Wheeler stops short of promising RFS action ahead of election

Biden takes official stance on supporting RFS and need to deny SRE waivers.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

August 26, 2020

4 Min Read
EPA Appoints Kurt Thiede as Region 5 Administrator
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During a press call Wednesday morning, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency is carefully evaluating its decision on renewable volume obligations (RVOs) and small refinery exemption (SRE) waivers currently awaiting action.

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), EPA is supposed to set the volume requirements by Nov. 30 of each year. The RVO acts as the mandated floor for biofuels and helps drive demand for retailers to blend and for biofuel producers to produce the statutory levels.

When asked whether a decision would be made ahead of the November elections, Wheeler responded that the agency hopes to have the RVO out “as soon as we can” but also said the stay-at-home orders resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have greatly changed driving habits and fuel consumption. Wheeler said it is a “very unusual year as far as vehicle miles traveled” but added that the COVID-19 response has had a negative impact on corn growers and refiners.

“We’re trying to understand what the market is going to be and what it will be next year,” Wheeler said, noting ongoing discussions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Wheeler pointed out that President Donald Trump's Administration has released on-time RVO levels for the three years in office and won’t break the record of being nearly two years late, held by the Obama Administration.

He also commented on the SRE waivers, some dating back to 2012. “We’re now starting to take a look at those and what our decision should be,” Wheeler said, adding that those decisions have to be weighed very carefully because of litigation that surrounds every announcement. He said it is important to make sure EPA provides certainty for everyone involved.

Statute requires EPA to decide on the petitions within 90 days of receiving them from the refiner. Combined, the 98 pending SRE petitions at EPA have the potential to erase another 4.6 billion gal. of RFS blending requirements, eclipsing the 4.0 billion gal. already lost as a result of the 85 SREs previously granted for the 2016-18 compliance years, according to Geoff Cooper, president and chief executive officer of the Renewable Fuels Assn. (RFA).

Citing the need for more certainty and stability in uncertain times as well as the legal requirement to meet statutory deadlines, RFA urged Wheeler to immediately address a number of unresolved issues related to the RFS.

“By disregarding statutory deadlines, flouting court decisions and failing to make timely decisions, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining predictability and confidence in the renewable fuels market and abetting longtime opponents of the RFS who perpetually seek the destabilize the program,” Cooper wrote in a letter to Wheeler. “Consequently, I write today imploring EPA to swiftly resolve a litany of unsettled RFS matters in a manner that is consistent with both the purpose of the Clean Air Act and the spirit of President Trump’s commitments.”

Cooper cited five areas where EPA decisions need to be made immediately:

  1. Adopting a 10th Circuit Court decision on SREs nationwide;

  2. Denying all 67 pending so-called “gap-year” refinery waiver petitions (for compliance years 2011-18);

  3. Deciding on the 31 pending petitions for 2019 and 2020 SREs according to the 10th Circuit criteria;

  4. Publishing the proposed rule for 2021 RVOs, and

  5. Restoring the 500 million gal. conventional renewable fuel volume that was illegally waived from the 2016 RFS requirements, as ordered by a federal court.

The issue of how EPA handles the RFS implementation also caught the attention of the Joe Biden campaign. In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, the former vice president and current Democrat presidential nominee offered his strong commitment to uphold the RFS.

“Instead of standing with those who till our land and sow our fields, we have a President who has sold out our farmers by undercutting the Renewable Fuel Standard with the granting of waivers to Big Oil. Those waivers severely cut ethanol production, costing farmers income and ethanol plant workers their jobs,” Biden said in the statement.

“Now, President Trump refuses to announce the 2021 renewable fuel production levels until after the election, leaving farmers concerned of further cuts to production,” Biden continued. “The Renewable Fuel Standard marks our bond with our farmers and our commitment to a thriving rural economy. Donald Trump doesn't respect that connection, and he's thrown it away, to the detriment of generations of producers across the Midwest and around the country — many of whom put their trust in him four years ago.”

He noted, “The Obama/Biden Administration kept our word to farmers. A Biden/Harris Administration will promote and advance renewable energy, ethanol and other biofuels to help rural America and our nation’s farmers and will honor the critical role the renewable fuel industry plays in supporting the rural economy and the leadership role American agriculture will play in our fight against climate change.”

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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