EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler plans to issue a rule allowing year-round use of E15 by the summer driving season, provided the government shutdown ends in a “reasonable” length of time.

Wheeler’s comment came in response to questioning at his confirmation hearing to be the next EPA Administrator by Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who stressed the importance of getting the rule out as soon as possible. Other members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, including Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., also asked Wheeler how soon the agency would be able to get its E15 rule on the books and questioned him on the agency’s issuance of small refinery exemptions (SREs) from renewable fuel volume obligations.

Ernst wanted Wheeler to promise that he would not issue “blanket exemptions” as, she claimed, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had done. Wheeler responded that his agency would be looking at each exemption request individually, using the Department of Energy’s initial “hardship” analysis to inform its decision.

“We understand that there’s potential for hardship out there but we don’t agree that every exemption that has been given in the past has been due to hardship,” Ernst said.

Wheeler said three different federal courts have ruled against EPA when the agency tried to deny SRE’s for refineries.

He said the agency is hoping to propose the E15 rule, the “reset” rule concerning renewable fuel volume obligations and a RIN compliance rule by February.

Ethanol producers thanked the senators for asking about E15, but criticized Wheeler for not promising unequivocally — despite the government shutdown — that EPA would issue its year-round sales rule before summer.

“It’s been more than three months since President Trump directed EPA to lift Reid vapor pressure (RVP) restrictions on E15, so why didn’t EPA set rulemaking wheels in motion in November, December, or January?” American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) CEO Brian Jennings said in a release after the hearing.

Jennings added that it is “critical EPA reallocate the SREs. It's insulting to farmers and ethanol producers suffering real economic harm that refiners enjoy record profits and are allowed to keep (Renewable Identification Numbers) through the waivers. With collapsed RIN and commodity markets, we need reallocation sooner rather than later.”

Other senators, such as James Inhofe, R-Okla., and EPW Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., countered the pro-RFS viewpoint. Barrasso ran through a list of questions to highlight the fact that there are 11 SRE applications that have been waiting more than the legal deadline of 90 days for a decision. And Inhofe said he was concerned that the White House is “only listening to one side of the argument, and those arguments are not based on actual, real-world conditions.”

“Corn is not the only stakeholder in this program,” he said, mentioning oil refiners and consumers.

Wheeler touted the agency’s proposed “waters of the U.S.” rule that would exempt many wetlands and ephemeral streams from federal jurisdiction, but offered little detail about how the proposal actually would clarify current Clean Water Act regulations.

“Any property owner should be able to stand on his or her property and tell for themselves whether or not they have a wetland on their property,” Wheeler said. In addition, he said that states would pick up the regulatory slack in areas where waters are no longer covered by the CWA.

Democrats and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont criticized Wheeler for what they claimed was his lack of concern over climate change and a proposal that they said would weaken controls over mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants.

But, Wheeler said, “I do not believe a single piece of mercury control technology will be removed from any power plant” because of the agency’s proposal, which proposes to find that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired electric utility steam generating units.

Sanders asked Wheeler about climate change, citing reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and 13 federal agencies (the National Climate Assessment) that portrayed it as a crisis that needs to be dealt with swiftly.

“I would not call it the greatest crisis,” he said. “I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.”

Ranking committee member Tom Carper, D-Del., said he was disappointed that Wheeler did not demonstrate a sense of urgency about environmental problems, particularly climate change. “I’m looking for some passion here and I just don’t feel it, and that’s deeply troubling,” he told Wheeler near the end of the hearing.

Two protesters interrupted the proceedings and were removed from the hearing room shortly after Wheeler began reading his opening statement. A group of protesters outside chanted “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA” outside the hearing room.

Wheeler's nomination is still subject to committee action and Senate approval. After the hearing, Barrasso said the committee plans to vote on Wheeler’s nomination in early February.

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