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U.S. trade negotiators hope to convince Beijing to lower tariffs on ethanol, putting American farmers in a position to capitalize on rising demand for the corn-based biofuel in China.
The Trump administration's trade team has made the request, but their Chinese counterparts have yet to respond, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters on Tuesday.
"They are engaged in conversation, they listen and hear us, but we are at this stage unable to determine the willingness factor," Purdue said, according to a Reuters report.
China once represented a bright opportunity for American corn farmers and ethanol producers, but their prospects have faded in recent years.
In 2016, China was the third biggest market for U.S. ethanol, accounting for nearly 20 percent of U.S. exports and drumming up over $300 million in revenues, according the Renewable Fuels Association. But after two years of rising trade tensions, China took just 4 percent of U.S. ethanol exports in 2018, RFA says.
Trade first dropped off after China put a 30-percent charge on U.S. ethanol in 2017. Last year, China increased the tariff to 45 percent after the Trump administration put new duties on foreign aluminum and steel.
Under a new deal, Beijing would ideally set the import tax on ethanol below 15 percent, Perdue said on Tuesday.
That would potentially allow U.S. ethanol suppliers to take advantage of Beijing's plans to introduce E10 — a gasoline blend containing 10 percent ethanol — across the country next year.
To achieve that goal, China needs to source 15 million tons of ethanol per year, a nearly sevenfold increase from the country's current consumption, according to IHS Markit. Today, China only has enough capacity to produce about 3 million tons per year.
Clearing a path for more U.S. biofuel exports would be a boon to President Donald Trump, who has had a tense relationship with the ethanol industry and agricultural states. The Trump administration has upset Big Corn by handing out hardship waivers to small refineries, which allow them to circumvent U.S. requirements to blend ethanol into gasoline.
The Trump administration has also considered changes to U.S. biofuel policy that ethanol producers worry would shrink domestic demand for their product.
Correction: This story has been revised to correct the dollar amount of U.S. ethanol exports to China in 2016. The correct amount is over $300 million.