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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Commonly Used Defined Terms
Green Plains Inc. and Subsidiaries:
Green Plains; the company
Green Plains Inc. and its subsidiaries
BioProcess Algae LLC
Birmingham BioEnergy Partners LLC, a subsidiary of BlendStar LLC
BlendStar LLC and its subsidiaries, the partnership’s predecessor for accounting purposes
Fleischmann’s Vinegar Company, Inc.
Fluid Quip Technologies, LLC
Green Plains Cattle; GPCC
Green Plains Cattle Company LLC
Green Plains Grain
Green Plains Grain Company LLC
Green Plains Partners; the partnership
Green Plains Partners LP and its subsidiaries
Green Plains Processing
Green Plains Processing LLC and its subsidiaries
Green Plains Shenandoah; Shenandoah
Green Plains Shenandoah LLC
Green Plains Trade
Green Plains Trade Group LLC
Green Plains Wood River; Wood River
Green Plains Wood River LLC
Accounting Defined Terms:
Accounting Standards Codification
Earnings before interest, income taxes, depreciation and amortization
Earnings per share
Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended
U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles
London Interbank Offered Rate
The Nasdaq Global Market
New Markets Tax Credit
Research and development tax credits
Securities and Exchange Commission
Securities Act of 1933, as amended
Industry Defined Terms:
Billion gallons per year
British Thermal Units
Corporate Average Fuel Economy
California Air Resources Board
Clean Sugar Technology
U.S. Department of Transportation
Gasoline blended with up to 15% ethanol by volume
Gasoline blended with up to 85% ethanol by volume
U.S. Energy Information Administration
Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, as amended
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Grain Neutral Spirits
Indirect land usage charge
Low Carbon Fuel Standard
Million British Thermal Units
Million gallons per year
Maximized Stillage Coproducts
Methyl tertiary-butyl ether
Minimum volume commitment
Renewable Fuels Standard II
Renewable identification number
Renewable volume obligation
Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
U.S. Department of Agriculture
United States Pharmacopeia
Cautionary Statement Regarding Forward-Looking Statements
The SEC encourages companies to disclose forward-looking information so investors can better understand future prospects and make informed investment decisions. As such, forward-looking statements are included in this report or incorporated by reference to other documents filed with the SEC.
Forward-looking statements are made in accordance with safe harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These statements are based on current expectations which involve a number of risks and uncertainties and do not relate strictly to historical or current facts, but rather to plans and objectives for future operations. These statements include words such as “anticipate,” “believe,” “continue,” “estimate,” “expect,” “intend,” “outlook,” “plan,” “predict,” “may,” “could,” “should,” “will” and similar words and phrases as well as statements regarding future operating or financial performance or guidance, business strategy, environment, key trends and benefits of actual or planned acquisitions.
Factors that could cause actual results to differ from those expressed or implied are discussed in this report under “Risk Factors” or incorporated by reference. Specifically, we may experience fluctuations in future operating results due to a number of economic conditions, including: disruption caused by health epidemics, such as the COVID-19 outbreak; competition in the ethanol industry and other industries in which we operate; commodity market risks, including those that may result from weather conditions; financial market risks; counterparty risks; risks associated with changes to government policy or regulation, including changes to tax laws; risks related to acquisitions and disposition activities and achieving anticipated results; risks associated with merchant trading; risks related to our equity method investees and other factors detailed in reports filed with the SEC. Additional risks related to Green Plains Partners LP include compliance with commercial contractual obligations, potential tax consequences related to our investment in the partnership and risks disclosed in the partnership’s SEC filings associated with the operation of the partnership as a separate, publicly traded entity.
We believe our expectations regarding future events are based on reasonable assumptions; however, these assumptions may not be accurate or account for all risks and uncertainties. Consequently, forward-looking statements are not guaranteed. Actual results may vary materially from those expressed or implied in our forward-looking statements. In addition, we are not obligated and do not intend to update our forward-looking statements as a result of new information unless it is required by applicable securities laws. We caution investors not to place undue reliance on forward-looking statements, which represent management’s views as of the date of this report or documents incorporated by reference.
References to “we,” “us,” “our,” “Green Plains,” or the “company” refer to Green Plains Inc. and its subsidiaries.
Green Plains is an Iowa corporation, founded in June 2004 as a producer of low carbon fuels and has grown to be one of the leading corn processors in the world. We continue the transition from a commodity-processing business to a value-add agricultural technology company focused on creating additional diverse, non-cyclical, higher margin feed ingredients, specialty alcohols and renewable feedstocks for the emerging renewable diesel industry. In addition, we are currently undergoing a number of project initiatives to improve our operating margins. Through our Project 24 initiative, we anticipate reductions in operating expense per gallon across our non-ICM plants. USP upgrades and planned GNS upgrades are expected to provide additional improvements to our financial results. Additionally, through our Ultra-High Protein initiative, we expect to produce various Ultra-High Protein and novel feed ingredients targeting the pet, dairy and aquaculture industries further increasing margin per gallon.
We recently completed the purchase of a majority interest in Fluid Quip Technologies, LLC. The acquisition capitalizes on the core strengths of each company to develop and implement proven, value-added agriculture, food and industrial biotechnology systems and rapidly expand installation and production across Green Plains facilities, as well as offer these technologies to partnering biofuel facilities.
Additionally, we have taken advantage of opportunities to divest certain assets in recent years to reallocate capital toward our current growth initiatives. We are focused on generating stable operating margins through our business segments and risk management strategy and expanding our focus on specialty alcohols and high value protein ingredients. We own and operate assets throughout the ethanol value chain: upstream, with grain handling and storage; through our ethanol production facilities; and downstream, with marketing and distribution services to mitigate commodity price volatility.
We formed Green Plains Partners LP, a master limited partnership, to be our primary downstream storage and logistics provider since its assets are the principal method of storing and delivering the ethanol we produce. The partnership completed its initial public offering on July 1, 2015. As of December 31, 2020, we own a 48.9% limited partner interest, a 2.0% general partner interest and all of the partnership’s incentive distribution rights. The public owns the remaining 49.1% limited partner interest. The partnership is consolidated in our financial statements.
We group our business activities into the following four operating segments to manage performance:
Ethanol Production. Our ethanol production segment includes the production of ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil at 12 ethanol plants in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Tennessee. At capacity, our facilities are capable of processing approximately 354 million bushels of corn per year and producing approximately 1.0 billion gallons of ethanol, 2.5 million tons of distillers grains and 276 million pounds of industrial grade corn oil, making us one of the largest ethanol producers in North America.
Agribusiness and Energy Services. Our agribusiness and energy services segment includes grain procurement, with approximately 38.1 million bushels of grain storage capacity, and our commodity marketing business, which markets, sells and distributes ethanol, distillers grains and corn oil produced at our ethanol plants. We also market ethanol for a third-party producer as well as buy and sell ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein, corn oil, grain, natural gas and other commodities in various markets.
Food and Ingredients. Our food and ingredients segment currently includes our food-grade corn oil operations. Fleischmann’s Vinegar, one of the world’s largest producers of food-grade industrial vinegar, was also included in the food and ingredients segment until its sale on November 27, 2018. On September 1, 2019, we formed a joint venture and sold 50% of our cattle feeding operations which has the capacity to support approximately 355,000 head of cattle and grain storage capacity of approximately 24.1 million bushels. The assets and liabilities and results of operations of GPCC prior to its divesture have been reclassified as discontinued operations for all periods presented. Our continued investment in GPCC was accounted for under the equity method of accounting until its disposition in October 2020. For more information about GPCC, refer to Note 5 - Acquisitions, Dispositions and Discontinued Operations and Note 21 – Equity Method Investments included as part of the notes to consolidated financial statements.
Partnership. Our master limited partnership provides fuel storage and transportation services by owning, operating, developing and acquiring ethanol and fuel storage tanks, terminals, transportation assets and other related assets and businesses. The partnership’s assets include 31 ethanol storage facilities, six fuel terminal facilities and approximately 2,480 leased railcars.
Risk Management and Hedging Activities
Our margins our highly dependent on commodity prices, particularly for ethanol, corn, distillers grains, corn oil and natural gas. Since market price fluctuations among these commodities are not always correlated, ethanol production has been and may continue to be unprofitable at times. We use a variety of risk management tools and hedging strategies to monitor real-time operating price risk exposure at each of our operations to obtain favorable margins, when available.
We use forward contracts to sell a portion of our ethanol, distillers grains, and corn oil production or buy some of the corn, natural gas, or ethanol we need to partially offset commodity price volatility. We also engage in other hedging transactions involving exchange-traded futures contracts for corn, natural gas, ethanol, soybean meal, soybean oil and other agricultural commodities. The financial impact of these activities depends on the price of the commodities involved and our ability to physically receive or deliver those commodities.
Hedging arrangements expose us to risk of financial loss when the counterparty defaults on its contract or, in the case of exchange-traded contracts, when the expected differential between the price of the underlying commodity and physical commodity changes. Hedging activities can result in losses when a position is purchased in a declining market or sold in a rising market. Hedging losses may be offset by a decreased cash price for corn and natural gas and an increased cash price for ethanol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil. Depending on the circumstance, we vary the amount of hedging or other risk mitigation strategies we undertake and sometimes choose not to engage in hedging transactions at all.
We are focused on managing commodity price risks, improving operational efficiencies and optimizing market opportunities to create an efficient platform with diversified income streams. Our competitive strengths include:
Disciplined Risk Management. Risk management is a core competency and we use a variety of risk management tools and hedging strategies to maintain a disciplined approach. Our internally developed operating margin management system allows us to monitor commodity price risk exposure at each of our operations and lock in favorable margins, when available, or temporarily reduce production levels during periods of compressed margins.
