Biofuel credits behind mystery cross-border train shipments
Back and forth shipments prompt accusation of fraud, EPA and CBSA probes
The mystery of the trainload of biodiesel that crossed back and forth across the Sarnia-Port Huron border without ever unloading its cargo, as reported by CBC News, has been solved.
CBC News received several tips after a recent story about a company shipping the same load of biodiesel back and forth by CN Rail at a cost of $2.6 million in the summer of 2010. It turns out the shipments were part of a deal by a Toronto-based company, which made several million dollars importing and exporting the fuel to exploit a loophole in a U.S. green energy program.
The entire U.S. biodiesel market has been the centre of controversy and even legislative hearings this summer over problems with the regulatory program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The fallout and distrust of a market-based biodiesel credit system has had several repercussions for the industry, particularly for fledgling biodiesel companies trying to produce environmentally friendly fuel. The recent CBC reports on that train to nowhere have prompted an investigation by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), as well as a further investigation by the EPA.
The company that organized the train shipment was Bioversel Trading Inc. of Toronto. Its principal, Arie Mazur, gave CBC a detailed explanation this week explaining that the trip was all about RINs — renewable identification numbers — the credits set up by the EPA to promote and track production and importation of renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.
The complicated deal unfolded in the final two weeks of June 2010.
Train records used to generate millions in RIN credits
Bioversel Trading hired CN Rail to import tanker loads of biodiesel to the U.S. to generate RINs, which are valuable in the U.S. because of a "greening" policy regulating the petroleum industry. The EPA's "Renewable Fuel Standard" mandate that oil companies bring a certain amount of renewable fuel to market, quotas they can achieve through blending biofuel with fossil fuel or by purchasing RINs as offsets.
Because RINs can be generated through import, the 12 trainloads that crossed into Michigan would have contained enough biodiesel to create close to 12 million RINs. In the summer of 2010, biodiesel RINs were selling for 50 cents each, but the price soon fluctuated to more than $1 per credit.
Once "imported" to a company capable of generating RINs, ownership of the biodiesel was transferred to Bioversel's American partner company, Verdeo, and then exported back to Canada. RINs must be "retired" once the fuel is exported from the U.S., but Bioversel says Verdeo retired ethanol RINs, worth pennies, instead of the more valuable biodiesel RINs. Bioversel claims this was all perfectly legal.
However, one of the companies Bioversel approached to be the ‘importer of record’—Northern Biodiesel Inc. of Ontario, N.Y. — discovered that the same fuel was going back and forth across the border and the same gallons were being used to repeatedly generate new RINs under their company’s name. The company called the EPA and also sent a letter that would become an open letter to the biodiesel industry, accusing Bioversel of "trying to perpetrate a fraud against NBI and the Renewable Fuel Standard program."
The EPA, which has a buyer beware policy for oil companies that buy RINs, did not act immediately, and the industry has been begging for it to play the role of sheriff on this case and others. The EPA won’t comment on continuing investigations, but insiders said the case is still under investigation.
Trust in US biodiesel credits shaken
Many observers of the Bioversel deal of 2010 doubt the RINs repeatedly generated on the same gallons of fuel are legal.
Since 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than $100 million in invalid RINS and accused three companies of violating regulations:
- In June 2012, Rodney Hailey, CEO of Maryland-based Clean Green Fuel, was convicted of selling $9 million worth of fraudulent credits to traders and oil companies. Hailey used the money to buy jewelry, property and a fleet of 22 luxury cars; he was found guilty of wire fraud, money laundering and of violating the Clean Air Act.
- Two Texas companies also face similar accusations: Last week, Jeffrey Gunselman, head of Absolute Fuels, pleaded guilty to the sale of more than $40 million worth of invalid credits, the profits of which he’d spent on real estate, cars, a demilitarized tank and a personal jet. Gunselman faces a maximum sentence of up to 1,268 years in prison and a fine of nearly $20 million.
