuels Association President Geoff Cooper said on Friday.
“It seems the worst may be behind us,” Cooper said in a call with reporters. “But make no mistake, we still have a very long way to go to climb out of the hole that COVID-19 put us in.”
U.S. production of ethanol - a corn-based fuel that refiners must blend into their gasoline - has increased since the start of May, rising to 617,000 barrels per day in the week to May 8, U.S. Energy Information Administration data showed. Production bottomed at the end of April, at 537,000 bpd.
Output is still down more than 40% from year-ago levels, though. And while inventories fell in the most recent week to 24.2 million barrels, stored supply is still nearly 9% higher than the same time last year, EIA data showed.
U.S. ethanol output up but supply glut remains
U.S. ethanol production has risen since the start of May after falling steeply because of coronavirus effects. Inventories are drawing, but are still higher than year-ago levels.
“We are seeing inventories come down, but we need to see frankly many more weeks of that to get this thing back into balance,” said Neil Koehler, chief executive of Pacific Ethanol.
The increased production comes as Congress readies a vote on Friday for a coronavirus relief bill that includes aid for the biofuels industry. After assistance to the industry failed to make its way into the first relief package from Congress, advocates hope that the new bill will pass the House of Representatives on Friday before moving on to the Senate.
The bill, introduced by House Democrats, would reimburse producers that suffered unexpected market losses because of the pandemic from Jan. 1 through May 1.
“I’m confident it will get through today’s legislation, but after that, that’s another story,” Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, a biofuels advocate who represents Illinois, told Reuters. “More help will be necessary. We need help in the ag industry; we need help for our family farmers.”