Ethanol Bust Makes Losers of Bush, Gates, D.E. Shaw (Update1)
By Joe Carroll and Mario Parker
Nov. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Ethanol, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's plan to wean the U.S. from oil, is 2007's worst energy investment.
The corn-based fuel tumbled 57 percent from last year's record of $4.33 a gallon and drove crop prices to a 10-year high. Production in the U.S. tripled after Morgan Stanley, hedge fund firm D.E. Shaw & Co. and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla helped finance a building boom.
Even worse for investors and the Bush administration, energy experts contend ethanol isn't reducing oil demand. Scientists at Cornell University say making the fuel uses more energy than it creates, while the National Research Council warns ethanol production threatens scarce water supplies.
As oil nears $100 a barrel, ethanol markets are so depressed that distilleries are shutting from Iowa to Germany. An investor who put $10 million into ethanol on Dec. 31 now has $7.5 million, a loss of 25 percent. Florida and Georgia have banned sales during the summer, when the fuel may evaporate and create smog.
``I don't anticipate any sort of immediate rebound,'' says Barry Frazier, the 50-year-old president of Center Ethanol LLC in suburban St. Louis. ``It's going to take 12 to 24 months before the market is able to absorb the large amount of new capacity.''
ADM, Bill Gates
The biggest producer, Archer Daniels Midland Co., may resort to exporting ethanol. Pacific Ethanol Inc., backed by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, dropped 70 percent in New York trading this year as profits collapsed. Record oil prices, which make blending of ethanol with gasoline more profitable for refiners, haven't stemmed the declines.
``Ethanol companies are near break-even at best,'' says Ron Oster, a principal at Broadpoint Capital Inc. in Albany, New York. ``That's not a good recipe when you have $100 oil.''
Corn has risen to $3.795 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade from less than $2.50 in September 2006. Ethanol on the exchange is little changed at $1.865 a gallon, after falling from a peak of $4.33 in June 2006.
The Bush energy plan spurred more production by mandating increased use of so-called biofuels, such as corn-based ethanol. The administration proposed raising output in the next 10 years to five times the current target amount for 2012.
The U.S. Senate approved the increase and lengthened the time frame to 2022. The federal government has 20 separate laws and incentives to boost ethanol use, and 49 states offer additional subsidies and supports, according to the Energy Department in Washington.
Scientists question the wisdom of using ethanol. Stanford University researchers say ethanol, originally added to gasoline in the 1970s to reduce tailpipe emissions, does nothing to improve the environment.
``It takes more energy to produce ethanol than it actually gives off,'' says David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor who has studied production of the fuel for two decades.
Ethanol is a form of alcohol indistinguishable from moonshine that's created by fermenting and distilling the starches from corn, sugar, wheat and other crops. Harvesting, crushing, fermenting and distilling corn requires 29 percent more energy than ethanol produces, says Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agriculture.