WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2017 – As a comment period for a controversial renewable fuels proposal came to a close, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt sent a letter to Capitol Hill seeking to calm the nerves of frustrated lawmakers.
The letter, addressed to seven farm state Senate Republicans, contains pledges to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard according to the language passed by Congress. The assurance being provided in black and white follows numerous conversations between the Trump administration and concerned lawmakers who thought Pruitt was going back on his word.
“The question might be ‘well, how do you know that any assurances you get now will come to fruition?’ We’ve asked for them in writing so that we have those copies of what we’re negotiating,” Iowa Republican Joni Ernst told Agri-Pulse. “We’ll continually remind them: This is what you have stated in private and in public and we expect that you will uphold not just the letter of the law but the spirit of the law.”
Ernst’s efforts came to light after she held up approval of EPA nominees who were scheduled to be cleared out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In particular, Ernst took issue with what she described as “evasive, squishy answers regarding the RFS” from Bill Wehrum, nominated to be EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, which has governance over the RFS.
Pruitt makes several specific assurances in the letter. First, he says he has directed his staff to reject a petition seeking to change the point of obligation under the RFS from refiners and importers to blenders. Biofuels backers were concerned such a change would have cut the legs out from under the program, essentially forcing fuel refiners to no longer have to worry about RFS compliance.
Second, Pruitt addressed the Notice of Data Availability issue surrounding biodiesel blending levels without specifically mentioning it. In September, the EPA announced that it would seek input on “potential reductions” in RFS blending levels based on new data. That comment period officially began in October and came to a conclusion on Thursday.
Pro-RFS lawmakers and organizations were furious, expressing concern that the administration was going back on RFS support pledges made by President Donald Trump during his campaign for the presidency. In comments on the NODA, the National Biodiesel Board said the proposal would “devastate the industry – costing thousands of jobs in rural areas and severely harming America’s farmers.” Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor said the potential reductions “would pave a path that would reverse the progress of the Renewable Fuel Standard and undercut the benefits our nation is currently gaining from the RFS.”
In the letter, Pruitt says the EPA will finalize the upcoming Renewable Volume Obligations by the end of November – the statutory timeline called for by Congress – and noted that “preliminary analysis suggests that all of the final RVOs should be set at amounts that are equal to or greater than the proposed amounts,” including the biodiesel volumes the EPA was considering lowering through the NODA.
Pruitt also said he would welcome the opportunity to sell gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol year round – something that is currently blocked due to interpretation of the Clean Air Act. The Administrator closed off his promises by saying the EPA would not pursue regulations that would allow exported ethanol to count toward a refiner’s RFS compliance.
In a statement, Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen said the industry was “grateful for Administrator Pruitt’s epiphany on the road to the RFS.”
“As for the members of Congress, governors, and others who advocated so strongly for farmers and consumers,” Dinneen added, “we thank you profusely.”
The letter and the corresponding assurances follow a meeting between Pruitt and Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., John Thune, R-S.D., Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Ernst. That meeting was scheduled at the request of President Trump, who reached out to Grassley personally after the senator voiced public consternation with EPA’s actions that he perceived as anti-RFS.
Now, commitments in hand, these seven senators and other pro-RFS stakeholders will watch for EPA’s RVO rollout by the end of next month.
“I’m glad the administration is feeling the heat right now,” Ernst said, specifically noting Trump’s pro-RFS commitments on the campaign trail. “He needs to stand by that.”
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