Does the U.S. Biofuels Mandate Increase the Price at the Pump?
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as amended by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 created a federal mandate for blending conventional biofuels like corn-based ethanol and advanced biofuels like biodiesel and renewable gasoline into the United States transportation fuel supply. The RFS established yearly blending standards for the obligated parties--refiners and importers of petroleum products--that increase progressively until reaching a high of 36 billion gallons by 2022. Each ethanol-equivalent gallon of biofuel blended is assigned a unique Renewable Identification Number (RIN) through the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Moderated Transaction System (EMTS). At year's close, obligated parties must submit their allotted RIN obligations to the EPA to demonstrate compliance. In the case of under-compliance or over-compliance, RINs can be traded between obligated parties freely through the EMTS or carried over for use in the next year. It follows, then, that a RIN carries a market value reflective of the cost of complying with RFS regulations. Indeed, most biofuels cost more than their fossil-based equivalents. When the price of a corn ethanol RIN went from 2-3 cents each in 2012 to nearly $1.50 in July of 2013 due to a perceived shortage in corn ethanol RINs, obligated parties faced the prospect of multimillion-dollar compliance cost increases. Arguing that RFS makes fuel significantly more expensive for consumers, petroleum companies have begun to advocate for the full repeal of the RFS, winning over some allies in Congress. The future of this program is uncertain. In an attempt to quantify the concerns of RFS critics, this thesis estimated the effect that RIN prices have on the wholesale cost of diesel fuel. Using daily price data from January 2011 through August of 2013 on RINs and crude oil, I specified twelve OLS regression models that predict the passthrough of the diesel RIN price to wholesale diesel price. My statistical analysis suggests that the diesel RIN price is a useful predictor of wholesale diesel price; however, my analysis also casts some doubt on the claims of obligated parties that they pass the cost of compliance onto the consumer, thereby increasing fuel prices significantly.
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