When summing up expected investments in new ethanol- and sugar-producing capacities in Brazil, the numbers shift from day to day and from source to source. Dow Jones reports that, in April 2007, BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank, put the figure for the 2008-11 period at 89 projects requiring USD13.1 billion in investments. Unica, the Association of Sugarcane Growers of Brazil’s Center-South, talks of 86 plants, with slated expenditures of USD17 billion. The Vice-President of Morgan Stanley’s research division, Subhojit Daripa, on his turn, speaks of a total of USD33 billion in new investments planned both for the development of greenfield projects and for the expansion of existing plants.
Looming over the sector, Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned energy company, is a wild card that may sway the development of the industry one way or the other. It has announced a partnership with Japan’s Mitsui to build forty “bioenergy complexes”, as well as two dedicated ethanol pipelines from Goias state, deep in Brazil’s interior, through traditional sugarcane-growing regions in the northwest of Sao Paulo state and on to terminals on the Atlantic.
However, as a cursory examination of Brazilian history shows, talk is cheap and the way things turn out will be determined by the economic fundamentals of Brazil’s energy sector. Petrobras recently announced the discovery of a massive ultra-deep offshore field with ultimately recoverable reserves of between four and six billion barrels of light, 28-degree API oil. That the company will be tempted to shift assets – especially human resources – to this project and away from ethanol and its incipient biodiesel program should not come as a surprise to anyone.
In 2007, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Brazil produced just under 15.8 billion liters of ethanol – a number that works out to approximately 182,407 barrels of gasoline equivalent per day. Before the announcement of the discovery of the new superfield, Petrobras already produced 2,000,000 boe/day, or about eleven times more than all the ethanol produced in Brazil.
No further math required to figure out what tops the list of priorities of Brazil’s federal energy policy, of which Petrobras is the best-known, and most active, instrument.
A further degree of uncertainty is added by the fact that producers could easily switch from ethanol to sugar production, if the prices of sugar were high enough (right now, they aren’t). But unforeseen circumstances in Australia, India, and other big sugar exporters can change the picture and leave ethanol consumers – in Brazil and abroad – high and dry, as happened in 1989, when the sector became deregulated and an ethanol shortage ensued on the domestic market. The fiasco led millions of motorists to queue up at fueling stations and to lose faith in the federal fuel ethanol program, begun in 1975.
Not only can the switch to sugar alter the numbers for ethanol, but a "black" and "gray" market, caused by unequal tax regimens between states and lax surveillance in most parts of Brazil, severely distorts the playing field by encouraging tax evasion and product adulteration. Sindicom, the Brazilian national association of fuel retailers, estimates that this “informal” market may comprise as much as 40% of the total of fuel ethanol sold in Brazil.
So the announcement of new investments in Brazil's sugar and ethanol industry must be weighed against the marginal cost of talk (zero); only a thorough examination of all the underlying political, economic, and social factors can result in a rough understanding of how much ethanol Brazil produces right now. How much it will produce in a few years’ time is anybody’s guess.