Grassoline it ain't. After a jury ordered a leading cellulosic biofuel company to pony up millions for defrauding investors, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will likely come in 60 million gallons shy of its 100 million gallon target next year.
Late last month, a federal court in Mobile ordered Cello Energy of Bay Minette, Ala., to pay $10.4 million in punitive damages for fraudulently claiming it could produce cheap diesellike fuel from hay, wood pulp and other waste.
Cello's owner, Jack Boykin, allegedly built a sham facility and lured pulp producer Parsons & Whittemore Enterprises to invest $2.5 million in an ownership stake in 2007. In court, Parsons & Whitmore CEO George Landegger said he was unimpressed with the company's facilities, and a string of expert witnesses testified that fuel samples were derived from petroleum sources.
Neither Boykin nor his attorney, Forrest Latta, returned calls for comment, but in statements to the press following the trial, Latta has indicated that Cello's technology has "global potential." Another defendant, Khosla Ventures, a California firm that invested $12.5 million in Cello in 2007, was unavailable to comment.
Although it's no surprise that investors might be dazzled in the rush to hop on board the biofuels bandwagon, the EPA appears to have been duped as well.
Cellulosic biofuel technology is still in its infancy, and the agency and Congress required gasoline blenders to purchase and sell just 100 million gallons next year, less than 1 percent of the nation's proposed renewable fuel mandates. To encourage biofuel producers to meet that demand, the government would establish a credit scheme to set a floor on the wholesale price of $3.00 per gallon—about twice that of corn-based ethanol—if production fails to reach the 100 million gallon mark.
But David Woodburn, an analyst at ThinkEquity Partners in Chicago says that the agency had pinned its hopes on Cello and has not put in place the cellulosic biofuel credit system required to maintain that price point. "EPA was supposed to have prepared it in late June," he says, "In the EPA's eyes, they only need to implement that system if they see a shortfall coming.... Up to now on paper they've totally ignored this credit system."
As reported in earth2tech, Woodburn first realized the EPA would fall short of its target when it released its draft regulatory impact analysis in May. This document listed firms that were to make cellulosic biofuel, and most were on the hook to produce one million or two million gallons by the end of 2010. Cello Energy, however, claimed that its Bay Minette facility would pump out 20 million gallons. The agency also had Cello down for new plants that would produce another 50 million gallons. Woodburn says he grew skeptical of the company after calls and e-mails to the company for verification were never returned.
EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn says Cello estimates were "derived based on commercialization plans from the company. They never gave us volume—only size of the facilities and planned timeline."
So, what's the chance that Cello can still meet its target? "It seemed extremely unlikely three weeks ago before this jury verdict," Woodburn says. "It seems extremely unlikely today. How can you create three additional plants and have them producing in 2010 when ground hasn't been broken yet?"
Woodburn adds that Cello also faces another hurdle, which is that it has no distribution agreements: in other words, no one has promised to buy their biofuel. In the best-case scenario, he says, the nation will produce 39 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel next year and blenders will be on the hook to pay the government a $600 million or more for biofuel credits through a program that still does not exist.
Alternatively, the EPA could lower the cellulosic biofuel target when it finalizes the contentious renewable fuel standards in the fall, a decision that would defeat the whole idea of the goal in the first place.
Milbourn says the EPA is "continuing to assess the viability of not only Cello, but also the various other technologies and companies in supplying cellulosic biofuel."
For George Huber, the University of Massachusetts Amherst chemical engineering professor who wrote Scientific American's July cover story about cellulosic biofuels, Cello is a lesson to be learned. "There are no magic processes for conversion of biomass into liquid fuels," he says, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is not true."