EPA nominee hearing held up over RFS concerns
The Trump administration will back off plans to reduce the volume of biofuels in the nation's motor fuel supply, according to a news report, amid growing pressure from corn and soybean producing states that stand to lose jobs and revenue from the proposal.
After President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took a call from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, the White House instructed the agency not to lower the amount of biofuel mandated under the agency's annually revised Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), according to a report by Bloomberg News, which cited "people familiar with the decision." That RFS decision is due from the agency no later than Nov. 30.
Meeting with EPA's Pruitt. Sens. Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and several other agricultural state lawmakers met with EPA Administration Scott Pruitt over the biofuel volumes on Tuesday. “Administrator Pruitt again claimed today that he will not do anything to undermine the program. However, we have heard this before,” Ernst said after the Tuesday meeting. “We now need to see it. I will continue to work with the EPA, but they must prove to the agricultural community who put their faith in this administration that they will fulfill their promise to maintain the letter and the spirit of the RFS. We will not accept anything less.”
Pruitt met with Ernst and Grassley, and with Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Sasse said that the meeting was "very good,” and that Pruitt had “listened well” and explained the pressure he faces from different stakeholders. Pruitt did not address the media after the meeting.
Throughout his confirmation process, Administrator Pruitt promised me multiple times that he would uphold the spirit of the RFS, as intended by Congress,” Ernst said in a statement following the meeting. “While the administrator has insisted that the recent actions taken by the EPA are simply to receive additional input on the RFS from stakeholders, it is evident that the ‘stakeholders’ he refers to are not the farmers and manufacturers across the State of Iowa who would be directly affected if the biodiesel volume requirements were lowered.”
Grassley recalled Trump calling him a few weeks ago to assure him that the president is “still for ethanol.” Grassley said he “reiterated this story to Mr. Pruitt and said that, ‘You can get in the weeds about what you ought to do or not do as a way of policy, but this is an issue of the president keeping his promise to the people’,” Grassley said after the Tuesday meeting with Pruitt. “He fully understands the importance to the United States when it comes to renewable energy, especially with biofuels and next generation (fuels),” Fischer told lawmakers. “I think we made that clear.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.,), based on the news reports, said she was encouraged that the administration listened to arguments from her state and others pushing for sustaining the standard. “We need to support our home-grown biofuel industry to strengthen our rural communities, so it’s encouraging that the EPA is reportedly backing away from its plan to cut biofuel blend levels,” Heitkamp said.
A spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) could not verify the report. RFA Executive Director Monty Shaw appeared at an earlier news conference with Reynolds after her conversation with Trump, where he indicated he remained cautious about taking the administration at its word. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Shaw said. “We need to see the numbers.”
Reynolds said at the news conference in Iowa that both Trump and Pruitt "affirmed to me their continued commitment to the RFS,” but warned that she would keep the pressure on until her state’s concerns are addressed.
EPA in July proposed an RFS standard of 19.24 billion gallons for 2018, down from the 19.28 billion in 2017. EPA kept the requirement for conventional biofuels like corn-based ethanol, which is mixed with gasoline, at the 15 billion gallons set for 2017. Ignoring pleas for a higher biomass-based diesel standard, which is set a year in advance of the others, EPA proposed instead to keep it at 2.1 billion gallons in 2019, the same amount set for 2018.
The agency also proposed changes that would allow exported biofuels to be counted as part of the RFS volume, a change that Sen. Grassley said would "essentially gut the program and should be stopped in its tracks." The Bloomberg report said that the export proposal was also to be dropped.
— Concerns over EPA nominee's views on RFS help cause hearing postponement. Sen. Joni Ernst's (R-Iowa) concerns over an EPA's nominee's position on expanding the use of biofuels appears to have led to the postponement Wednesday of an Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee vote on the nominee and several others. The EPA nominee, William Wehrum, was picked by Trump to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Regulation, which oversees the RFS. Ernst said she was dissatisfied with Wehrum's answers about the policy during his confirmation hearing.
“As the only Iowan on the committee, and with the 11 Republican, 10 Democrat split, one vote can be the difference,” Ernst said. “Holding the EPA’s feet to the fire has put us on a path to receive strong reassurances on biofuel volumes and the EPA’s commitment to follow both the letter and the spirit of the RFS, as well as a commitment to not pursue other policies harmful to our farmers across Iowa.”
Wehrum is an attorney who has represented coal, oil and gas clients; the oil and gas industry has lobbied for a weaker RFS or a complete repeal of the program.
Bipartisan support for the RFS was noted in a statement by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who opposes Wehrum's nomination. “Mr. Wehrum’s history of attacking the biofuels industry and his refusal to recuse himself from RFS-related issues despite his well-documented conflicts of interest should alarm all of my colleagues,” Duckworth said in a statement. “Any Senator who supports the RFS program, our farmers, and our commitment to the environment and energy dependence must oppose his nomination.”