EPA turns down oil refineries’ biofuels exemption requests

Green Plains has an ethanol plant in Superior, Iowa. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, less than two months before the Nov. 3 elections, has rejected small oil refineries’ requests to blend less ethanol. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday said the refineries had not proven they faced hardships that would warrant the government stepping back from its insistence that refineries blend 15 billion gallons of biofuels each year. 

The dozens of exemption requests have brought blistering protests from renewable energy groups and Iowa political candidates. One industry representative called the proposals “galactically stupid.”

President Donald Trump, who easily carried Iowa in 2016, has been been leading Democratic nominee Joe Biden by 2 percentage points in recent polls, within the margin of error. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue both visited Iowa in the aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho, delivering aid to counties with significant damage. 

A prerecorded segment of U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst played during the third day of the Republican National Convention Wednesday evening. (Screenshot of RNC)

The decision brought dueling statements from U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and her election opponent, Democrat Theresa Greenfield.

Greenfield has accused Ernst of being influenced by donations from oil companies. Ernst had joined Senate colleague Chuck Grassley to fight the refinery exemptions.

“Today’s announcements will help provide more certainty to our biofuel producers, who have for too long been yanked around by the EPA, and help increase access to E15, which drives up demand for corn and ethanol,” Ernst said in a statement. 

Greenfield accused EPA of playing politics. “Fifty days before Election Day, this announcement does nothing to erase the massive economic damage in Iowa caused by Sen. Ernst’s vote for a fossil-fuel lobbyist to run the EPA, which has already issued 85 (Renewable Fuel Standard) waivers that benefit Ernst’s Big Oil donors.”

Theresa Greenfield is a Democrat running for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat. (Photo by: Theresa Greenfield campaign)

Wheeler lobbied for fossil fuel interests before he was appointed to run EPA. 

In a statement, Grassley welcomed the action by EPA. “I’ve been calling for these ‘gap year’ waivers to be thrown out since they were announced,” Grassley said. “Now, the administration has listened to our calls for action.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds released a statement praising EPA’s decision, which is expected to stabilize the market for corn-based ethanol and biodiesel, which can be made from soybeans.

“As Iowa farmers grapple with trade disruption, a global pandemic, and the aftermath of a devastating derecho, it’s critical that we take action to help our ag economy,” Reynolds said. “Today’s decision by the Trump administration eliminates much of the uncertainty surrounding small refinery exemptions that undercut demand for biofuels.” 

The Renewable Fuels Association said the denial of 54 exemptions leaves 14 others still under consideration. The “gap year” exemption requests sought to retroactively adjust the requirements. Wheeler rejected that idea, noting that the refineries already had shown they could meet the requirements, suggesting they aren’t a hardship.

Emily Skor is CEO of Growth Energy, a biofuels trade organization. (Photo courtesy of Growth Energy)

“Rejecting the petitions is simply the right thing to do, and today’s decision marks a big step forward toward fully restoring integrity to the Renewable Fuel Standard,” which sets the volume of biofuels that must be purchases each year, the fuels association said in a statement. 

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said Iowa’s 43 ethanol refineries and 12 biodiesel facilities needed the decision for financial stability. “This decision was critical to upholding the spirit of the RFS and growing demand for cleaner-burning biofuels,” Naig said in a statement. 

Emily Skor, CEO of the ethanol industry group Growth Energy, said, “Today’s action lifts a cloud of uncertainty that has been hanging over America’s farmers and biofuel producers since June.”