January 28, 2021 11:15 AM, EST

Pilot Co. Unit to Buy Ethanol Plant With Sights on Recovery

Pilot Co.'s GreenAmerica Biofuels is purchasing a 65-million gallon ethanol plant.Pilot Co.'s GreenAmerica Biofuels is purchasing a 65-million gallon ethanol plant. Corn is a common base for the biofuel. (Shannon VanRaes/Bloomberg News)

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A unit of truck stop chain Pilot Co., which is partly owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is buying an ethanol plant just as the beleaguered industry may be turning around.

Green Plains Inc. said Jan. 27 it plans to sell a 65 million-gallon ethanol plant for $64 million to GreenAmerica Biofuels Ord. GreenAmerica is a unit of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Co., which says it is the 10th-largest closely held company in the U.S. and the nation’s largest operator of travel centers and truck stops.

The company ranks No. 23 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America, with a fleet of 1,340 tractors and 1,720 trailers.

Pilot Co. logo.

The deal puts Buffett’s Berkshire, which owns 38.6% of Pilot, in a position to benefit if fuel demand picks up as more Americans are vaccinated and as exports to countries such as China increase. Berkshire’s BNSF Railway already transports the biofuel around the country.

Crop trader Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. said it sees green shoots of recovery for the ethanol industry, after some producers shut plants or switched to making hand sanitizer instead of the biofuel. The company’s chief financial officer said Jan. 26 in an earnings call that China’s commitments to buy U.S. ethanol in the first half of 2021 may equal the previous full-year record.

ADM ranks No. 81 on the Transport Topics list of the largest private carriers.

Ethanol producers had fallen on hard times, with the cost of corn used to make the biofuel surging as China ramped up imports from the U.S. to feed its hog herds. At the same time, demand for gasoline — and ethanol — slumped as lockdowns to stem the COVID pandemic’s spread kept cars off the road.


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Now, ethanol prices are rebounding, with prices in Chicago reaching the highest in more than a year and the cost for credits that refiners need to buy in lieu of blending the biofuel into gasoline have almost doubled from three months ago. They’ve been steadily climbing since Joe Biden won the White House, stoked by the new president’s commitments to address climate change and his criticism of refinery waivers issued under Donald Trump.

Pilot, which went from a single gas station 63 years ago to a sprawling chain of truck stops, convenience stores, travel centers and fast food franchises, declined to comment on the transaction. Pilot’s chairman, James Haslam III, is owner of the Cleveland Browns football team and brother of former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam.

Berkshire Hathaway representatives didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Omaha, Neb.-based Green Plains said the ethanol plant sale is expected to close within the next 45 days and result in a pretax gain of about $37 million. The deal is part of Green Plains CEO Todd Becker’s plan to transform the company into a cutting-edge, agricultural technology firm, with corn-based ethanol production fading into the background as byproduct.

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