The Great Ethanol Shuffle

Corn Commenatry
National Corn Growers Association

There’s a hot new craze called the “Ethanol Shuffle” sweeping seaports from Sao Paulo to Los Angeles as tankers carrying Brazilian sugarcane ethanol bound for California pass those carrying corn ethanol bound for Brazil.

Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) Vice President of Research and Analysis Geoff Cooper wrote about the “Ethanol Shuffle” on the RFA E-xchange Blog. Basically, we are shuffling sugarcane ethanol from Brazil to California to meet that state’s Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS) – while at the same time, Brazil is importing lower priced corn ethanol from the United States to make up for not only the ethanol it is exporting to California, but the shortfall that country has experienced in ethanol production recently.

“So, that’s how the “Ethanol Shuffle” works. California imports sugarcane ethanol from Brazil rather than corn ethanol from Nebraska or Kansas; and in turn, corn ethanol from the Midwest travels to Houston or Galveston via rail, then is shipped to Brazil via tanker to “backfill” the volumes they sent to the U.S. Picture the irony of a tanker full of U.S. corn ethanol bound for Brazil passing a tanker full of cane ethanol bound for Los Angeles or Miami along a Caribbean shipping route.”

This is more than ironic, it’s just plain ignorant. First of all, sugarcane ethanol costs more than corn ethanol. According to Cooper, the ethanol California has been importing from Brazil has been an average of $1.56 per gallon MORE than corn ethanol from the Midwest. “As far as E10 goes, that’s about a 16 cent per gallon differential,” said Cooper.

The reason California prefers sugarcane ethanol over corn is because they claim it is better for the environment, a claim which can be disputed, depending on how the life cycle analysis is determined (see previous post). But, even if sugarcane ethanol actually does have a better carbon footprint than corn ethanol, that advantage is lost in the transportation shuffle. “If we were serving the California market with corn ethanol from Nebraska and the Brazilians were satisfying their own demands with their own fuel, the emissions related with moving that fuel are about half of what we’re seeing with this shuffling dynamic,” said Cooper.

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