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Rich US subsidies may hobble Canada's clean-fuel efforts

By Rod Nickel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canadian biofuels producers are threatening to build their next projects in the United States to cash in on rich subsidies for clean fuel and stay competitive, a move that could cost Canada C$10 billion ($7.5 billion) of investment and undermine Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's efforts to build a greener economy.

Reducing fuel's carbon intensity is critical to Canada's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% from 2005 levels by 2030. Biofuels are alternatives to petroleum-based fuels made from low-carbon sources such as crops and wood waste.

Fuel retailer Parkland's move in March to cancel a planned renewable diesel plant in British Columbia due partly to competition concerns about the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) underscores the seriousness of the companies' concerns.

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The $430 billion IRA, signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden last year, aims to cut carbon emissions across the U.S. economy.

European countries are also worrying about how to compete with U.S. subsidies. But Canada's location bordering the United States makes it especially vulnerable to a possible future flood of cheaper U.S. biofuels, said Ian Thomson, president of Advanced Biofuels Canada.

"There is already a lot of angst in the sector about this. The size of the U.S. package is daunting," Thomson said.

The lobby group estimates there are some C$10 billion worth of Canadian projects at early stages of development, not counting more advanced ones by Imperial Oil and others.

The IRA provides a tax credit for U.S. biofuels production starting in 2025. Canada offers nothing similar, but unlike the United States, has negative incentives such as a carbon tax.

The companies considering investment in the United States include Arbios Biotech, a joint venture of forestry company Canfor and Licella Holdings.

Arbios, which is building a demonstration bio-oil plant in British Columbia, will consider a U.S. location for its planned commercial plant unless Ottawa narrows the gap in financial support, said chairperson Don Roberts.

"We're looking at a large pipeline of projects in the future," Roberts said in an interview. "If we're looking at our next big investment, chances are that will be south of the border."

Roberts, who also works as an industry consultant, said he is aware of at least three other Canadian developers actively considering a U.S. site.

Canadian companies collecting lower subsidies may have to charge more for their fuel than U.S. producers to make similar profits, and may be outbid for feedstocks used in production, such as canola and restaurant grease, Thomson said.

PRESSURE ON OTTAWA

Biofuels companies are pressing Ottawa to increase supports in the next fiscal update, expected late this year. Options include an investment tax credit to offset some capital costs and a contract for differences, a means of de-risking possible changes to carbon pricing and regulatory policies, Thomson said.

The federal government will solicit feedback in summer on possible new supports, said Keean Nembhard, a government spokesperson.

Braya Renewable Fuels is converting a Newfoundland and Labrador refinery to produce 18,000 barrels per day (bpd) of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel this year.

New supports will be key to sanctioning a possible expansion to up to 30,000 bpd, said CEO Frank Almaraz.

"The sooner we have certainty of what the supportive regulatory environment is going to look like, the sooner we will be able to make those expansion decisions," Almaraz told Reuters.

Enbridge, a Canadian utility and pipeline company, has also asked Ottawa to narrow the gap with the United States, said Pete Sheffield, its chief sustainability officer. Enbridge is developing renewable natural gas (RNG) projects in the United States and Canada.

While Canada offers some advantages, executives say Ottawa can do better. Tidewater Renewables, which looks to open Canada's first renewable diesel plant this summer, plans to produce RNG in Alberta from cattle manure and has secured utility Fortis as a buyer for 20 years, said CEO Rob Colcleugh.

It plans two more RNG plants, including one in the U.S.

"It's hard to compare exactly apples to apples," Colcleugh said. "Nonetheless, there is definitely room for more government support in Canada."

($1 = 1.3356 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)