Carl Icahn, the high-stakes financier who has been using his position as a Trump adviser to push for a major rule-change affecting the ethanol industry, is now literally betting millions of dollars on financial markets that Trump will take his advice.
As previously reported at The Intercept, Icahn has pushed to get the Environmental Protection Agency to shift responsibility for blending the required amount of renewable fuel into gasoline. Right now, that obligation lies with oil refiners; Icahn wants it shifted to wholesalers.
As an unpaid but influential “special advisor to the president on regulatory reform” who vetted EPA chief Scott Pruitt, Icahn has plenty of clout to get this done.
Icahn stands to profit enormously from such a move in the long run; he is majority owner of CVR Energy, a refiner that lacks the infrastructure to blend ethanol. This forces the company to purchase “renewable identification numbers” (RINs), credits that allow it to comply with the obligation. The wholesalers sell the RINs after blending the ethanol themselves.
If Icahn succeeds in his quest, CVR would no longer have to buy RINs, which cost them $205.9 million last year. Icahn already told the Renewable Fuels Association — the leading lobby for the ethanol industry — that the Trump administration would absolutely make the change, leading RFA to agree to a deal reversing their previous position, and supporting the rule.
The change would also collapse the market for RINs, because refiners wouldn’t have any reason to buy them anymore.
And Icahn isn’t waiting to cash in. While pushing to crash the RIN market, Icahn has placed major bets that he will win.
Icahn is effectively short-selling RINs.
Bloomberg reported on Friday that Icahn acknowledged that he’s betting on a decline in the RIN market.
“This is what I do in the market. I’m taking a chance,” the billionaire investor said.
First, he’s directed CVR Energy to delay its RIN purchases, while expecting prices to fall. CVR also sold off large numbers of the RINs it had previously purchased in two dumps last year, including one right after the nomination of Scott Pruitt for EPA administrator.
CVR must by law purchase RINs within a year of selling fuel to wholesalers; delaying or selling off purchases can move markets, as can news of an imminent change in the point of obligation.
This has already paid off: RINs sold for 91 cents each on Election Day, and now track at 36 cents, according to Bloomberg data. If CVR had to buy the same amount of RINs that they did last year, that translates into a savings of roughly $144 million.
Icahn general counsel Jesse Lynn claimed in a statement that Icahn never had “material non-public information” about what the Trump EPA would do on the point of obligation, and that he merely offered the White House his public position on the matter. But Icahn’s company’s SEC filing lists him as a “special adviser to President Donald J. Trump.” And the Renewable Fuels Association has confirmed that Icahn spoke as “a member of the administration” when he told them that the point of obligation would soon change, leading to their deal with Icahn supporting the change.
The Trump administration has repeatedly said that Icahn is merely a private citizen who receives no compensation as a public official. But that could make him an unregistered lobbyist, according to a complaint from watchdog group Public Citizen. The violation could trigger a $200,000 fine and a prison sentence up to five years, if the lobbyist “knowingly and corruptly” failed to comply. Icahn called the complaint “fake news.”
Or, by providing advice on regulatory matters, Icahn could be acting as a “special government employee,” even if he’s unpaid. That also could yield criminal violations, if he’s participating in issues where he has a conflict of interest.
Icahn’s stake in CVR has also gained $500 million in on-paper value since the election.