Government

'They screwed us,' Grassley says of EPA's ethanol waivers

Report: Trump phoned EPA with instructions to side with Big Oil

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, talks during an interview on Fox Business Network in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. (Gazette file photo)
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, talks during an interview on Fox Business Network in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. (Gazette file photo)

Reacting to a report that President Donald Trump intervened on behalf of the oil industry over corn growers, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley bluntly said Friday the administration ”screwed us” by granting 31 waivers to small refineries — exempting them from complying with the nation’s biofuel law.

A phone call last week from Trump ended a nearly two-month-long review of the nation’s biofuels program, with the White House mostly siding with oil refiners, Reuters reported based on the accounts of three unnamed sources.

Trump gave Andrew Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the green light to announce Aug. 9 it had granted 31 waivers, saying he wanted the issue off his desk, Reuters reported.

Trump’s call triggered a flurry of action within the EPA, leading up to the surprise announcement last week after negotiations between governmental agencies failed to make progress in addressing farmers’ concerns.

“The president has heard from all sides and in the end he has had enough of it. He called Wheeler and gave him the green light,” Reuters quoted one of the sources as saying.

Grassley, Iowa’s senior senator who has been deeply involved in biofuel policy talks with the White House and members of Congress, was asked about the waivers Friday during recording of this weekend’s “Iowa Press” on Iowa Public Television.

“They screwed us ... when they issued 31 waivers, compared to less than 10 waivers during all the Obama years, and we thought that was bad,” Grassley said. “What’s really bad isn’t a waiver. It’s that it is being granted to people that really aren’t (experiencing) hardship, and that is where it ought to be identified.”

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He said he would take up the issue with Trump, who had campaigned in Iowa during the 2016 election on his support for ethanol.

The White House has sought to make changes to the nation’s biofuels laws since the beginning of Trump’s administration in early 2017, but found itself caught between the powerful oil and corn lobbies. The competing interests both have allies in Trump’s Republican Party.

At the end of May, the administration announced it would undo an Obama-era policy and allow a richer blend of ethanol to be sold year-round throughout the country.

Corn farmers applauded the announcement as increasing the demand for their crop, though some raised concerns that past waivers threatened to wipe out future ethanol gains.

The debate underscores the rising political importance of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a more than a decade-old federal law that requires refineries to blend corn-based ethanol into their gasoline or buy credits from those that do.

Since Trump took office, the EPA has more than quadrupled the number of waivers from complying with the law it has granted to refineries, including some operated by giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron Corp.

The waivers save the oil industry hundreds of millions of dollars, but enrage farmers who assert the exemptions threaten demand for one of their staple products.

Refiners dismiss the argument, saying ethanol demand hasn’t been affected by the waivers.

The White House declined to comment.

The EPA referred Reuters to an Aug. 9 news release on small refinery waivers in which it gave the criteria for qualifying for an exemption.

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Trump had ordered a revamp of the waiver program in June, after hearing from angry farmers during a trip to Iowa, the nation’s top ethanol producing state.

Grassley said Friday the EPA likely would have granted even more waivers had Trump not heard farmers’ concerns.

Even though the corn lobby seemed to have the upper hand in early talks, the oil industry’s efforts eventually gained more traction, Reuters reported, citing other sources it did not name.

Iowa is a swing state that Trump carried in 2016 and potentially is crucial for his reelection efforts next year.

Farmers in the state have also chafed under his trade war with China that has sapped demand for agriculture products, particularly soybeans.

Farmers slammed the waiver decision, saying the Trump administration was bailing out the oil industry at a time farmers were suffering because of his trade war.

And the Democratic Party of Iowa joined the fray, blaming Trump for “once again adding to the hardships of rural Iowa.”

“The agriculture and renewable fuels industries power our state economy, and Trump’s reckless and offensive handouts to big oil at the expense of our rural Iowans demonstrates how little he thinks of this state,” party Chairman Troy Price said in a statement.

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But the refining industry welcomed the move, saying the waivers are lawful and help shield small refiners from the burdensome cost of compliance.

“Iowa Press,” featuring Grassley’s interview, runs on Iowa Public Television at 7:30 p.m. Friday and noon Sunday.

Reuters and Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.

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