Operational Excellence. Our facilities are staffed with experienced industry personnel who share operational knowledge and expertise. We focus on making incremental operational improvements to enhance performance using real-time production data and systems to monitor our operations and optimize performance.
Technology Integration. Over our history, we have incorporated new technologies like corn oil extraction and Selective Milling Technology™ into our manufacturing processes that have enabled us to run more efficiently and improve our financial results. We are currently undergoing a number of project initiatives to improve margins. Through our Project 24 initiative, we have seen reductions in operating expenses and anticipate additional reductions in operating expense per gallon across our remaining non-ICM plants as a result of these continuing investments. USP upgrades and planned GNS and CST upgrades are expected to provide additional improvements to our financial results.
In addition, through our Ultra-High Protein initiative using Fluid Quip’s MSC™ system, we expect to achieve increased margins per gallon as a result of the ability to produce various high protein animal feed products. We have partnered with Novozymes in an exclusive venture to produce higher purity protein and protein meals with nutritional and other feed benefits through non-mechanical methods. In addition, the formation of an exclusive partnership with Hayashikane Sangyo of Japan, one of the oldest and most successful integrated aquafeed companies in the world broadens our access to innovative feed solutions. The acquisition of a majority interest in Fluid Quip Technologies secures additional intellectual property rights that could be deployed across the Green Plains platform, including those aimed at developing and implementing proven, value-added agriculture, food and industrial biotechnology systems, and rapidly expanding installation of Ultra-High Protein production across our facilities in parallel with offering these technologies to partnering biofuel facilities. We continue to evaluate additional technological opportunities to expand our capabilities and product offerings in the coming years.
Proven Management Team. Our senior management team averages approximately 30 years of commodity risk management and related industry experience. We have specific expertise across all of our businesses, including plant operations and management, commodity markets and risk management, quality assurance, quality control, and ethanol marketing and distribution. Our management team’s level of operational and financial expertise is essential to successfully executing our business strategies.
We believe that the world will continue to increase its demand for protein for human consumption, driving the need to produce larger amounts of high protein feed for animals and aquaculture. With new technologies introduced in the ethanol industry, we believe that ethanol production facilities can increasingly become high-protein feed producers. We began operations to produce Ultra-High Protein in 2020 and have begun to deploy this technology at additional locations in an effort to capture higher co-product returns. We are striving to deploy Ultra-High Protein process technology across our platform to take advantage of the world’s growing demand for protein feed ingredients.
Our first Ultra-High Protein installation was completed at our Shenandoah plant during the first quarter of 2020 with shipments of dried product beginning in April 2020. The Ultra-High Protein installation at our Wood River plant began during the third quarter 2020 with shipments expected to begin in the third quarter of 2021. We anticipate that additional locations will be completed over the course of the next several years. Through our Ultra-High Protein initiative we expect to produce feed ingredients with protein concentration of 50% or greater, as well as other higher value products, such as post-MSC distillers grains.
We have also upgraded our York plant to produce USP grade alcohol and will complete further upgrades to produce GNS by adding additional distillation and processing capabilities to serve other high-value markets, including the beverage alcohol market. The GNS upgrade is expected to be completed during the second quarter of 2021. Our Wood River plant is undergoing upgrades to modify its capacity to produce USP and we anticipate completion of that project during the second quarter of 2021 and will continue to produce USP grade alcohol during construction. We expect to complete the CST production facility at York in the first quarter of 2021, which will allow for the production of both food and industrial grade dextrose. We anticipate modifying one or more biorefineries to CST production facilities to meet anticipated future customer demands.
We believe ethanol could become an increasingly larger portion of the global fuel supply driven by heightened environmental concerns and energy independence goals, supported by government policies and regulations. In the 1990’s, federal law required the use of oxygenates in reformulated gasoline to reduce vehicle emissions in cities with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Today, ethanol is the primary oxygenate used by the U.S. refining industry to meet various federal and state air emission standards. The high octane value of ethanol has also made it the primary additive used by refiners to increase octane value, which improves engine performance. Accordingly, ethanol has become a valuable blend component that comprises approximately 10% of the domestic gasoline supply with the potential to grow with higher blends and increased gasoline demand. Ethanol usage is further supported by federal government mandates under RFS II, which assigns individual refiners, blenders and importers the volume of renewable fuels they are obligated to use based on their percentage of total fuel sales. Advances in domestic corn yields have helped the U.S. ethanol industry become the lowest-cost producer of ethanol, surpassing Brazil, creating demand for U.S. ethanol worldwide.
In light of the ethanol industry’s environment, we are focused on continued improvement of our low-cost ethanol production platform and reducing costs. Owning grain storage at or near our ethanol plants allows us to develop relationships with local producers and originate corn more effectively at a lower average cost. We purchase approximately 55% of our corn volume directly from farmers and have approximately 45 production days of storage capacity at or near our ethanol plants. We use our performance data to develop strategies that can be applied across our platform and embrace technological advances to improve operational efficiencies and yields, such as Selective Milling Technology™ and Enogen® corn enzyme technology, to lower our processing cost per gallon and increase production volumes. We are executing on our Project 24 initiative at our non-ICM plants, except our York and Atkinson plants, to reduce energy consumption and increase operational reliability at these plants, reducing our operating expense per gallon which we anticipate completing during the second quarter of 2021.
We believe there is untapped value across our businesses and we intend to further develop and strengthen our business by identifying projects that maximize our production capabilities and lower existing costs at our production facilities. We also seek to leverage our core competencies in adjacent businesses such as aquafeeds, high protein animal feed and other commodity processing operations that maximize our operational and risk management expertise.
The following is a summary of our significant recent developments. Additional information about these items can be found elsewhere in this report or in previous reports filed with the SEC.
BlackRock Note Facility
On February 9, 2021, Green Plains SPE LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the company and a special purpose entity (the Issuer) completed a $125.0 million, 5-year mezzanine note facility with funds and accounts managed by BlackRock. The proceeds will be used initially to support the construction and deployment of Ultra-High Protein technology and production at the Obion, Tennessee and Mount Vernon, Indiana facilities. In addition, the company announced BlackRock has invested alongside Ospaire Management and Green Plains in Fluid Quip Technologies LLC. As part of the transaction, BlackRock acquired 2,000,000 warrants for Green Plains stock (each warrant equal to one share of stock) with a strike price of $22.00 per share, which expire on February 9, 2026. See further discussions in Note 23 – Subsequent Events of the financial statements.
Disposition of Ord Ethanol Plant
On January 25, 2021, we entered into an Asset Purchase Agreement to sell our ethanol plant located in Ord, Nebraska to GreenAmerica Biofuels Ord LLC. The transaction involves the disposition of 65 million gallons of nameplate capacity, and is being sold for $64.0 million, plus an estimated $6.0 million of related working capital. Correspondingly, the partnership entered into an Asset Purchase Agreement to sell its storage assets located adjacent to the Ord plant to Green Plains for $27.0 million, which will be used to pay down debt, along with the transfer of associated railcar operating leases. As part of this transaction, upon closing, the quarterly storage and throughput minimum volume commitment with Green Plains Trade will be reduced to 217.7 mmg per quarter and the storage and throughput agreement with Green Plains Trade will be extended an additional year to June 30, 2029. The transaction is anticipated to close within 45 days, subject to customary closing conditions. See further discussions in Note 23 – Subsequent Events of the financial statements.
Disposition of Hereford Ethanol Plant
On December 28, 2020, we completed the sale of the ethanol plant located in Hereford, Texas, and certain related assets from subsidiaries, to Hereford Ethanol Partners, L.P. for the sale price of $39.0 million, plus working capital. Correspondingly, the partnership’s ethanol storage assets located adjacent to the Hereford plant were purchased by the company for $10.0 million, which was used to pay down debt, and certain railcar operating leases were assigned to Hereford Ethanol Partners, L.P. The divested assets were reported within the ethanol production, agribusiness and energy and partnership segments. We recorded a pretax loss on the sale of the ethanol plant of $22.4 million, of which $18.5 million was recorded within corporate activities and $3.9 million was recorded within the ethanol production segment. Transaction fees related to the disposal were not material. The agreement contains certain earn-out provisions to be received from Hereford Ethanol Partners, L.P. if certain future provisions are met. We will record any contingent amounts in the consolidated financial statements when the amount is reasonably determinable or the consideration is realized.
Acquisition of Majority Interest in Fluid Quip Technologies, LLC
In December 2020, we acquired a majority interest in Fluid Quip Technologies, LLC. The acquisition capitalizes on the core strengths of each company to develop and implement proven, value-added agriculture, food and industrial biotechnology systems and rapidly expand installation and production of Ultra-High Protein across Green Plains facilities, as well as offer these technologies to partnering biofuel facilities. The agreement contains certain earn-out provisions to be received from the company if certain future results are met, including but not limited to, results of implementation and execution of technology. We will record the obligation related to the earn-out provision as compensation within selling, general and administrative expenses as the earn-out becomes probable.
Disposition of Equity Interest in Green Plains Cattle Company LLC
On October 9, 2020, we sold our remaining 50% joint venture interest in GPCC to AGR Special Opportunities Fund I LP (“AGR”), TGAM Agribusiness Fund LP and StepStone (the “Buyers”) for $80.5 million in cash, plus closing adjustments. The transaction was effective on October 1, 2020, and resulted in a reduction in other assets of $69.7 million as a result of removal of the equity method investment in GPCC, and a reduction in accumulated other comprehensive income (loss) of $10.7 million as a result of the removal of our share of GPCC’s accumulated other comprehensive loss. Transaction fees related to the disposal were not material. There was no material gain or loss recorded as part of this transaction. The agreement contains certain earn-out provisions to be paid to or received from the Buyers if certain EBITDA thresholds are
met. We will record any contingent amounts in the consolidated financial statements when the amount is probable and reasonably determinable or the consideration is realized.
