* Electronic platform for RINs in the works
* Ethanol RIN market estimated $9 bln value
* Market volatility spurs fears of fraud
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, May 10 (Reuters) - A little more light is about to fall on the murky, sometimes messy market for renewable-fuel credits, with the launch next week of the CME Group's first futures contracts for the government-mandated credits, known as "RINs."
Created by a U.S. program aimed at boosting the use of renewable fuels such as ethanol in domestic motor fuel, Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) have until recently been regarded as a somewhat untamed backwater of U.S. energy and agricultural markets, where trading is unregulated and pricing is sometimes hard to peg.
But ethanol RIN values have recently skyrocketed in price and volume has spiked as speculators join oil refiners, gasoline importers and others in a scramble for the credits, which are critical for oil companies to meet U.S. mandates for renewable fuels.
A 20-fold surge in prices this year has roiled Washington as oil industry leaders warn that consumers could get hit with higher gasoline prices if Washington does not step in.
In an effort to capitalize on the market interest, CME Group Inc., owner of the world's largest futures exchange, will launch futures contracts for ethanol credits and other renewable fuels on May 13, allowing users to trade them alongside its benchmark crude and gasoline products. The IntercontinentalExchange launched its own on April 29.
"There is a lot of interest building around it," said Dan Brusstar, senior director of energy research for CME Group. "Right now you don't have good transparency. A lot of companies are leery of trading physical RINs. It (futures contracts) will bring some transparency to the market."
But some market experts say many more steps are needed to bring transparency to the $9 billion ethanol credit market.
"It's so new and it's such a volatile market. It is really messy," said Jeff Hove, vice president of RinAlliance, an Iowa-based aggregator and trader of RIN credits who handles RIN trades for more than 200 clients.
A RIN is actually a 38-digit number created for each gallon of renewable fuel. Typically the biofuel is then sold - together with the attached RIN - to an oil company that needs the fuel in order to blend with regular gasoline or diesel to meet the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard.
Refiners and other so-called "obligated parties" that produce or import gasoline and diesel are required to present a certain number of RINs to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as proof of compliance with the RFS mandate. The policy is aimed at reducing the nation's reliance on oil.
But some companies may have more RINs than they need, and some may have less - hence the evolution of a secondary market where the credits can be traded.
Without a central platform, packages of the ethanol credits are peddled by brokers who mostly rely on email and instant messaging exchanges with interested parties. Price discovery is often difficult, making some participants wary. Regulation is still evolving, spurring fears about fraud and pricing bubbles.
This March, prices for ethanol RINs shot up to about $1.04 a gallon, from only five cents four months earlier, fueling a debate about the knock-on impact for domestic fuel prices and the impact of speculation on the nascent, shadowy market. Ethanol RINs for 2013 were trading at about 78 cents a gallon on Friday.
Refiners have been lobbying Washington lawmakers and EPA officials to roll back renewable fuel mandates, claiming they are limited in how much they can blend and how much they can afford to spend on credits.
They say the price spike was due to the abrupt realization that there may be a shortage of RINs next year, when oil companies may be required to increase use of renewable fuels to the equivalent of more than 10 percent of the nation's gasoline. The companies, however, may not be able to sell it all at gas stations, most of which are so far unwilling to sell a higher ethanol mix than E10.
Consumers will pay the price, they say.
"The surprise is over and, like every other manufacturing cost, it must be passed on," Tom O'Malley, chairman of New Jersey-based refiner PBF Energy, said on a recent conference call with analysts.
Ethanol proponents say it is the oil industry, which is fighting efforts to blend more ethanol into gasoline, that is responsible for driving up RIN values. They argue that use of ethanol in gasoline has overall reduced pump prices.
Whatever the forces and factors, many of those participants in the market say growing volume and more volatile pricing for the credits means tighter regulation and more standardization is needed, and soon.
"RIN trading is still in its infancy," said Progressive Fuels Limited analyst David Dunn, whose company is partnering on development of an electronic trading platform for RINs.