By Isis Almeida
The world’s biggest agricultural commodities traders are gearing up to profit from a boom in the American renewable diesel industry.
As President Joe Biden presses ahead with his green agenda, Cargill Inc. is investing $475 million to boost its capacity to process soybeans, key in producing the cooking oils used in renewable diesel. Rivals Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd. are working on making plants more efficient, and Andersons Inc. set up a desk to trade feedstocks for the green fuel.
The traders are targeting the growing market as American refiners including Phillips 66, Marathon Petroleum Corp., HollyFrontier Corp. and Valero Energy Corp. jump on the green diesel bandwagon. Renewable diesel is a fuel made from biomass that has the same properties of the fossil fuel, and it’s likely to benefit from President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate agenda that signals a push away from fossil fuels. While many refiners will seek to produce it from discarded cooking oil or animal fats, they will need to turn to traditional vegetable oils made from crops like corn and soybeans to meet demand.
“We think it’s going to be a big market,” said Pat Bowe, chief executive officer of crop handler Andersons. “It’s a really important demand driver for the fats and oils complex that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
The increased demand comes just as restaurants across America are reopening, boosting demand for cooking oils, and driving miles recover to pre-pandemic levels. That’s boosted competition with the food industry, which uses the oils in everything from Nutella -- a key consumer of palm oil -- to plant-based burgers, many of which have soybean oil as a key ingredient.
Soybean oil demand could increase by half a billion pounds this year due to the extra demand from the renewable diesel industry, Juan Luciano, ADM’s CEO said in January. If two-thirds of the planned renewable diesel capacity gets built over the next three to four years, that will require about 15 billion pounds of feedstock, Ray Young, the company’s chief financial officer said this month.
“Regardless of how you do the arithmetic, it’s going to be an environment where soybean oil is going to be very, very valued by the industry as an important feedstock to support the growth of renewable green diesel,” Young said at an investment conference. “We think this is going to be a very favorable multiyear phenomenon for the North American soy crush industry.”
Cargill’s investments include doubling soybean processing capacity at its plant in Sidney, Ohio, and expanding processing by 10% in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. ADM said it’s working on improving efficiency at its plants to provide incremental supply while Andersons set up a trading desk in Kansas City last year to buy and sell feedstocks including soybean oil, tallow and the corn oil it produces from its many ethanol plants, Bowe said in an interview last month.
Bunge, the world’s largest oilseeds processor, said it plans to allocate some capital for investments in the area, which include increasing tank-storage capacity and improving efficiency of its refineries. While the traders all want to supply the renewable diesel industry, they don’t want to produce it themselves
The market is already taking notice of the new demand. Soybean oil futures have jumped almost 25% this year as palm oil also extended gains. Demand is also gaining as blending traditional biodiesel into fossil fuels has become more profitable with the rise in crude oil prices.
“Renewable diesel should see growing demand as long as government incentives remain in place,” said Seth Goldstein, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. “If the Biden administration is able to get clean fuel standards passed for heavy trucks, the U.S. would likely see a spike in demand for renewable diesel.”
But there’s also the risk of over-investing. Some traditional biodiesel plants may end up closing as a result of the renewable diesel boom, while too many traders fighting for one market could end up squeezing margins.
“We’re going to be very thoughtful and show a lot of discipline, which this industry needs to do,” Bunge CEO Greg Heckman said in February, adding that the company was being “thoughtful about how we serve this growing demand that is structural and is going to be in place.”