Closing of $75.0 Million Loan Facility
On September 3, 2020, Green Plains Wood River and Green Plains Shenandoah, our wholly-owned subsidiaries, entered into a delayed draw loan agreement with MetLife Real Estate Lending LLC. The $75.0 million delayed draw loan matures on September 1, 2035 and is secured by substantially all of the assets of the Wood River and Shenandoah facilities. The delayed draw loan bears interest at a fixed rate of 5.02%, plus an interest rate premium of 1.5% until the loan is fully drawn, which must occur within the 18 month draw period. Principal payments of $1.5 million per year begin 24 months from the closing date. The proceeds from the loan are being used to add high protein processing systems at the Wood River and Shenandoah facilities as well as other capital expenditures.
Impact of COVID-19 and Decline in Gasoline Demand
We continue to closely monitor the impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of our business, including how it will impact our employees, customers, vendors, and business partners. Although we did not incur significant disruptions from COVID-19 during the year ended December 31, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic repercussions have created significant volatility, uncertainty, and turmoil in the energy industry. The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve rapidly and the ultimate duration and impact of the outbreak as well as the continued decline in gasoline demand remains highly uncertain and subject to change. There was a significant reduction of gasoline demand in certain market areas particularly during the early months of the pandemic, which resulted in a reduction in ethanol demand. The return to prior levels of gasoline demand continues to be uncertain.
There has been no material adverse effect on our ability to maintain operations, including our financial reporting systems, our internal controls over financial reporting or our disclosure controls and procedures. In addition, to date we have not incurred any material COVID-19 related contingencies. We are unable to predict the impact that COVID-19 will have on our future financial position and operating results due to numerous uncertainties.
For further information regarding the impact of COVID-19 and the decline in gasoline demand on the company, please see Item 1A - Risk Factors, in this report, which is incorporated herein by reference.
Industry Overview. Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, is a colorless liquid produced by fermenting carbohydrates found in a number of different types of grains, such as corn, wheat and sorghum, and other cellulosic matter found in plants. Most of the ethanol produced in the United States is made from corn because it contains large quantities of carbohydrates that convert into glucose more easily than most other kinds of biomass, which can be handled efficiently and is in greater supply than other grains. According to the USDA, on average, one bushel, or 56 pounds, of corn, produces approximately 2.9 gallons of ethanol, 15 pounds of distillers grains and 0.7 pounds of corn oil. Outside of the United States, sugarcane is the primary feedstock used to produce ethanol.
Ethanol is a significant component of the biofuels industry, which includes all transportation fuels derived from renewable biological materials. Biofuels are an excellent oxygenate and source of octane. When added to petroleum-based transportation fuels, oxygenates reduce vehicle emissions. Ethanol is the most economical oxygenate and source of octane available on the market and its production costs are competitive with gasoline.
Ethanol Plants. We operate 12 dry mill ethanol production plants, located in six states, that produce ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil:
Initial Operation or
Central City, Nebraska
Delta-T / ICM
Mount Vernon, Indiana
Obion, Tennessee (1)
Otter Tail, Minnesota
Delta-T / ICM
Shenandoah, Iowa (1)
Superior, Iowa (1)
Delta-T / ICM
Wood River, Nebraska
Delta-T / ICM
(1)We constructed these three plants; all other ethanol plants were acquired.
Our business is directly affected by the supply and demand for ethanol and other fuels in the markets served by our assets. Miles driven typically increase during the spring and summer months related to vacation travel, followed closely by the fall season due to holiday travel.
The majority of our plants are equipped with industry-leading ICM or Delta-T ethanol processing technology. Our years of experience building, acquiring and operating these technologies provides us with a deep understanding of how to effectively and efficiently manage both platforms for maximum performance. Through our Project 24 initiative, we anticipate reductions in operating expense per gallon across our non-ICM plants.
Industrial-Grade Alcohol. Industrial-grade alcohol is produced by further distillation processing of the 200-proof alcohol. Further distillation removes impurities from fuel-grade ethanol to allow for production of industrial-grade alcohol which can be used as an ingredient for sanitation products. Industrial-grade alcohol is currently produced at our Wood River and York facilities, with our Wood River biorefinery producing food chemical codex (FCC) grade industrial alcohol and our York biorefinery producing USP.
Corn Feedstock and Ethanol Production. Our plants use corn as feedstock in a dry mill ethanol production process. Each of our plants requires approximately 17 million to 42 million bushels of corn annually, depending on its production capacity. The price and availability of corn are subject to significant fluctuations driven by a number of factors that affect commodity prices in general, including crop conditions, weather, governmental programs, freight costs and global demand. Ethanol producers are generally unable to pass increased corn costs to customers.
Our corn supply is obtained primarily from local markets. We use cash and forward purchase contracts with grain producers and elevators to buy corn. We maintain direct relationships with local farmers, grain elevators and cooperatives, which serve as our primary sources of grain feedstock, at 10 of our ethanol plants. This allows us to purchase much of the corn we need directly from farmers throughout the year. At two of our ethanol plants, we contract with a third-party grain originator to supply the corn necessary for ethanol production. These contracts terminate in November 2023. Each of our plants is also situated on rail lines or has other logistical solutions to access corn supplies from other regions of the country should local supplies become insufficient.
Corn is received at the plant by truck or rail then weighed and unloaded into a receiving building. Grain storage facilities are used to inventory grain that is passed through a scalper to remove rocks and debris prior to processing. The corn is then transported to a hammer mill where it is ground into flour and conveyed into a slurry tank for enzymatic processing. Water, heat and enzymes are added to convert the complex starch molecules into simpler carbohydrates. The slurry is heated to reduce the potential of microbial contamination and pumped into a liquefaction tank where additional enzymes are added. Next, the grain slurry is pumped into fermenters, where yeast, enzymes, and nutrients are added and the fermentation process is started. A beer column, within the distillation system, separates the alcohol from the spent grain mash. The alcohol is dehydrated to 200-proof alcohol and either pumped into a holding tank and blended with approximately 2% denaturant as it is pumped into finished product storage tanks, or marketed as undenatured ethanol.
Distillers Grains. The spent grain mash is pumped from the beer column into a decanter-type centrifuge for dewatering. The water, or thin stillage, is pumped from the centrifuge into an evaporator, where it is concentrated into a thick syrup. The solids, or wet cake, that exit the centrifuge are conveyed to the dryer system and dried at varying temperatures to produce distillers grains. Syrup is reapplied to the wet cake prior to drying to provide additional nutrients. Distillers grains, the principal co-product of the ethanol production process, are used as mid-protein, high-energy animal feed and marketed to the dairy, beef, swine and poultry industries.
We can produce three forms of distillers grains, depending on the number of times the solids are passed through the dryer system:
wet distillers grains, which contain approximately 65% to 70% moisture, have a shelf life of approximately three days and is therefore sold to dairies or feedlots within the immediate vicinity;
modified wet distillers grains, which is dried further to approximately 50% to 55% moisture, have a shelf life of approximately three weeks and are marketed to regional dairies and feedlots; and
dried distillers grains, which have been dried more extensively to approximately 10% to 12% moisture, have an almost indefinite shelf life and may be stored, sold and shipped to any market.
Corn Oil. Corn oil systems extract non-edible corn oil from the thin stillage evaporation process immediately before the production of distillers grains. Corn oil is produced by processing the syrup through a decanter-style, or disk-stack, centrifuge. The centrifuges separate the relatively light corn oil from the heavier components of the syrup. We extract approximately 0.8 pounds of corn oil per bushel of corn used to produce ethanol. Industrial uses for corn oil include feedstock for renewable diesel, biodiesel and livestock feed additives. The syrup is blended into wet, modified wet or dried distillers grains.
Ultra-High Protein. Ultra-High Protein is produced by further processing of the spent grain mash from the beer column. The spent grain is processed by a FluidQuip Technologies MSCTM system. The MSC system contains a series of screening equipment to remove fiber from the spent grain which is sent to the distillers grain dryer. The remaining product is washed and clarified into a wet protein stream which is dried in a ring dryer to produce Ultra-High Protein meal. The product typically has protein concentration of 50% or greater and yields of approximately 3.5 pounds per bushel have been achieved.
Natural Gas. Depending on production parameters, our ethanol plants use approximately 20,000 to 45,000 BTUs of natural gas per gallon of production. We have service agreements to acquire the natural gas we need and transport the gas through pipelines to our plants.
Electricity. Our plants require between 0.5 and 1.6 kilowatt hours of electricity per gallon of production. Local utilities supply the necessary electricity to all of our ethanol plants.
Water. While some of our plants satisfy a majority of their water requirements from wells located on their respective properties, each plant also obtains drinkable water from local municipal water sources. Each facility either uses city water or operates a filtration system to purify the well water that is used for its operations. Local municipalities supply all of the necessary water for our plants that do not have onsite wells. Most of the water used in an ethanol plant is recycled in the production process.
Agribusiness and Energy Services Segment
Our agribusiness and energy services segment includes three grain elevators in three states with combined grain storage capacity of approximately 7.6 million bushels, and grain storage at our ethanol plants of approximately 30.5 million bushels, detailed in the following table:
On-Site Grain Storage Capacity
Central City, Nebraska
Mount Vernon, Indiana
Otter Tail, Minnesota
Wood River, Nebraska
We buy bulk grain, primarily corn and soybeans, from area producers, and provide grain drying and storage services to those producers. The grain is used as feedstock for our ethanol plants or sold to grain processing companies and area livestock producers. Bulk grain commodities are traded on commodity exchanges. Inventory values are affected by changes in these markets and spreads. To mitigate risks related to market fluctuations from purchase and sale commitments of grain, as well as grain held in inventory, we enter into exchange-traded futures and options contracts that function as economic and designated accounting hedges at times.
