Biden’s IRA drives surge in US imports of Chinese used cooking oil

By Andrew Hayley

BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. incentives to boost consumption of more environmentally friendly fuel has created a new market for used Chinese cooking oil, worth almost $390 million in the last 12 months and growing rapidly, China’s customs data shows.

China has been shipping more waste oil to the U.S. since October 2022, two months after the Biden administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to promote clean energy, which included tax credits for production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and extended incentives for biodiesel.

In the first eight months of 2023, Chinese exports of used cooking oil (UCO) to the U.S. totalled almost 384,000 metric tons, customs data shows. That accounted for around 65% of U.S. imports through August, data from shiptracking firm Kpler showed.

Used cooking oil can be refined into fuels such as biodiesel and SAF, which can be blended with conventional fuels to reduce carbon emissions. It is also a feedstock for renewable diesel, which is chemically equivalent to petroleum-based diesel.

The growth in the trade is “basically economically driven because of the funding of these programs and also the growth in these new facilities that have been invested into in the U.S. starting to come online and ramp up production,” said Sophie Byron, global head of biofuels pricing at S&P Global Commodity Insights.

In the U.S., renewable diesel is mostly used in California because of its Low Carbon Fuel Standard that allows producers to generate tradable credits for using low-carbon feedstocks such as UCO.

State-run Chinese oil majors Sinopec and PetroChina, which are among those shipping UCO cargoes to the U.S., according to Kpler, did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the IRA, biodiesel producers are eligible for a $1 per gallon tax credit. A new tax credit for SAF producers offers up to $1.75 per gallon, with additional credits for fuel achieving a lifecycle carbon reduction of greater than 50%.

Used cooking oil can be one-third the price of fresh vegetable oil, and has lower carbon intensity than non-waste feedstocks such as palm or canola oil.

Biodiesel produced from UCO has slightly lower energy content than petroleum diesel but cuts greenhouse gas pollution by as much as 83%, according to a 2022 study by the Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S.

China is the world’s largest producer of UCO, generating around 11.4 billion litres annually, according to data cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but the lack of domestic policy support has limited its use in the country.

Powered by incentives, U.S. demand for UCO has displaced European purchases. Exports to Europe from China in the first eight months of 2023 fell by almost 56% from a year earlier, customs data shows.

In June, Germany asked the European Commission to investigate the flow of possibly mislabelled Chinese biofuels into the European Union.

These concerns have “made some of the EU buyers potentially a bit more nervous, so you might see the U.S. jumping on that opportunity as well,” S&P Global’s Byron said.

As of February, there are 72 U.S. plants that can produce biodiesel using UCO as a feedstock, according to the USDA.

($1 = 7.2879 yuan)

(Reporting by Andrew Hayley. Additional reporting by Stephanie Kelly; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

Leave a Comment