WASHINGTON, April 8, 2014— Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy defended her agency’s Clean Water Act (CWA) and Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) proposals during the annual meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists on Monday.
“Part of the challenge we have is that EPA does not have a trusting relationship with the agriculture community,” McCarthy said in her address, adding that one of her priorities is to build communications between agriculture and the EPA. “I’m here today because I want to start that.”
Early reaction to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule to define “waters of the U.S.” under the CWA included charges by many Republicans and some Senate Democrats that the proposal, released March 25, was another example of regulatory overreach. CropLife America and American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) were among the agricultural groups that criticized the proposal.McCarthy reiterated that current exemptions for CWA permits for “normal farming, ranching and agricultural practices” would not change under the proposal. “If a farmer was not legally required to have a permit before, this rule does not change that status,” she said.
She added that EPA worked “arm in arm” with USDA in defining the “waters of the U.S.,’ adding that the proposal “does not add to or expand the scope of waters protected under the CWA.”
She thinks one reason for the strong negative reaction toward the proposal is that “people thought it was the same thing they saw’’ in a leaked draft proposal. “It isn’t,” McCarthy said.
She said EPA’s intent with the proposed rule was not to increase agriculture’s permitting burden, but “actually to try to reduce that.”
In addition to preserving the CWA agriculture exemptions, the EPA coordinated with USDA to develop an “interpretive rule” to ensure that 56 specific conservation practices that protect or improve water quality will not be subject to dredged or fill permitting requirements set out in Section 404 of the CWA. For a list of those practices, click here.
McCarthy said those 56 specific farming practices are known through USDA conservation programs. But, “the list does not limit exemptions to 56,” she said. “We are in no way minimizing the overall exemption for farming practices that currently exist.”
The proposal includes a proposed interpretive rule that would allow EPA to recognize additional conservation practices without having to reopen the “waters of the U.S.” definition.
McCarthy emphasized that the proposed rule is not final and discussions with the agricultural community will continue.
“I urge people to read this in detail,” she said. “If we need to make any adjustments in this, we will certainly do that.”
Regarding EPA’s changes to the RFS, McCarthy seemed confident that the final rule would be different than the one that has been proposed.
That proposal calls for cutting total biofuel blending from 18.15 billion gallons specified for this year in the 2007 legislation that created RFS to 15.21 billion gallons. The measure also would drop the corn ethanol requirement from 14.4 billion gallons to a little more than 13 billion gallons, an amount less than the 13.8 billion gallons required in 2013.
Ethanol and biofuel advocates including the Renewable Fuels Association and National Corn Growers Association criticized the Obama administration’s for reducing the ethanol and biofuel production mandate.
EPA is now reviewing more than 200,000 comments on the RFS proposal, after which the agency will issue a final rule in late spring or early summer, McCarthy said.
Although the current RFS dictates that volumes of required ethanol and biofuel blends increase each year, “EPA has to make sure it is implementable,” she said. “And that means taking into realities of the fuel market. One of those realities is the fuel blend wall,” or the maximum amount of ethanol that is allowed to be blended into gasoline.
EPA cited information in its proposal that U.S. demand for gasoline has dropped to the point that there is insufficient supply to meet the mandatory ethanol blending requirement, creating the blend wall that will force prices higher.
McCarthy noted that the final rule will almost certainly be different than the one that’s been proposed. “Gasoline demand had an impact in the proposal and it will also be reflected in the final rule,” she said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also addressed the RFS in his speech to the journalists. “It’s important for the public to understand that EPA started the RFS with an assumption that gas consumption would continue to increase,” he said. But consumption did not meet projections in recent years, so “EPA responded to a changing situation.”
Now, gasoline consumption is rising again, and “one would assume there would be another response. We’ve certainly pointed that out,” Vilsack said.
McCarthy also outlined on Monday the legal and practical challenges of implementing the RFS. The required levels in the law are “very aggressive,” she said, adding that EPA needs to address the lack of biofuel infrastructure needed to realize levels called for in the RFS.
Additionally, EPA expects legal challenges to any RFS standards. “We need to be able to justify it in court,” McCarthy said. With current the current infrastructure, the industry this year would not be able to “get anywhere near” the levels required in the original RFS.
“But we think that the industry is stepping up to that challenge,” she said. “We’re going to try to work toward these goals the best we can, but we need to be realistic.”
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