Seasonality is present within our agribusiness operations. The fall harvest period typically results in higher handling margins and stronger financial results during the fourth quarter of each year.
Through Green Plains Trade, we market the ethanol we and a third party produce to local, regional, national and international customers. We also purchase ethanol from independent producers for pricing arbitrage. We sell to various markets under sales agreements with integrated energy companies; retailers, traders and resellers in the United States and buyers for export to Brazil, Canada, Europe, China and other international markets. Under these agreements, ethanol is priced under both fixed and indexed pricing arrangements.
Also through Green Plains Trade, we market wet and modified wet distillers grains to local markets and dried distillers grains to local, national and international markets. The bulk of our demand is delivered to geographic regions that do not have significant local corn or distillers grains production.
Our markets can be further segmented by geographic region and livestock industry. Most of our wet and modified wet distillers grains are sold to midwestern feedlot markets. A substantial amount of dried distillers grains are shipped by barge, containers and rail to regional and national markets, as well as international markets. Our dried distillers grains are shipped to feedlots and poultry markets, as well as Texas and West Coast rail markets. Some of our distillers grains are shipped by truck to dairy, beef, and poultry operations in the eastern United States. We also ship by railcar to eastern and southeastern feed mills, poultry and dairy operations, and domestic trade companies. We sell to international markets indirectly through exporters. Access to diversified markets allows us to sell product to customers offering the highest net price.
Our corn oil is sold primarily to renewable diesel and biodiesel plants and, to a lesser extent, feedlot and poultry markets. We transport our corn oil by truck to locations in a close proximity to our ethanol plants primarily in the southeastern and midwestern regions of the United States. We also transport corn oil by rail and barges to national markets as well as to exporters for shipment on vessels to international markets.
Through Green Plains Trade, we provide marketing services of natural gas to our ethanol plants and to other third parties including the procurement of both the pipeline capacity and natural gas. We also enhance the value by aggregating volumes at various storage facilities which can be sold to either the plants or various intermediary markets and end markets.
Our railcar fleet for the agribusiness and energy services segment consists of approximately 400 leased hopper cars to transport distillers grains and approximately 170 leased tank cars to transport corn oil and crude oil. The initial terms of the lease contracts are for periods up to ten years and the weighted average remaining lease terms on these cars was approximately 3 years.
Food and Ingredients Segment
Food-grade corn oil production. Our food-grade corn oil operations focus on shipping corn oil from facilities across the Midwest by rail or barge to terminal facilities located in the southern United States. Once the corn oil arrives at the terminal facility, it is unloaded and consolidated into set volumes and prepared for shipment by vessel. The corn oil is then shipped to independent refiners outside the United States for refining into a refined, bleached, dewaxed and deodorized food-grade product. This finished product is then shipped by vessel or container to our various customers. In addition, we also execute trade volumes of corn oil and soybean oil in both domestic and international markets. Food-grade corn oil production had no activity during fiscal year 2020.
Vinegar operations. Fleischmann’s Vinegar, one of the world’s largest producers of food-grade industrial vinegar, was also included in the food and ingredients segment until its sale on November 27, 2018.
Our partnership segment provides fuel storage and transportation services through (i) 31 ethanol storage facilities located at or near our 12 operational ethanol production plants and one non-operational ethanol production plant, (ii) six fuel terminal facilities located near major rail lines, and (iii) a leased railcar fleet and other transportation assets.
Transportation and Delivery. Most of our ethanol plants are situated near major highways or rail lines to ensure efficient movement. We are able to move product from our ethanol plants to bulk terminals via truck, railcar or barge. We also manage the logistics and transportation requirements of our customers to improve our fleet’s efficiency and reduce operating costs.
Deliveries within 150 miles of our plants and the partnership’s fuel terminal facilities are generally transported by truck. Deliveries to distant markets are shipped using major U.S. rail carriers that can switch cars to other major railroads, allowing our plants to ship product throughout the United States.
To meet the challenge of marketing ethanol and distillers grains to diverse market segments, several of our plants are capable of simultaneously handling more than 150 railcars. Some of our locations have large loop tracks with unit train loading capabilities for both ethanol and dried distillers grains and spurs to connect the loop to the mainline or allow the movement and storage of railcars on site.
As of December 31, 2020, the partnership’s leased railcar fleet consisted of approximately 2,480 railcars with an aggregate capacity of 74.4 mmg. We expect the partnership’s railcar volumetric capacity to fluctuate over the normal course of business as the existing railcar leases expire and we enter into or acquire new railcar leases.
To optimize the partnership’s railcar assets, we transport products other than ethanol depending on market opportunities and have used a portion of our railcar fleet to transport crude oil for third parties and to lease railcars to other users.
Terminal and Distribution Services. Ethanol is transported from the partnership’s terminals to third-party terminal racks where it is blended with gasoline and transferred to the loading rack for delivery by truck to retail gas stations. The partnership owns and operates fuel holding tanks and terminals, and provides terminal services and logistics solutions to markets that do not have efficient access to renewable fuels. The partnership owns and operates fuel terminals at six locations in five states with combined storage capacity of approximately 7.2 mmg and throughput capacity of approximately 726 mmgy. We also have 31 ethanol storage facilities located at or near our 12 operational ethanol production plants and one non-operational ethanol production plant with a combined storage capacity of approximately 27.5 mmg to support current ethanol production capacity of approximately 1.0 bgy.
Birmingham, Alabama - Unit Train Terminal
Other Fuel Terminal Facilities (1)
Atkinson, Nebraska (2)
Central City, Nebraska
Hopewell, Virginia (3)
Mount Vernon, Indiana
Otter Tail, Minnesota
Wood River, Nebraska
(1)Represents five fuel terminals located in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
(2)The ethanol storage facilities are located approximately 16 miles from the ethanol plant.
(3)Production at the Hopewell, Virginia facility ceased during the fourth quarter of 2018, however the storage and terminal assets remain in operating condition.
For more information about our segments, refer to Item 7. - Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations in this report.
Domestic Ethanol Competitors
We are one of the largest consolidated owners’ of ethanol plants in the United States. We compete with other domestic ethanol producers in a highly fragmented industry. Our competitors also include plants owned by farmers, cooperatives, oil refiners and retail fuel operators. These competitors may continue to operate their plants even when market conditions are not favorable due to the benefits realized from their other operations.
As of December 31, 2020, the top five producers operated 69 plants and accounted for approximately 40% of the domestic production capacity with production capacities ranging from 800 mmgy to 1,800 mmgy. Approximately half of the 209 plants in the United States are standalone facilities and accounted for approximately 38% of domestic production capacity.
Demand for corn from ethanol plants and other corn consumers exists in all areas and regions in which we operate. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, there were 107 operational plants in the states where we have production facilities, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Tennessee, as of December 31, 2020. The largest concentration of operational plants is located in Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois, where 51% of all operational production capacity is located.
Foreign Ethanol Competitors
We also compete globally with production from other countries. Brazil is the second largest ethanol producer in the world after the United States. Brazil primarily produces ethanol made from sugarcane, which may be less expensive to produce than ethanol made from corn depending on feedstock prices. Under RFS II, certain parties are obligated to meet an advanced biofuel standard. In recent years, sugarcane ethanol imported from Brazil has been one of the most economical means for obligated parties to meet this standard. Any significant additional ethanol production capacity could create excess supply in world markets, resulting in lower ethanol prices throughout the world, including the United States.
Alternative fuels, gasoline oxygenates and ethanol production methods are continually under development. Ethanol production technologies also continue to evolve. We expect changes to occur primarily in the area of cellulosic ethanol, which is made from biomass such as switch grass or fast-growing poplar trees. Since all of our plants are designed as single-feedstock facilities, adapting our plants for a different feedstock or process system would require additional capital investments and retooling which could be cost prohibitive.
Government Ethanol Programs and Policies
We are sensitive to government programs and policies that affect the supply and demand for ethanol and other fuels, which in turn may impact the volume of ethanol and other fuels we handle. In the United States, the federal government mandates the use of renewable fuels under the RFS II. The EPA assigns individual refiners, blenders and importers the volume of renewable fuels they are obligated to blend into the fuel supply each year based on their percentage of total fuel sales. The EPA has the authority to waive the mandates in whole or in part if there is inadequate domestic renewable fuel supply, if the requirement severely harms the environment, or harms the economy of the nation or a state. The RFS II sets a floor for ethanol usage in the United States. When the RFS II was established in 2010, the required volume of “conventional” or corn-based ethanol to be blended with gasoline was to increase each year until it reached 15.0 billion gallons in 2015, which left the EPA to address existing limitations in both supply and demand. The EPA has not yet released a draft RVO rule for the 2021 volumes, despite the fact they typically release a draft mid-year and finalize the rule by November 30 each year. It is unclear when they will release the RVO for 2021.
According to the RFS II, if mandatory renewable fuel volumes are reduced by at least 20% for two consecutive years, the EPA is required to modify, or reset, statutory volumes through 2022 – the year through which the statutorily prescribed volumes run. While conventional ethanol maintained 15 billion gallons, 2019 was the second consecutive year that the total proposed RVO was more than 20% below the statutory volumes levels. Thus, the EPA was expected to initiate a reset rulemaking, and modify statutory volumes through 2022, and do so based on the same factors they are to use in setting the RVOs post-2022. These factors include environmental impact, domestic energy security, expected production, infrastructure impact, consumer costs, job creation, price of agricultural commodities, food prices, and rural economic development. In late 2019, the EPA announced it would not be moving forward with a reset rulemaking in 2020, however it is currently unclear if or when they will propose a reset rulemaking.
