Refiner Valero to obtain 7 VeraSun plants

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) âÄî Valero Energy will buy seven ethanol plants, including one in Minnesota, from VeraSun Energy for $477 million, the largest biofuel buyout in terms of production capacity. VeraSun, the country’s second largest ethanol producer, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October. Valero won an auction for the assets in court, Verasun announced late Tuesday. It will seek approval at a Delaware bankruptcy hearing planned for Wednesday. The sale is expected to close in April. Also involved in the bidding was agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. Valero would become the first traditional refiner to cross over into ethanol production if the deal is approved. The sale could give other major energy companies a benchmark price for the assets of ethanol producers now under tremendous financial strain. Ethanol industry leader Poet LLC is also shopping around. Valero Energy Corp., the nation’s largest independent oil refiner, will acquire plants in Aurora, S.D.; Charles City, Fort Dodge, and Hartley, Iowa; Welcome, Minn.; Albion, Neb.; and a development site in Reynolds, Ind. With tighter national renewable fuel standards on the way, industry analysts believed it was just a matter if time before traditional refiners like Valero stepped into ethanol production. The nation’s renewable fuel standard ensures demand for ethanol by calling for 11.1 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline this year, with that number climbing to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The current financial state of the ethanol industry allowed Valero to pick up Verasun’s assets on the cheap. “These are high-quality, relatively new assets in good locations for buying feedstocks,” Bill Klesse, Valero’s chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. “We expect increases in the Renewable Fuels Standard to continue.” Overproduction, tight credit markets and the recession have pummeled the biofuel industry and helped put Sioux Falls, S.D.-based VeraSun under bankruptcy protection. Other ethanol companies are also feeling the pinch. Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium Corp., which is teaming up with oil giant BP PLC to build a $300 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Highlands County, Fla., said in a filing this week it may have to “curtail or cease operations” if it cannot raise additional capital. The Florida biorefinery would produce 36 million gallons a year from sugarcane and other plant waste. And ethanol producer Aventine Renewable Energy Holdings Inc. said late Monday it may need to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection if it cannot raise sufficient cash in the very near-term. The Pekin, Ill.-based company said it does not expect to have enough cash to satisfy a $15 million interest payment due April 1 or to pay $24.4 million due to its engineering and construction contractor. VeraSun Energy Corp. owns 16 biorefineries with the total capacity to produce 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol annually, or about 13 percent of the country’s total capacity. Secured lenders submitted successful credit bids for the remaining VeraSun facilities. A group of lenders led by AgStar Financial Services submitted a credit bid of $324 million for Verasun plants that were part of its buyout of US BioEnergy Corp. They include biorefineries in Central City, Neb.; Ord, Neb.; Dyersville, Iowa; Hankinson, N.D.; Janesville, Minn.; and Woodbury, Mich. Dougherty Funding LLC submitted a credit bid of $93 million for a plant in Marion, S.D., and a group of lenders led by West LB AG successfully bid $99 million for plants in Bloomingburg, Ohio and Linden, Ind., obtained in its purchase of Dallas-based ASAlliances Biofuels. Valero shares rose a penny to $18.50 in premarket trading. Valero has said previously that it would group the plants under a subsidiary, Valero Renewable Fuels, and use the Verasun staff already in place. It also acquired a Verasun development site.