SAO PAULO – Brazil ethanol producers stand to lose a big chunk of their largest market, Japan, to U.S. agribusiness, after Tokyo bent to pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump and tweaked requirements for gasoline additives.
Until recently, nearly all the ethanol used to make ethyl tert-butyl ether (ETBE) for Japanese consumption has come from Brazil, whose sugarcane-based ethanol boasts lower emissions of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than U.S. ethanol made from corn.
But in mid-April, Japan’s government loosened emissions requirements on ETBE while its prime minister was visiting the United States. Brazilian cane industry group Unica accused Tokyo of backsliding on environmental controls.
The move created an opening for American ethanol producers, who cheered the development. It’s a rare trade victory for U.S. farmers who have suffered much of the blowback from Washington’s escalating trade row with China.
“For the first time, the U.S. ethanol industry will have the opportunity to compete for a portion of Japan’s fuel blending market,” Emily Skor, head of Washington-based ethanol group Growth Energy, said in a statement.
Brazilian cane producers are the latest casualties in a trade dispute kicked off by Trump last year.
China boosted imports of Brazilian soybeans and threatened tariffs on U.S. soybeans. Steep duties on U.S. sorghum imports made shippers find new homes for 20 bulk vessels worth more than $200 million that were already en route to China.
Japan’s new ethanol rules started with a public consultation last year to review fuel blending standards.
However, a senior Brazilian diplomat said on condition of anonymity that Brasilia had expected the move as a way for Japan to ease Trump’s concerns about that country’s trade surplus with the United States.
“Due to the large U.S. trade deficit, it was clear that ethanol could be one of those products used to reduce the imbalance,” the diplomat said.
Japan consumes nearly 45 percent of Brazil’s ethanol exports, or about 800 million liters annually, including the volumes used for ETBE, much of which is made by U.S. producers.
Much of the ETBE used in Japan is already made in the United States using Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, so the new rules should make it easy for producers to switch quickly to U.S. corn-based sources.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture report said the Japanese policy change could create a market opportunity for U.S. ethanol producers of 366 million liters, valued at around $170 million.
“In the end, whatever you take away from Brazil you give to the U.S.,” an ethanol export trader said.
The shift adds to rising tension in the ethanol industry. Last year, Brazil slapped a 20 percent tariff on U.S. exports in an effort to slow southbound flows.
Even with the tariff, U.S. ethanol exports hit a record high in February, thanks largely to rising Brazilian demand as higher gasoline prices and low international sugar prices made ethanol more competitive at the pump.