Under the RFS, RINs and SREs are important tools impacting supply and demand. The EPA assigns individual refiners, blenders, and importers the volume of renewable fuels they are obligated to use based on their percentage of total domestic transportation fuel sales. Obligated parties use RINs to show compliance with the RFS II mandated volumes. Ethanol producers assign RINs to renewable fuels and the RINs are detached when the renewable fuel is blended with transportation fuel domestically. Market participants can trade the detached RINs in the open market. The market price of detached RINs affects the price of ethanol in certain markets and can influence purchasing decisions by obligated parties. As it relates to SREs, a small refinery is defined as one that processes fewer than 75,000 barrels of petroleum per day. Small refineries can petition the EPA for a SRE which, if approved, waives their portion of the annual RVO requirements. The EPA, through consultation with the DOE and the USDA can grant a full or partial waiver, or deny it outright within 90 days of submittal. The EPA granted significantly more of these waivers for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 reporting years than they had in prior years, totaling 790 mmg of waived requirements for the 2016 compliance year, 1.82 billion gallons for 2017 and 1.43 billion gallons for 2018. In doing so, the EPA effectively reduced the RFS II mandated volumes for those compliance years by those amounts respectively, and as a result, RIN values declined significantly.
Biofuels groups have filed a lawsuit in the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, challenging the 2019 RVO rule over the EPA’s failure to address small refinery exemptions in the rulemaking. This was the first RFS II rulemaking since the expanded use of the exemptions came to light; however, the EPA had declined to cap the number of waivers it grants, and until late 2019, had declined to alter how it accounts for the retroactive waivers in its annual volume calculations. The EPA has a statutory mandate to ensure the volume requirements are met, which are achieved by setting the percentage standards for obligated parties. We believe the EPA’s recent approach accomplished the opposite in that even if all the obligated parties complied with their respective percentage obligations for 2019, the nation’s overall supply of renewable fuel would not meet the total volume requirements set by the EPA. This undermines Congressional intent to increase the consumption of renewable fuels in the domestic transportation fuel supply. Biofuels groups have argued the EPA must therefore adjust its percentage standard calculations to make up for past retroactive waivers and adjust the standards to account for any waivers it reasonably expects to grant in the future.
In 2019, in a supplemental rulemaking to the 2020 RVO rule, the EPA changed their approach, and for the first time accounted for the gallons that they anticipate will be waived from the blending requirements due to small refinery exemptions. To accomplish this, they added in the trailing three year average of gallons the DOE recommended be waived, in effect raising the blending volumes across the board in anticipation of waiving the obligations in whole or in part for certain refineries that qualify for the exemptions. Though the EPA has often disregarded the recommendations of the DOE in years past, they stated in the rule their intent to adhere to these recommendations going forward, including granting partial waivers rather than an all or nothing approach. The EPA will be adjudicating the 2020 compliance year small refinery exemption applications in early 2021, and have indicated they will also adhere to the DOE recommendations for the 2019 compliance year applications.
In January 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled on RFA et. al. vs. EPA in favor of biofuels interests, overturning EPA’s granting of refinery exemptions to three refineries on two separate grounds. The Court agreed that, under the Clean Air Act, refineries are eligible for SREs for a given RVO year only if such exemptions are extensions of exemptions granted in previous RVO years. In this case, the three refineries at issue did not qualify for SREs in the year prior to the year that EPA granted them. They were thus ineligible for additional SRE relief because there were no immediately prior SREs to extend. In addition, the Court agreed that the disproportionate economic hardship prong of SRE eligibility should be determined solely by reference to whether compliance with the RFS II creates such hardship, not whether compliance plus other issues create disproportionate economic hardship. The Court thus vacated EPA's grant of SREs for certain years and remanded the grants back to EPA. The refiners appealed for a rehearing which was denied. Two of the refiners appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and in January 2021, the Supreme Court announced they would hear the case. If the decision against the EPA is upheld by the Supreme Court, it is uncertain how the EPA will propose to remedy the situation.
In light of the 10th Circuit ruling, a number of refineries have applied for “gap year” SREs in an effort to establish a continuous string of relief and to ensure they are able to qualify for SREs going forward. A total of 64 gap year requests were filed with the EPA and reviewed by the DOE. In September 2020 the EPA announced that they were denying 54 of the gap year requests that had been scored and returned by DOE, regardless of how they had been scored. Without a string of continuous SRE approvals, almost no small refinery would be eligible to apply for hardship relief in this manner, unless the Supreme Court overturns the 10th Circuit ruling, which we believe is unlikely.
To respond to the COVID-19 health crisis and attempt to offset the subsequent economic damage, Congress passed multiple relief measures, most notably the CARES Act in March 2020, which created and funded multiple programs that have impacted our industry. The USDA was given additional resources for the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) and they are using those funds to provide direct payments to farmers, including corn farmers from whom we purchase most of our feedstock for ethanol production. Similar to the trade aid payments made by the USDA over the past two years, this cash injection for farmers could cause them to delay marketing decisions and increase the price we have to pay to purchase corn. The CARES Act also allowed for certain net operating loss carrybacks, which has allowed us to receive certain tax refunds. In December 2020, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law an annual spending package coupled with another COVID relief bill which included additional funds for the Secretary of Agriculture to distribute to those impacted by the pandemic. The language of the bill specifically includes biofuels producers as eligible for some of this aid.
The CARES Act provided a tax exclusion on the shipment of un-denatured ethanol for use in manufacturing hand sanitizer, a key ingredient of which is undenatured ethanol of specific grades. The FDA has also provided expanded guidance to allow for more denaturants to be used in ethanol intended for hand sanitizer production, and has expanded the grades of ethanol allowed for the duration of the public health crisis.
See further discussion in Item 7 – Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations.
Environmental and Other Regulation
Our ethanol production, agribusiness and energy services, food and ingredients, and partnership segment activities are subject to various and extensive environmental and other regulations. We obtain and maintain various environmental permits to operate our plants and other facilities. Ethanol production involves the emission of various airborne pollutants, including particulate, carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court classified carbon dioxide as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act in a case seeking to require the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide in vehicle emissions, which the EPA later addressed in RFS II. While some of our plants operate as grandfathered at their current authorized capacity under the RFS II mandate, expansion above these capacities at grandfathered plants will require a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from a 2005 baseline measurement.
In addition, various states and countries are adopting regulatory schemes similar to what California has adopted. Specifically, CARB adopted LCFS requiring a 10% reduction in average carbon intensity of gasoline and diesel transportation fuels in California from 2010 to 2020. After a series of rulings that temporarily prevented CARB from enforcing these regulations, the State of California Office of Administrative Law approved the LCFS in November 2012, and revised LCFS regulations took effect in January 2013.
We employ maintenance and operations personnel at each of our plants. In addition to the attention we place on the health and safety of our employees, the operations of our facilities are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
See further discussion in Item 7 – Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations.
Exclusive Partnerships and Joint Ventures
In 2020, we acquired a majority interest in Fluid Quip Technologies, LLC. The acquisition capitalizes on the core strengths of each company to develop and implement proven, value-added agriculture, food and industrial biotechnology systems and rapidly expand installation and production of Ultra-High Protein technology across our facilities, as well as offer these technologies to partnering biofuel facilities.
In 2020, we formed an exclusive partnership with Hayashikane Sangyo of Japan, one of the oldest and most successful integrated aquafeed companies in the world. The companies have come together to deliver innovative solutions for fast-growing global aquaculture markets using technology developed and successfully deployed in Japanese production. These technologies complement our Ultra-High Protein production capabilities.
In 2019, we joined with Novozymes in an exclusive venture to produce higher purity protein and protein meals with nutritional and other feed benefits through non-mechanical methods.
In July 2018, we formed Optimal Aquafeed, a 50/50 joint venture to produce high-quality aquaculture feeds utilizing proprietary techniques and high-protein feed ingredients. The joint venture brings together Green Plains’ production capabilities, commodity expertise, and infrastructure and combines that with Optimal Fish Food LLC’s intellectual property, industry expertise and customer relationships. We purchased the remaining 50% interest in Optimal Aquafeed in February 2020 and now own 100% of Optimal Aquafeed.
We are the majority owner of the BioProcess Algae joint venture, which was formed in 2008. The joint venture is focused on growing algae in commercially viable quantities using feedstocks that are created as part of our ethanol production process. We are currently focused on animal nutrition, using proprietary technology to customize specific products, based on proven benefits, for relevant markets.
In 2019, we formed the GPCC joint venture with TGAM and StepStone. GPCC has the capacity to support 355,000 head of cattle and has approximately 24.1 million bushels of grain storage capacity. In October 2020, we disposed of our remaining 50% interest in GPCC.
Human Capital Resources
The attraction, retention and development of employees is critical to our success. We accomplish this, in part, by our competitive compensation practices, training initiatives, and growth opportunities within the company. On December 31, 2020, we had 839 full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees, including 122 employees at our corporate office in Omaha, Nebraska.
Workforce Health and Safety
We take workplace safety very seriously and our robust safety program means that we are constantly evaluating our safety protocols in an effort to keep our facilities safe for our workers.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have remained focused on protecting the health and safety of our team members while meeting the needs of our customers. Shortly after the outset of COVID-19, we were an early adopter of enhanced safety measures and practices across our facilities to protect employee health and safety and ensure a reliable supply of products to our customers. This included the purchasing of masks, temperature check machines and hand sanitizer
at all locations. We donated industrial-grade alcohol, which can be used as an ingredient for sanitation products, to both the State of Nebraska and the State of Iowa, as well as the University of Nebraska. Additionally, all employees were provided with a twenty pound package of frozen ground beef at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We monitor and track the impact of the pandemic on our teammates and within our operations, and proactively modify or adopt new practices to promote their health and safety.
