By Kim Chipman
A sprawling truck stop chain partly owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is buying an ethanol plant just as the beleaguered industry may be turning around.
Green Plains Inc. said Wednesday it plans to sell a 65 million-gallon ethanol plant for $64 million to GreenAmerica Biofuels Ord LLC. GreenAmerica is a unit of Knoxville, Tennessee-based Pilot Co., which says it is the 10th-largest closely held company in the U.S. and the nation’s largest operator of travel centers and truck stops.
The deal puts Buffett’s Berkshire, which owns 38.6% of Pilot, in a position to benefit if fuel demand picks up as more Americans are vaccinated and as exports to countries such as China increase. Berkshire’s BNSF Railway already transports the biofuel around the country.
Crop trader Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. said it sees green shoots of recovery for the ethanol industry, after some producers shut plants or switched to making hand sanitizer instead of the biofuel. The company’s chief financial officer said Tuesday in an earnings call that China’s commitments to buy U.S. ethanol in the first half of 2021 may equal the previous full-year record.
Ethanol producers had fallen on hard times, with the cost of corn used to make the biofuel surging as China ramped up imports from the U.S. to feed its hog herds. At the same time, demand for gasoline -- and ethanol -- slumped as lockdowns to stem the Covid pandemic’s spread kept cars off the road.
Now, ethanol prices are rebounding, with prices in Chicago reaching the highest in more than a year and the cost for credits that refiners need to buy in lieu of blending the biofuel into gasoline have almost doubled from three months ago. They’ve been steadily climbing since Joe Biden won the White House, stoked by the new president’s commitments to address climate change and his criticism of refinery waivers issued under Donald Trump.
Pilot, which went from a single gas station 63 years ago to a sprawling chain of truck stops, convenience stores, travel centers and fast food franchises, declined to comment on the transaction. Pilot’s chairman, James Haslam III, is owner of the Cleveland Browns football team and brother of former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam.
Berkshire Hathaway representatives didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Omaha, Nebraska-based Green Plains said the ethanol plant sale is expected to close within the next 45 days and result in a pre-tax gain of about $37 million. The deal is part of Green Plains Chief Executive Officer Todd Becker’s plan to transform the company into a cutting-edge, agricultural technology firm, with corn-based ethanol production fading into the background as byproduct.