- This spring, Houston-based Green Diesel, helmed by Philip Rivkin, received a Notice of Violation from the EPA for allegedly generating 60 million fake RINS over a two year period. The investigation is ongoing.
CBC has contacted the EPA repeatedly in recent days asking for an opinion on whether the Bioversel imports were legal. The agency has refused to comment.
Northern Biodiesel owner Bob Bechtold says his company’s role in the deal made it a victim. His firm agreed to act as importer to generate the RINs, but when the paperwork wasn’t forthcoming from Bioversel, one of his employees called CN Rail to find out what was happening at the border.
"All we got from [CN Rail] was that there was a curious thing happening, that there were a number of cars that just kept going back and forth across the Canadian border," he told CBC News. "When we started smelling something that was weird, we called the EPA, and notified them that this was happening, and then we called the company that we were doing this transaction with and said we’re not doing any more business with you."
Bechtold said Bioversel had a "fit."
"First they threatened us that we were breaking the contract," he said. "One person came here and tried to insist that I would be in a lot of trouble because of breaking the contract, and I assured him that I thought he would be in a lot more trouble if this continued. Then they offered to buy our company, which we thought was pretty absurd, and I basically sent him on his way."
In its letter to the EPA, Northern Biodiesel cautioned its RIN company codes had been compromised, alleging that Bioversel’s partner company, Verdeo, took its numbers and made up new RINs "as if the biodiesel has been blended into the U.S. transportation fuel stream and separated from the renewable fuel. Then they were illegally sold by Verdeo to parties obligated to acquire RINs by the Renewable Fuel Standard."
CBC News attempted to contact Verdeo, but was unable to get any comment from the company.
Northern Biodiesel insisted the RINs issued were not valid because it had never received any bills of lading or chemical analysis reports from Verdeo, and thus Northern Biodiesel never reported/certified them with the EPA. However, millions of these RINs were sold in its name.
As a result, Northern Biodiesel RINs became tainted within the industry and Bechtold said that put him out of business.
"That was about the dumbest thing we ever did," said Bechtold about the letter and coming forward to the EPA. "We thought we were saving the industry, doing good to protect the industry, but it ended up being the kiss of death for us, because we are no longer able to participate in the field."
Beyond this case, the entire U.S. biodiesel RIN system has been plagued by problems, loopholes and even outright frauds. It has all undermined efforts to get U.S. industry to use more renewable fuels and has left big oil companies and other major fuel purchasers wary of smaller producers.
Biodiesel plant set for Welland, Ont.
Bioversel Trading told CBC News this week that everything it did was legal and insisted they never directly generated or sold RINS. The company also distanced itself from its partner Verdeo, even though one of Verdeo’s former names was Bioversel Trading (US), and Arie Mazur of Bioversel Trading (Canada) was a former director and executive of the US company.
Bioversel Trading of Toronto is at the centre of a probe by the European Union and the CBSA, which claims in search warrant documents (executed on their Toronto office last spring) that the firm is suspected of exporting American biodiesel to Romania and Italy while saying it was Canadian, to avoid huge duties. That would amount to violations of the Customs Act – but have never been proven. Bioversel Trading flatly rejects the CBSA allegations.
The Bioversel family of companies has changed its names in Canada and the U.S., and has also been embroiled in several lawsuits in the U.S. over its trading in biodiesel fuel.
One of the companies that shares the same Toronto office space, once known as Bioversel Sarnia Inc., is now known as Great Lakes Biodiesel (GLB), which is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Welland, Ont. Mazur’s lawyer said Mazur is no longer a director of Great Lakes but confirms Mazur is involved in Einer Canada, which is a shareholder of GLB.
If it opens in early 2013 and meets its production targets, Great Lakes Biodiesel is eligible for $65 million in Canadian government subsidies over the next five years under the federal eco energy biofuels incentive program.
- This story has been updated from a previously published version.Dec 20, 2012 4:45 PM ET
With files from Brigitte Noel and Jeremy McDonald