Compensation and Benefits
As part of our compensation philosophy, we believe that we must offer and maintain market competitive compensation and benefit programs for our employees in order to attract and retain superior talent. In addition to competitive base wages, additional programs include the 2019 Equity Incentive Plan, a company matched 401(k) Plan, healthcare and insurance benefits, flexible spending accounts, paid time off, family leave, and employee assistance programs.
Diversity and Inclusion
We are committed to our continued efforts to increase diversity and foster an inclusive work environment that supports the workforce and the communities we serve. We recruit the best qualified employees regardless of gender, ethnicity or other protected traits and it is our policy to fully comply with all laws applicable to discrimination in the workplace.
Our annual reports on Form 10-K, quarterly reports on Form 10-Q, current reports on Form 8-K and amendments to those reports are available on our website at www.gpreinc.com shortly after we file or furnish the information with the SEC. You can also find the charters of our audit, compensation and nominating committees, as well as our code of ethics in the corporate governance section of our website. The information found on our website is not part of this or any other report we file with or furnish to the SEC. For more information on our partnership, please visit www.greenplainspartners.com. Alternatively, investors may visit the SEC website at www.sec.gov to access our reports, proxy and information statements filed with the SEC.
Item 1A. Risk Factors.
We operate in an industry that has numerous risks, many of which are beyond our control or are driven by factors that cannot always be predicted. Investors should carefully consider all of the risk factors in conjunction with the other information included in this report as our financial results and condition or market value could be adversely affected if any of these risks were to occur.
Risks Related to our Business and Industry
Our margins are dependent on managing the spread between the price of corn, natural gas, ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil.
Our operating results are highly sensitive to commodity prices, including the spread between the corn and natural gas we purchase, and the ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil we sell. Price and supply are subject to various market forces, such as weather, domestic and global demand, shortages, export prices, crude oil prices, currency valuations and government policies in the United States and around the world, over which we have no control. Price volatility of these commodities may cause our operating results to fluctuate substantially. Increases in corn or natural gas prices or decreases in ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil prices may make it unprofitable to operate. No assurance can be given that we will purchase corn and natural gas or sell ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil at or near prices which would provide us with positive margins. Consequently, our results of operations and financial position may be adversely affected by increases in corn or natural gas prices or decreases in ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil prices.
We continuously monitor the margins at our ethanol plants using a variety of risk management tools and hedging strategies, when appropriate. In recent years, the spread between ethanol and corn prices has fluctuated widely, narrowed significantly and been negative at times. Fluctuations are likely to continue. A sustained narrow spread or further reduction in the spread between ethanol and corn prices as a result of increased corn prices or decreased ethanol prices, would adversely affect our results of operations and financial position. Should our combined revenue from ethanol, including industrial-grade alcohol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil fall below our cost of production, we could decide to slow or
suspend production at some or all of our ethanol plants, which also could adversely affect our results of operations and financial position.
The commodities we buy and sell are subject to price volatility and uncertainty.
Corn. We are generally unable to pass increased corn costs to our customers since ethanol competes with other fuels. At certain corn prices, ethanol may be uneconomical to produce. Ethanol plants, livestock industries and other corn-consuming enterprises put significant price pressure on local corn markets. In addition, local corn supplies and prices could be adversely affected by prices for alternative crops, increasing input costs, changes in government policies, shifts in global markets or damaging growing conditions, such as plant disease or adverse weather, including drought.
Ethanol. Our revenues are dependent on market prices for ethanol which can be volatile as a result of a number of factors, including: the price and availability of competing fuels; the overall supply and demand for ethanol and corn; the price of gasoline, crude oil and corn; and government policies.
Ethanol is marketed as a fuel additive that reduces vehicle emissions, an economical source of octanes and, to a lesser extent, a gasoline substitute. Consequently, gasoline supply and demand affect the price of ethanol. Should gasoline prices or demand decrease significantly, our results of operations could be materially impacted.
Ethanol imports also affect domestic supply and demand. Imported ethanol is not subject to an import tariff and, under the RFS II, sugarcane ethanol from Brazil is one of the most economical means for obligated parties to meet the advanced biofuel standard.
Industrial-grade alcohol is produced by further distillation processing of the 200-proof alcohol. Further distillation removes impurities from fuel-grade ethanol to allow for production of industrial-grade alcohol which can be used as an ingredient for sanitation products. Should industrial-grade alcohol prices or demand decrease significantly, our results of operations could be negatively impacted.
Distillers Grains. Increased U.S. dry mill ethanol production has resulted in increased distillers grains production. Should this trend continue, distillers grains prices could fall unless demand increases or other market sources are found. The price of distillers grains has historically been correlated with the price of corn. Occasionally, the price of distillers grains will lag behind fluctuations in corn or other feedstock prices, lowering our cost recovery percentage. Additionally, exports of distiller grains could be impacted by the enactment of foreign policy.
Distillers grains compete with other protein-based animal feed products. Downward pressure on other commodity prices, such as corn and soybeans, will generally cause the price of competing animal feed products to decline, resulting in downward pressure on the price of distillers grains.
Natural Gas. The price and availability of natural gas are subject to volatile market conditions. These market conditions are often affected by factors beyond our control, such as weather, drilling economics, overall economic conditions and government regulations. Significant disruptions in natural gas supply could impair our ability to produce ethanol. Furthermore, increases in natural gas price or changes in our cost relative to our competitors cannot be passed on to our customers which may adversely affect our results of operations and financial position.
Corn Oil. Industrial corn oil is generally marketed as a renewable diesel and biodiesel feedstock; therefore, the price of corn oil is affected by demand for renewable diesel and biodiesel. Expanded profitability in the renewable diesel and biodiesel industry due to the extended blending tax credit and low carbon fuels standards could impact corn oil demand. In general, corn oil prices follow the prices of heating oil and soybean oil. Decreases in the price of corn oil could have an unfavorable impact on our business.
Our risk management and commodity trading strategies could be ineffective and expose us to decreased liquidity.
As market conditions warrant, we use forward contracts to sell some of our ethanol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein, and corn oil, or buy some of the corn, and natural gas we need to partially offset commodity price volatility. We also engage in other hedging transactions and other commodity trading involving exchange-traded futures contracts for corn, natural gas, ethanol, soybean meal and other agricultural commodities. The financial impact of these activities depends on the price of the commodities involved and/or our ability to physically receive or deliver the commodities.
Hedging arrangements expose us to risk of financial loss when the counterparty defaults on its contract or, in the case of exchange-traded contracts, when the expected differential between the price of the underlying and physical commodity
changes. Hedging activities can result in losses when a position is purchased in a declining market or sold in a rising market. Hedging losses may be offset by a decreased cash price for corn, and natural gas and an increased cash price for ethanol, distillers grains, Ultra-High Protein and corn oil. We vary the amount of hedging and other risk mitigation strategies we undertake and sometimes choose not to engage in hedging transactions at all. We cannot provide assurance that our risk management and commodity trading strategies and decisions will be profitable or effectively offset commodity price volatility. If they are not our results of operations and financial position may be adversely affected.
The use of derivative financial instruments frequently involves cash deposits with brokers, or margin calls. Sudden changes in commodity prices may require additional cash deposits immediately. Depending on our open derivative positions, we may need additional liquidity with little advance notice to cover margin calls. While we continuously monitor our exposure to margin calls, we cannot guarantee we will be able to maintain adequate liquidity to cover margin calls in the future.
Government mandates affecting ethanol could change and impact the ethanol market.
Under the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), Congress expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS II). The RFS II mandated the minimum volume of renewable fuels that must be blended into the transportation fuel supply which affects the domestic market for ethanol and each year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) undertakes rulemaking to set the Renewable Volume Obligation (RVO) for the following year. Further, the EPA has the authority to waive the requirements, in whole or in part, if there is inadequate domestic renewable fuel supply or the requirement severely harms the economy or the environment. After 2022, volumes shall be determined by the EPA in coordination with the Secretaries of Energy and Agriculture, taking into account such factors as impact on environment, energy security, future rates of production, cost to consumers, infrastructure, and other factors such as impact on commodity prices, job creation, rural economic development, or impact on food prices. However, on December 19, 2019, the EPA announced it would not be moving forward with a reset rulemaking in 2020. It is unclear when or if they will propose a reset rulemaking. Volumes can also be impacted as small refineries can petition the EPA for a SRE which, if approved, waives their portion of the annual RVO requirements. The EPA, through consultation with the DOE and the USDA can grant them a full or partial waiver, or deny it outright within 90 days of submittal. A small refinery is defined as one that processes fewer than 75,000 barrels of petroleum per day.
Our operations could be adversely impacted by legislation, administration actions, EPA actions, or lawsuits, that may reduce the RFS II mandated volumes of conventional ethanol and other biofuels through the annual RVO, the 2022 reset rulemaking, the point of obligation for blending, or small refinery exemptions. A number of lawsuits are pending involving the RVO, the point of obligation and small refinery exemptions. Similarly, should federal mandates regarding oxygenated gasoline be repealed, the market for domestic ethanol could be adversely impacted. Economic incentives to blend based on the relative value of gasoline versus ethanol, taking into consideration the octane value of ethanol, environmental requirements and the RFS II mandate, may affect future demand. A significant increase in supply beyond the RFS II mandate could have an adverse impact on ethanol prices. Moreover, changes to RFS II could negatively impact the price of ethanol or cause imported sugarcane ethanol to become more economical than domestic ethanol. Likewise state and regional low carbon fuel standards (LCFS) like that of California could be favorable or harmful to conventional ethanol, depending on how it is crafted.
