Commentary by Marita Noon
America’s rush to renewables has invited corruption and fraud.
Researcher Christine Lakatos and I, together, have produced the single largest body of work on green-energy crony-corruption. Our years of collaboration have revealed that those with special access and influence have cashed in on the various green-energy programs and benefitted from the mandates, rules, and regulations that accompany the huge scheme. Dozens of the projects, including biofuel, which required the unwitting investment of taxpayer dollars have failed – leaving employees without jobs, buildings without tenants, taxpayers without repayment, and cronies without pain (even snatching hefty bonuses on the way down). Most people know about Solyndra, the first bankruptcy, and some may know about Abengoa, the biggest bankruptcy, but there are many more.
These big projects allowed the politically connected to bilk taxpayers of billions and is the definition of corruption. But, there’s fraud in renewable energy, too – and, while it doesn’t hit us as hard as taxpayers, it does cost us as consumers.
Wednesday, July 20, representing the latest fraudster to be convicted – but not the first and surely not the last – “a jury found an Indiana man guilty of securities fraud and other crimes connected to a massive biodiesel fraud scheme,” reported Greenwire. It turns out, Jeffrey Wilson and his multistate cohorts pretended to manufacture biodiesel, which allowed them to claim renewable fuel credits – known as Renewable Identification Numbers or RINs. The Department of Justice said Wilson’s actions resulted in a $20 million loss to investors, $140 million in revenue, and $56 million in criminal profit.
I know more than most about the corruption surrounding green energy, but I hadn’t followed this. I dug further.
Just two weeks earlier, two men in Florida pled guilty to a “multistate biodiesel fraud scheme.” Biodiesel Magazine says Thomas Davanzo and Robert Fedyna operated several shell companies that were used to facilitate the “multistate scheme to defraud biodiesel buyers and U.S. taxpayers by fraudulently selling biodiesel credits and fraudulently claiming tax credits.”
Six months before, on December 21, 2015, two men were indicted on “101 charges alleging they abused incentives offered to companies that produced biodiesel fuels.” According to The Morning Call: “A federal prosecutor says they took subsidies for fuel they did not produce and sold renewable energy credits to unsuspecting buyers.” The charges include conspiracy, wire fraud, filing false tax documents, obstruction of the Internal Revenue Service, and obstructing a federal investigation. The indictment claims Dave Dunham and Ralph Tommaso used a complex scheme that reached from Lehigh Valley, PA, to Washington state and into Canada and allowed them to apply for and receive government subsidies for producing clean diesel.
Also in 2015, two Las Vegas men and an Australian man were sentenced to federal prison for schemes to generate and sell fraudulent biodiesel credits. In another case, Rodney Hailey, owner of Clean Green Fuels in Maryland, was convicted of selling $9 million in counterfeit RINs from his garage without even trying to make biodiesel. Hailey’s neighbors called authorities because they were alarmed by the “profusion of luxury cars” that showed up in his “suburban Baltimore neighborhood” – 22 in all, claims a report in Bioenergy Connection. Then there is Jeffrey David Gunselman, owner of Absolute Fuels in Lubbock, TX, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in Texas for lying about producing biodiesel fuel and selling the resulting renewable fuel credits. Reports indicate that he generated some 48 million RINs without actually producing any biodiesel fuel. He’s remembered for using his ill-gotten gain to purchase, among numerous luxury items, a demilitarized Patton tank.
The most interesting biodiesel fraud case may be that of Philip Rivkin, founder and chief executive of Houston-based Green Diesel who is now serving a 10-year sentence for selling fraudulent RINs. Over a seven-year period he concocted an elaborate scheme that included, according to Bloomberg: “a three-story steel skeleton crammed with pipes and valves” – some of which were not connected to anything. In late 2008, Green Diesel did reportedly produce a batch of about 130,000 gallons of biodiesel, but the quality was “too poor for commercial sale.”
Biodiesel RINs have become a valuable commodity because, as a result of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), refiners are required to blend biofuels into the nation’s fuel supply and the RINs supposedly prove they’ve complied. Rivkin sold more than $78 million in sham RINs. He bragged about building a $500 million company without any debt. When he fled the U.S. in 2011, prior to his 2014 capture, he did so in his $3.4 million Canadair Challenger jet.
These cases of RIN fraud are just those who’ve been caught – but they all have a common thread. They aren’t the names we are used to in the green-energy corruption story like billionaires Warren Buffet and Tom Steyer or former politicos like Al Gore and Bill Richardson. They aren’t cronies who’ve used political connections to work the system. They are fraudsters who found a way to fortune through the flawed RFS – first enacted by Congress in 2005 and expanded in 2007 – which contains a credit-trading program.
