In farm-state victory, EPA denies retro-exemptions from biofuel mandate

The EPA rejected more than four dozen requests by small petroleum refiners for retroactive exemptions from the Renewable Fuel Standard, said agency chief Andrew Wheeler on Monday in a decision that potentially expands the sale of corn-based ethanol. The announcement came 50 days before the November 3 elections and with President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden seeking electoral advantage in the agricultural and industrial Midwest.

“This decision follows President Trump’s promise to promote domestic biofuel production, support our nation’s farmers, and in turn strengthen our energy independence,” said Wheeler in a statement.

Ethanol makers and farm groups say the “hardship” RFS waivers, which grew in number since Trump took office, undermine the federal mandate to mix 15 billion gallons a year of ethanol into gasoline and cheat them of hundreds of millions of gallons of sales annually. Refiners filed for retroactive waivers last spring following a January 24 appellate court decision that waivers could be awarded only to refiners that held an exemption in the previous year.

In a memorandum, Wheeler said “I am denying” 54 waiver petitions that were reviewed by the Energy Department and passed along to EPA for a decision. Fourteen petitions remain at DOE. Ethanol groups said they expected those petitions to be rejected as well. Wheeler’s decisions can be appealed in court.

“Today’s action lifts a cloud of uncertainty that has been hanging over America’s farmers and biofuel producers,” said chief executive Emily Skor of pro-ethanol Growth Energy. The was doubt for months if the administration would adopt the appellate court decision or apply it nationwide. The EPA has yet to announce the RFS for 2021; Wheeler said last month that the pandemic has complicated the issue by slashing fuel demand.

“It’s a significant step forward for Iowa’s renewable fuel industry and another example of President Trump honoring his commitment to Iowa farmers,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican.

Iowa is the No. 1 corn and ethanol state. First-term Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is in toss-up race with Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield with biofuel regulations an issue. Ernst said “the administration has listened to our calls for action.” The Greenfield campaign faulted Ernst for voting “for a fossil fuel lobbyist to run the EPA” and said Wheeler, an RFS saboteur, should resign.

“The notion that this administration is ‘following the rule of law’ through its latest betrayal of US refinery workers is laughable,” said the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, an oil industry group.

Over the weekend, Trump said on social media, “Subject only to State approval, our important Ethanol Industry will be allowed to use the 10% Pumps for the 15% BLEND. Thank you!” As part of its announcement on waivers, the EPA said it was “moving to…clarify the ability of existing fuel infrastructure to support expanded E15 use.”

In addition, Bloomberg reported that administration officials were at work on a plan to give financial aid to refineries that are denied an RFS exemption. The waivers were created to ease the financial burden on refineries that were unable to blend enough ethanol into gasoline and who faced high costs if they bought the so-called RINs that give them credit for compliance. The payments “could do more to inflame angst among biofuel interests in the battleground states of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin than it would do to assuage oil refining workers in Texas and Pennsylvania, which are also key to a Trump electoral victory,” said the news agency.