Future demand may be influenced by economic incentives to blend based on the relative value of gasoline versus ethanol, taking into consideration the octane value of ethanol, environmental requirements and the value of RFS II credits or Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs). A significant increase in supply beyond the RFS II mandate could have an adverse impact on ethanol prices. Moreover, any changes to RFS II, whether by legislation, EPA action or lawsuit, originating from issues associated with the market price of RINs could negatively impact the demand for ethanol, discretionary blending of ethanol and/or the price of ethanol. Recent actions by the EPA to grant small refiner exemptions without accounting for the lost gallons has resulted in lower RIN prices.
Flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs), which are designed to run on a mixture of fuels, including higher blends of ethanol such as E85, receive preferential treatment to meet corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in the form of CAFE credits. There are approximately 21 million FFVs on the road in the U.S. today, 16 million of which are light duty trucks. FFV credits have been decreasing since 2014 and will be completely phased out in 2020. Absent CAFE preferences, auto manufacturers may not be willing to build flexible-fuel vehicles, which has the potential to slow the growth of E85 markets.
To the extent federal or state laws or regulations are modified and/or enacted, it may result in the demand for ethanol being reduced, which could negatively and materially affect our financial performance.
Future demand for ethanol is uncertain and changes in public perception, consumer acceptance and overall consumer demand for transportation fuel could affect demand.
While many trade groups, academics and government agencies support ethanol as a fuel additive that promotes a cleaner environment, others claim ethanol production consumes considerably more energy, emits more greenhouse gases than other fuels and depletes water resources. While we do not agree, some studies suggest ethanol produced from corn is less efficient than ethanol produced from switch grass or wheat grain. Others claim corn-based ethanol negatively impacts consumers by causing the prices of meat and other food derived from corn-consuming livestock to increase. Ethanol critics also contend the industry redirects corn supplies from international food markets to domestic fuel markets, and contributes to land use change domestically and abroad.
There are limited markets for ethanol beyond the federal mandates. We believe further consumer acceptance of E15 and E85 fuels may be necessary before ethanol can achieve significant market share growth. Discretionary and E85 blending are important secondary markets. Discretionary blending is often determined by the price of ethanol relative to gasoline, and availability to consumers. When discretionary blending is financially unattractive, the demand for ethanol may be reduced.
Demand for ethanol is also affected by overall demand for transportation fuel, which is affected by cost, number of miles traveled and vehicle fuel economy. Miles traveled typically increases during the spring and summer months related to vacation travel, followed closely behind the fall season due to holiday travel. Global events, such as COVID-19, have greatly decreased miles traveled and in turn, the demand for ethanol. Consumer demand for gasoline may be impacted by emerging transportation trends, such as electric vehicles or ride sharing. In January 2021, General Motors announced a target date of 2035 for phasing out the production of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles. Similarly, Nissan has stated that their entire fleet will be electric vehicles by the early 2030s. These announcements coincide with pledges to ban the sale of internal combustion engines in countries such as Japan and the United Kingdom by 2035, as well as a statewide ban in California. While aspirational, if realized these bans would accelerate the decline of liquid fuel demand and by extension demand for ethanol, biodiesel and renewable diesel.
Additionally, factors such as over-supply of ethanol, which has been the case for some time, could continue to negatively impact our business. Reduced demand for ethanol may depress the value of our products, erode its margins, and reduce our ability to generate revenue or operate profitably.
Our business is directly affected by the supply and demand for ethanol and other fuels in the markets served by our assets. Reduced demand for ethanol, regardless of cause, may erode our margins and reduce our ability to generate revenue and operate profitably.
In the past, we have had operating losses and could incur future operating losses.
In the last five years, we incurred operating losses during certain quarters and could incur operating losses in the future that are substantial. Although we have had periods of sustained profitability, we may not be able to maintain or increase profitability on a quarterly or annual basis, which could impact the market price of our common stock and the value of your investment.
If the United States were to withdraw from or materially modify certain international trade agreements, our business, financial condition and results of operations could be materially adversely affected.
Ethanol and other products that we produce are or have been exported to Canada, Mexico, Brazil, China and other countries. The previous administration expressed antipathy towards certain existing international trade agreements and has significantly increased tariffs on goods imported into the United States, which in turn has led to retaliatory actions on U.S. exports. The current trade situation, the outcome of trade negotiations or lack thereof, has had and/or may continue to have a material effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations.
Our ability to access the partnership’s terminals adjacent to our ethanol plants could cause disruptions in our operations and adversely affect our production levels, profitability and needed capital expenditures.
We are party to the storage and throughput agreement with our partnership, under which we access the storage and throughput services offered by the partnership. In the event of a default by either party under that agreement, our ability to throughput our ethanol may be disrupted, which in turn could adversely affect our production levels, operating expenses, profitability and our need for capital expenditures for alternative throughput arrangements.
Our debt exposes us to numerous risks that could have significant consequences to our shareholders.
Risks related to the level of debt we have include: (1) requiring a sizeable portion of cash to be dedicated for debt service, reducing the availability of cash flow for working capital, capital expenditures, and other general business activities and limiting our ability to invest in new growth opportunities; (2) limiting our ability to obtain additional financing for working capital, capital expenditures, acquisitions and other activities; (3) limiting our flexibility to plan for or react to changes in the businesses and industries in which we operate; (4) increasing our vulnerability to general and industry-specific adverse economic conditions; (5) being at a competitive disadvantage against less leveraged competitors; and (6) being vulnerable to increases in prevailing interest rates.
Most of our debt bears interest at variable rates, which creates exposure to interest rate risk. If interest rates increase, our debt service obligations at variable rates would increase even though the amount borrowed remained the same, decreasing net income.
Our ability to make scheduled payments on or to refinance our debt obligations and to fund our planned capital expenditures, acquisitions and other ongoing liquidity needs depends on our financial condition and operating performance, which are subject to prevailing economic and competitive conditions as well as certain financial, business and other factors which are beyond our control. There can be no assurance that we will maintain a level of cash flow from operating activities in an amount sufficient to permit us to pay the principal, premium, if any, and interest on our indebtedness. If our cash flow and capital resources are insufficient to fund our debt service obligations, we may be forced to reduce or delay investments and capital expenditures, or to seek additional capital or restructure our indebtedness. These alternative measures may not be successful and may not permit us to meet our scheduled debt service obligations. In the absence of such operating results and resources, we could face substantial liquidity problems and might be required to dispose of material assets or operations to meet our debt service and other obligations.
We are required to comply with a number of covenants under our existing loan agreements that could hinder our growth.
We are required to maintain specified financial ratios, including minimum cash flow coverage, working capital and tangible net worth under certain loan agreements. A breach of these covenants could result in default, and if such default is not cured or waived, our lenders could accelerate our debt and declare it immediately due and payable. If this occurs, we may not be able to repay or borrow sufficient funds to refinance the debt. Even if financing is available, it may not be on acceptable terms. No assurance can be given that our future operating results will be sufficient to comply with these covenants or remedy default.
In the past, we have received waivers from our lenders for failure to meet certain financial covenants and amended our loan agreements to change these covenants. In the event we are unable to comply with these covenants in the future, we cannot provide assurance that we will be able to obtain the necessary waivers or amend our loan agreements to prevent default. Under our convertible senior notes, default on any loan in excess of $10.0 million could result in the notes being declared due and payable, which would have a material and adverse effect on our ability to operate.
We operate in a capital intensive business and rely on cash generated from operations and external financing, which could be limited.
Increased commodity prices could increase liquidity requirements. Our operating cash flow is dependent on overall commodity market conditions as well as our ability to operate profitably. In addition, we may need to raise additional financing to fund growth. In some market environments, we may have limited access to incremental financing, which could defer or cancel growth projects, reduce business activity or cause us to default on our existing debt agreements if we are unable to meet our payment schedules. These events could have an adverse effect on our operations and financial position.
Our ability to repay current and anticipated future debt will depend on our financial and operating performance and successful implementation of our business strategies. Our financial and operational performance will depend on numerous factors including prevailing economic conditions, commodity prices, and financial, business and other factors beyond our control. If we cannot repay, refinance or extend our current debt at scheduled maturity dates, we could be forced to reduce or delay capital expenditures, sell assets, restructure our debt or seek additional capital. If we are unable to restructure our debt or raise funds, our operations and growth plans could be harmed and the value of our stock could be significantly reduced.
Disruptions in the credit market could limit our access to capital.
We may need additional capital to fund our growth or other business activities in the future. The cost of capital under our existing or future financing arrangements could increase and affect our ability to trade with various commercial counterparties or cause our counterparties to require additional forms of credit support. If capital markets are disrupted, we may not be able to access capital at all or capital may only be available under less favorable terms.
We are required to continue to make payments to the partnership to the minimum volume commitment regardless of our production levels.
We are party to the storage and throughput agreement with our partnership, under which we are obligated to pay a minimum volume commitment regardless of whether or not we operate. We may not run our plants at volumes sufficient enough to cover the MVC resulting in payments being made to the partnership. In times of sustained negative margins, our volumes may be insufficient to recover these MVC payments in the following four quarters as outlined in the partnership agreement.
Our ability to maintain the required regulatory permits or manage changes in environmental, safety and TTB regulations is essential to successfully operating our plants.
Our plants are subject to extensive air, water, environmental and TTB regulations. Our production facilities involve the emission of various airborne pollutants, including particulate, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds, which requires numerous environmental permits to operate our plants. Governing state agencies could impose costly conditions or restrictions that are detrimental to our profitability and have a material adverse effect on our operations, cash flows and financial position.
Environmental laws and regulations at the federal and state level are subject to change. These changes can also be made retroactively. It is possible that more stringent federal or state environmental rules or regulations could be adopted, which could increase our operating costs and expenses. Consequently, even though we currently have the proper permits, we may be required to invest or spend considerable resources in order to comply with future environmental regulations. Furthermore, ongoing plant operations, which are governed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, may change in a way that increases the cost of plant operations. Any of these events could have a material adverse effect on our operations, cash flows and financial position.
