How the EPA’s QAP program will impact the renewable fuel industry

“America likes cheap gasoline,” says Sandra Dunphy, director of Energy Compliance Services at Weaver. “But as much as we want cheap gasoline, we also want clean gasoline and clean air — and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.”

In the balancing act between the two, Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which are attached to gallons of renewable fuel as it is produced, have become very valuable to the oil companies required to own them.

“If you bought 1 million RINs on Jan. 1, it would have cost you about $70,000,” Dunphy says. “Today, that same purchase would cost about $1 million.”

Because there’s so much money in RINs, there’s also the potential for fraud. After a handful of fraud cases rocked the market, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stepped in with a solution — Quality Assurance Plans (QAPs).

Smart Business spoke with Dunphy about the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standards program and how QAPs fit in.

How do RINs and the RFS program work?

Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007 to introduce fuels with lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and promote domestic agriculture and employment. This act spawned the EPA’s RFS regulations that encourage biofuels beyond corn ethanol — those made from non-food sources like used cooking oil, wood chips and algae.

Oil refiners and importers of gasoline or diesel are required to own a certain amount of RINs at year-end. The RFS requirements will increase annually from about 16.5 billion gallons in 2013 to about 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Why have RINs become so valuable?

We are hitting the blend wall. When this law passed, Congress anticipated that the volume of gas and diesel we consume would increase each year. But demand has fallen with fuel-efficient vehicles and fewer driving miles, and now there’s nowhere to put additional renewable fuel into the declining gas and diesel pool. Anticipating higher mandated renewable fuel volumes, and a possible shortage of RINs, many oil companies are buying RINs now to use in 2014 — 20 percent of RINs can be carried forward from one year to the next.

Why did the EPA create the QAP program?

Since 2011, a few RIN fraud cases have shaken the market’s foundation and made oil companies nervous about buying renewable fuel or RINs, after the EPA penalized oil companies who used fraudulent RINs for their annual compliance needs. As a result, many oil companies started buying only from the biggest renewable fuel producers who had the ability to replace bad RINs, and small fuel producers suffered.

The QAP program seeks to address the concerns of invalid RINs in the market and tries to level the playing field.

How does the QAP program validate RINs?

There are three options available to a domestic renewable fuel producer or importer with this program. The first option is to maintain the status quo, where oil companies do their own due diligence reviews. Second, under the QAP-B program, the producer hires an auditor to audit its paperwork and conduct an engineering visit quarterly to ensure the energy and mass going into the plant are equivalent to the energy and mass going out. It reassures those buying the RINs that the producer is doing everything it is supposed to. The oil company has an affirmative defense against EPA penalties if they use a QAP-B RIN for compliance. They just might have to replace bad RINs if the producer cannot.

Another option is the QAP-A program. It’s the same as QAP-B, but the scrutiny is more ongoing. In addition, the auditor must hold an insurance policy. So, if a producer makes an invalid RIN and can’t replace it, the auditor is responsible.

What’s the timeline for the QAP?

The EPA has not issued the program’s final regulations. That is likely to happen in the third or fourth quarter of this year and become effective beginning in 2014. However, the EPA is encouraging producers to get started now. A renewable fuel producer’s purchasers will probably dictate what type of QAP the producer will need, if any.

Follow up: Weaver has been pre-approved to perform U.S. EPA RFS Quality Assurance Plan audits. Contact Sandra Dunphy if you’re a domestic producer or importer of renewable fuel and would like to learn more.

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