In 2007, the U.S. government set biofuel targets based on projections of future gasoline consumption. The recession, however, changed usage patterns and, now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which updates the targets, has been forced to trim those goals. That's bad in some ways, but could be an opportunity for FutureFuel (NYSE:FF) to grow.
Not enough gas
Gasoline use has fallen since the 2007 to 2009 recession. Science is the problem facing biofuels, because ethanol, one of the big beneficiaries of the Renewable Fuels Standard mandates, can actually hurt auto engines if it makes up more than 10% of gasoline. The mandates are right up against this "blend wall," so they have to be loosened.
This isn't the first time that the EPA has had to act, but this time it's reduced mandates across the board. That could have a negative impact on companies like FutureFuel that make bio-diesel. With a potential reduction in demand, prices would likely slump.
Luckily, about a third of FutureFuel's third quarter revenue came from its specialty chemicals business. So there's more to the company than just bio-diesel. And, the company has no long-term debt and nearly $100 million of cash on the balance sheet. So, any downturn could turn into a long-term opportunity.
In fact, management recently said, "We'd like to make acquisitions ... [but the prices people have] been willing to pay and the price expectations from the sellers have just been something we didn't want to participate in." If the market gets hit, however, "you're going to see more properties realistically priced on the marketplace."
A changing market
The problem that the biofuels industry faces right now, though, is that the market is fundamentally changing because of low natural gas prices. For example, Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ:CLNE) has been pushing the use of natural gas in fleet vehicles. One of the biggest success stories has been with trash haulers like Waste Management (NYSE:WM) and Republic Services (NYSE:RSG).
Clean Energy estimates that around 60% of the trash trucks purchased this year will use natural gas. Waste Management is a poster child for this shift, with over 2,000 natural gas vehicles. In 2012, over 70% of its truck purchases were natural gas. Every one of those new trucks is a truck that will never use FutureFuel's bio-diesel.
How big a deal is that for FutureFuel and the biofuel industry? Waste Management estimates it avoids the purchase of 8,000 gallons of diesel a year for each natural gas truck. Simple math shows that Waste Management alone now uses over 16 million gallons a year less diesel than it used to.
Republic, meanwhile, estimates that it uses abut 140 million gallons of diesel a year. But half of the thousand or so new trucks it buys annually use natural gas. So diesel use should fall by about 4 million gallons every year, using Waste Management's fuel savings estimate. That's demand that will help build Clean Energy's business, but spells less demand for FutureFuel's bio-diesel.
And Clean Energy is also going after the long haul truck market. It estimates the long haul opportunity is over 12 times as large as trash hauling. Clean Energy is so excited by the growth potential that it's been willing to lose money building out a network of fueling stations on the nation's highways so it's ready when demand starts to pick up. Bio-diesel will face stiff competition if Clean Energy proves correct on the long-haul shift.
Risks, but still opportunity
Although cheap natural gas poses risks to the adoption of FutureFuel's bio-diesel, that doesn't mean there isn't a long-term opportunity. Like natural gas, bio-diesel could also see increased use by gaining share from diesel. So there's room for Clean Energy and a profitable and well-financed player like FutureFuel. Still, if you like biofuels, it's worth keeping an eye on natural gas since that fuel is increasingly becoming the competition.
Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Clean Energy Fuels, Republic Services, and Waste Management. The Motley Fool owns shares of Waste Management. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.