Part of our business is regulated by environmental laws and regulations governing the labeling, use, storage, discharge and disposal of hazardous materials. Since we handle and use hazardous substances, changes in environmental requirements or an unanticipated significant adverse environmental event could have a negative impact on our business. While we strive to comply with all environmental requirements, we cannot provide assurance that we have been in compliance at all times or will not incur material costs or liabilities in connection with these requirements. Private parties, including current and former employees, could bring personal injury or other claims against us due to the presence of hazardous substances. We are also exposed to residual risk by our land and facilities which may have environmental liabilities from prior use. Changes in environmental regulations may require us to modify existing plant and processing facilities, which could significantly increase our cost of operations.
TTB regulations apply when producing our undenatured ethanol. These regulations carry substantial penalties for non-compliance and therefore any non-compliance may adversely affect our financial operations or adversely impact our ability to produce undenatured ethanol.
Any inability to generate or obtain RINs could adversely affect our operating margins.
Nearly all of our ethanol production is sold with RINs that are used by our customers to comply with the RFS II. Should our production not meet the EPA’s requirements for RIN generation in the future, we would need to purchase RINs in the open market or sell our ethanol at lower prices to compensate for the absence of RINs. The price of RINs depends on a variety of factors, including the availability of qualifying biofuels and RINs for purchase, production levels of transportation fuel and percentage mix of ethanol with other fuels, and cannot be predicted. Failure to obtain sufficient RINs or reliance on invalid RINs could subject us to fines and penalties imposed by the EPA which could adversely affect our results of operations, cash flows and financial condition.
As we trade ethanol acquired from third-parties, should it be discovered the RINs associated with the ethanol we purchased are invalid, albeit unknowingly, we could be subject to substantial penalties if we are assessed the maximum amount allowed by law. Prior to 2013, the EPA assessed only modest penalties for RIN violations. However, based on EPA
penalties assessed on RINS violations in the past few years, in the event of a violation, the EPA could assess penalties, which could have an adverse impact on our profitability.
Compliance with evolving environmental, health and safety laws and regulations, particularly those related to climate change, could be costly.
Our plants emit carbon dioxide as a by-product of ethanol production. In February 2010, the EPA released its final regulations on RFS II, grandfathering our plants at their current authorized capacity. While some of our plants have received efficient producer status and no longer rely on grandfathered status, for those still reliant upon it, expansion above these levels will require a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 2005 baseline measurement. Separately, CARB adopted a LCFS that took effect in January 2013, which requires a 10% reduction in the average carbon intensity of gasoline and diesel transportation fuels from 2010 to 2020. An ILUC component is included in the greenhouse gas emission calculation, which may have an adverse impact on the market for corn-based ethanol in California.
To expand our production capacity, federal and state regulations may require us to obtain additional permits, achieve EPA’s efficient producer status under the pathway petition program, install advanced technology or reduce drying distillers grains. Compliance with future laws or regulations to decrease carbon dioxide could be costly and may prevent us from operating our plants as profitably, which may have an adverse impact on our operations, cash flows and financial position.
We may fail to realize the anticipated benefits of mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures or partnerships.
We have increased the size and diversity of our operations through mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures or partnerships and intend to continue exploring potential growth opportunities. Acquisitions involve numerous risks that could harm our business, including: (1) difficulties integrating the operations, technologies, products, existing contracts, accounting processes and personnel and realizing anticipated synergies of the combined business; (2) risks relating to environmental hazards on purchased sites; (3) risks relating to developing the necessary infrastructure for facilities or acquired sites, including access to rail networks; (4) difficulties supporting and transitioning customers; (5) diversion of financial and management resources from existing operations; (6) the purchase price exceeding the value realized; (7) risks of entering new markets or areas outside of our core competencies; (7) potential loss of key employees, customers and strategic alliances from our existing or acquired business; (8) unanticipated problems or underlying liabilities; and (9) inability to generate sufficient revenue to offset acquisition and development costs.
The anticipated benefits of these transactions may not be fully realized or could take longer to realize than expected.
We have also pursued growth through joint ventures or partnerships, which typically involve restrictions on actions that the partnership or joint venture may take without the approval of the partners. These provisions could limit our ability to manage the partnership or joint venture in a manner that serves our best interests.
Future acquisitions may involve issuing equity as payment or to finance the business or assets, which could dilute your ownership interest. Furthermore, additional debt may be necessary to complete these transactions, which could have a material adverse effect on our financial condition. Failure to adequately address the risks associated with acquisitions or joint ventures could have a material adverse effect on our business, results of operations and financial condition.
We may be affected by our portfolio optimization and total transformation strategies.
In May 2018, we announced that we were evaluating the performance of our entire portfolio of assets and businesses. As part of that process, during the fourth quarter of 2018, we sold three ethanol plants, permanently closed one ethanol plant and sold Fleischmann’s Vinegar. Furthermore, we sold our 50% interest in JGP Energy Partners during the fourth quarter of 2019, we sold a 50% interest in GPCC during the third quarter of 2019 and the remaining 50% interest in GPCC during the fourth quarter of 2020, the Hereford, Texas ethanol plant in December 2020 and the recently announced sale of the Ord, Nebraska ethanol plant, which is expected to close within 45 days.
As we continue to evaluate our portfolio, we may sell additional assets or businesses or exit particular markets that are no longer a strategic fit or no longer meet their growth or profitability targets. Depending on the nature of the assets sold, our profitability may be impacted by lost operating income or cash flows from such businesses. In addition, divestitures we complete may not yield the targeted improvements in our business and may divert management’s attention from our day-to-day operations. We are also undergoing a number of project initiatives to improve margins, including the Project 24 initiative and increased investment into Ultra-High Protein animal feed products, as part of our total transformation strategy. Our failure to achieve the intended financial results associated with our portfolio optimization and total transformation strategies could have an adverse effect on our business, financial condition or results of operations.
Future events could result in impairment of long-lived assets, which may result in charges that adversely affect our results of operations.
Long-lived assets, including property, plant and equipment, intangible assets, goodwill and equity method investments, are evaluated for impairment annually or whenever events or changes in circumstances indicate that the carrying amount of an asset may not be recoverable. Our impairment evaluations are sensitive to changes in key assumptions used in our analysis and may require use of financial estimates of future cash flows. Application of alternative assumptions could produce significantly different results. We may be required to recognize impairments of long-lived assets based on future economic factors such as unfavorable changes in estimated future undiscounted cash flows of an asset group.
Global competition could affect our profitability.
We compete with producers in the United States and abroad. Depending on feedstock, labor and other production costs, producers in other countries, such as Brazil, may be able to produce ethanol cheaper than we can. Under RFS II, certain parties are obligated to meet an advanced biofuel standard. In recent years, sugarcane ethanol imported from Brazil has been one of the most economical means for obligated parties to meet this standard. While transportation costs, infrastructure constraints and demand may temper the impact of ethanol imports, foreign competition remains a risk to our business. Moreover, significant additional foreign ethanol production could create excess supply, which could result in lower ethanol prices throughout the world, including the United States. Any penetration of ethanol imports into the domestic market may have a material adverse effect on our operations, cash flows and financial position.
International activities such as boycotts, embargoes, product rejection, trade policies and compliance matters, may have an adverse effect on our results of operations.
Government actions abroad can have a significant impact on our business. In 2020, we exported 21% of our ethanol production. In 2013, the European Union imposed a five-year tariff of $83.33 per metric ton on U.S. ethanol to discourage foreign competition. Effective January 1, 2017, China indicated its intention to raise its 5% tariff on U.S. and Brazil fuel ethanol to 30%. On April 1, 2018, China raised their tariff rate to 45%, and later raised it further to 70%. In January 2020, the two countries announced a “Phase I” trade deal with agricultural commodity purchase commitments, including ethanol; however, these ethanol tariffs have not been reduced or eliminated.
Although the ethanol export markets are affected by competition from other ethanol exporters, particularly Brazil, and in spite of the actions by China, we believe exports will remain active going forward. On September 1, 2017, Brazil’s Chamber of Foreign Trade, or CAMEX, issued an official written resolution, imposing a 20% tariff on U.S. ethanol imports in excess of 150 million liters, or 39.6 million gallons per quarter. The ruling was extended for a year in 2019, and again by 90 days in 2020, but was allowed to lapse in December 2020, and a 20% duty now applies to all U.S. ethanol imports into Brazil.
In January 2016, China’s Ministry of Commerce initiated an anti-dumping investigation into U.S.-produced dried distillers grains exported to China. In January of 2017, the Ministry of Commerce of China announced it increased anti-dumping duties on U.S. distillers grains, ranging from 42.2% to 53.7%.
With more tariffs and reduced exports, the value of our products may be affected, which could have a negative impact on our profitability. Additionally, tariffs on U.S. ethanol may lead to further industry over-supply and reduce our profitability. Moreover, the America First trade position has caused more countries to toughen their positions on U.S. imports.
The ability or willingness of OPEC and other oil exporting nations to set and maintain production levels has a significant impact on oil and natural gas commodity prices.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and their allies (collectively, OPEC+), is an intergovernmental organization that seeks to manage the price and supply of oil on the global energy market. Actions taken by OPEC+ members, including those taken alongside other oil exporting nations, have a significant impact on global oil supply and pricing. For example, OPEC+ and certain other oil exporting nations have previously agreed to take measures, including production cuts, to support crude oil prices. In March 2020, members of OPEC+ considered extending and potentially increasing these oil production cuts, however these negotiations were unsuccessful. As a result, Saudi Arabia announced an immediate reduction in export prices and Russia announced that all previously agreed oil production cuts will expire on April 1, 2020. These actions led to an immediate and steep decrease in oil prices. There can be no assurance that OPEC+ members and other oil exporting nations will agree to future prod