In a July 25 report on the RFS, Marlo Lewis, Jr., a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, explains: “Each gallon of biofuel produced is assigned a unique 38-digit Renewable Identification Number (RIN). When a refiner sells a gallon of biofuel in the motor fuel market, it earns a RIN credit. A refiner that does not meet its annual obligation by actually blending and selling biofuel can comply by purchasing surplus RIN credits from another refiner that exceeded its obligation. A refiner can also bank surplus RIN credits to meet up to 20 percent of the following year’s obligation.”
Because the law requires ever-increasing quantities of biofuel be produced – even beyond what consumers want or most vehicles can handle – RINs offer refiners a way to presumably meet the mandates while providing the market with what it wants. But, according to Brendan E. Williams, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers executive vice president, biodiesel RINs are especially lucrative: “Ethanol RINs stay attached to physical gallons of ethanol until the ethanol gallon is blended with petroleum. This separation usually occurs at terminals, which are rarely owned by ethanol producers. Once ethanol is blended, the RIN is detached and becomes a tradable commodity. Therefore, rather than a refiner or ethanol producer, it is often the terminal operator who does the blending that controls ethanol RINs. A refiner that has a terminal rack at the refinery for local gasoline distribution can also do this blending, but this is not the usual situation because refineries are not located everywhere. Biodiesel RINs work differently. EPA allows biodiesel producers to detach the RIN as soon as the biodiesel is produced. There is no requirement for biodiesel to be blended to petroleum diesel before the RIN is detached. This difference highlights why there is more fraud in biodiesel. The biodiesel fraudsters lie about producing physical biodiesel just so they can generate RINs on paper to sell. This is made possible based on the previously mentioned fact that there is no requirement for biodiesel to be blended with petroleum diesel.” A graphic in the Bloomberg report adds: “Biodiesel RINs tend to cost more than ethanol RINs or other types because they are scarcer and can be used to satisfy multiple requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard.”
“RIN swaps,” according to Bloomberg, “are usually agreed upon between companies, traders, and brokers via email, phone, texts, and chatroom messages.” The onus is on the buyers, “if the RINS are found to be fraudulent, the holder has to purchase new credits to replace the phony ones” – and the new credits must be purchased at the current price that may be higher than the original purchase.
Of course, the refiners’ purchase of RINs – and in the case of fraudulent RINs, the double purchase – is passed on to the consumer. We are stuck holding the bag for the fraudsters’ get-rich-quick scheme that is enabled by the RFS.
“Because refiners can buy them to satisfy their obligations to introduce renewable fuels into the national market,” Scott Irwin, an agriculture economic professor at the University of Illinois, according to The Morning Call, calls the RINs: “valuable.” He explains: “A combination of little regulation, the small-business nature of biodiesel producers and higher-than-expected prices for credits produced a rash of fraud. … It was kind of set up for fraud.”
Because the EPA, whose expertise is in things like oil spills and air pollution, isn’t equipped to handle these cases of sophisticated financial fraud, Bloomberg reports, it has reached out to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission – “which is itself stretched thin because of its responsibilities under Dodd-Frank.” The lack of oversight made the RFS biodiesel program a “government playground for con artists.”
The biofuel fraud is just one prong in the growing push for RFS reform. The economic and technical realities of the “blend wall,” as detailed in Lewis’ report, is another. On July 27, Bloomberg chronicled the history of the unlikely third prong: big green groups’ biofuel blunder. They’ve now turned against ethanol due to the agricultural runoff in waterways and conversion of prairies to cropland. Environmentalists, who once championed biofuels, are now seen as a factor in “improving the odds that lawmakers might seek changes to the program next year.”
Reforming the RFS is not a partisan issue. Free market advocates don’t like the mandates. Consumers resist been forced to purchase something they don’t want. Environmentalists don’t like the loss of prairie land and damage to the water supply. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) says the RFS has “truly been a flop. The environmental promise has been transformed into an environmental detriment.”
The only resistance to calls for RFS repeal or reform comes from the biofuel producers lobby – though as I’ve previously addressed, corn ethanol would likely still be blended into our fuel supply at about the current levels as it is a valuable oxygenate that increases octane.
Lewis concludes his report with this admonition: “Congress should repeal the RFS so that consumer preference and competition, rather than central planning policies, determine which fuels succeed or fail in the U.S. marketplace. Failing that, Congress should sunset the RFS so it ends after 2022. In the meantime, the EPA should cap mandatory biofuel sales at the E10 blend wall, while allowing biofuel producers to sell as much additional renewable fuel as consumers actually want to buy.”
Every politician in Washington talks about getting rid of waste, fraud, and abuse. Getting rid of the RFS would go a long way to achieving that goal.
The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc., and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). She hosts a weekly radio program: America’s Voice for Energy – which expands on the content of her weekly column. Follow her @EnergyRabbit.